The Future!

by Don Friedman on October 28, 2016

Real prisons never looked like this:

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There is nothing about these ideas that I don’t love. Even the ones that would have been awful if built (such as turning Central Park into some demented version of the Versailles gardens) are great when seen solely as presentation drawings. Raymond Hood – my favorite tall-building architect, for what it’s worth – must have suspected that suspension bridges were too flexible to support fifty story buildings, but who cares as long as the concept drawing is so beautiful.

Every detail is fantastic. Spiral escalators to connect the pedestrian level (for the Eloi) to the two levels for traffic (and who decides in advance which vehicles are slow-moving and which are fast?) to the subway tunnels! Biplanes in formation over the 16-lane wide skyscraper-festooned bridges! Grand boulevards that look to be 200 feet wide slicing Manhattan into bite-sized chunks! Handball walls Megastructures on Roosevelt Island! A terrarium designed to suffocate a million or so New Yorkers!

These designs are, whether they admit it or not, polemics. I had read that word a few times before I got to college but first heard it spoken in an architecture class. It was, for me, shocking. I believed then, naively, that engineers made their arguments using logic – mathematically-based logic – and was amazed that architects would admit to using emotional argument to make theirs. But polemics have their place, in making arguments though exaggeration. Every year at auto shows, car manufacturers present “concept cars” that will never exist as shown. Those are polemics in built form, as are the fashion-show clothes that bear only a partial resemblance to the garments eventually put up for sale.

Let’s re-evaluate the examples I gave above. Why not use innovative vertical transportation to save space? Why not encourage further separation of different forms of transportation? Why not pursue new ways to find space in crowded cities? Why not rethink 200-year-old urban planning? Why not re-examine building forms? Even if the specific forms suggested are bad ideas, that doesn’t mean the goals are bad.

But it’s still okay to giggle a bit.

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