Hugh Ferriss Revisited: New York in Charcoal
Event: New York Modern Lecture Series: “Hugh Ferriss: Prophet of Metropolis”
Location: The Skyscraper Museum, 01.29.08
Speaker: Carol Willis — Founder, Director, Curator, The Skyscraper Museum
Organizer: The Skyscraper Museum
Hugh Ferriss applied his Washington University architectural training to delineate other architects’ buildings, but he arguably influenced American visions of urbanity more than he might have through actual construction. The second talk in the Skyscraper Museum’s series on the futurist visions of early 20th-century NY, Carol Willis, founder, director, and curator of the Skyscraper Museum, gave a detailed overview of what Ferriss (working mainly with Harvey Wiley Corbett and Raymond Hood, after an early apprenticeship with Cass Gilbert) contributed to American architecture and culture — even though the Great Depression stifled the influence of his masterpiece, The Metropolis of Tomorrow (1929).
A softer focus distinguished Ferriss’s drawings from those of contemporaries, as he developed his theatrical nocturnal visions in charcoal. For all the rationalism of his geometries, Willis explained, Ferriss always had a strong romantic streak, using fog, spotlights, and shadows to imbue imposing masses, like Raymond Hood’s winning entry for the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition, with emotional force. Taking a line from Stephen Colbert (who promised to “feel the news at you”), Willis aptly described Ferriss as feeling buildings, acting as an affective antenna for a population not yet accustomed to skyscrapers’ imposing scale. His “Four Stages” series of sketches in the same year, published with his article “The New Architecture” in the New York Times Book Review, clarified NY’s 1916 zoning law and setback requirements by visually linking the sculptural envelopes permitted by the new legal templates to the Egyptian pyramids and Near Eastern ziggurats.
The economic boom/bubble of the Jazz Age helped fuel the optimistic futurism expressed in Ferriss and Corbett’s “Titan City” exhibition at the Wanamaker department store and the hybrid typologies imagined by Hood — skyscraper airports, apartment blocks integrated with bridges, layered multi-modal transportation to separate human bodies from hurtling cars. The Metropolis of Tomorrow melded Ferriss’s visions with a utopian rhetoric about a city of crystalline towers and function-based zoning (“Night in the Science Zone,” a Tower of Philosophy, etc.).
Credible for a moment, then buried beneath Hoover-era capitalism’s collapsing financial base, Ferriss would later look on his 1920s work with embarrassment, suffering what Willis called “skyscraper remorse.” His style meshed only awkwardly with the European-style Modernism of mid-century. Still, his work helped animate the Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs (ancestor of today’s Regional Plan Association), and he remained a prominent figure within the Architectural League’s “three-hour lunch club” until his death in 1962.
We didn’t get a Hugh Ferriss city, but to a large degree we inhabit a city built by people who saw the aspects of Ferriss’s imagination that were serious and worthy of emulation. As assorted post-Modernisms try to sort out the implications of the Modernist experiments, including many that were never built, we could do a lot worse than recover the capacity for awe that Ferriss expressed during his brief, unique moment.
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