The 1920s: H. W. Corbett Pushes for Mass and Unity

Event: New York Modern Lecture Series: “New Stones for Old”
Location: The Skyscraper Museum, 02.12.08
Speaker: Carol Willis — Founder, Director, Curator, The Skyscraper Museum
Organizer: The Skyscraper Museum

Traffic study

Traffic study prepared by Corbett for Regional Plan Association. Hugh Ferris, Deliniator.


In the 1920s, architect Harvey Wiley Corbett sought to solve the city’s growing congestion problem and population explosion while establishing it as the pillar by which all modern architecture would be judged. No longer satisfied with American architecture’s conventional approach, Corbett endeavored to free the city from its reliance on classical traditions and European pedagogy.

An open-minded thinker, Corbett was attuned to the life of the city, which he saw as the broadest canvas for expression. It was, as Skyscraper Museum director Carol Willis asserted, a Modernism that “forged a new direction in the 1920s.” When Corbett could have railed against the 1916 zoning laws, he instead embraced them, viewing the new standards as an opportunity to produce a distinctive American architecture expressing itself through mass rather than historical necessity.

He saw the massive setbacks as a mix of looming terraced mega-structures penetrated by classical arcades, built above the teeming streets. The inhabitable monoliths created an urbane, civilized, zoning-produced metropolis that responded to the chaos of the street and facilitated interaction among inhabitants. Buildings were removed from congestion, and street life was separated from the urban bedlam below. The city functioned as both the engine of modernity and the promise of unity.