During the early 20th century, particularly the 1920s and 30s, the United States saw an explosion in the construction of new skyscrapers, as advances in steel and concrete technology allowed architects to stretch their imaginations and build larger and higher than ever before. It was in this fevered rush to remake whole cities that architectural draughtsman Hugh Ferriss (1889–1962) became “the most brilliant exponent of the American skyscraper”.
Though Ferriss had an architecture degree he chose to spend most of his career as a delineator, an artist who creates renderings of other architect’s designs for the purposes of advertising and city planning. Ferriss developed a unique style, using chiaroscuro to depict brooding, monumental structures that gave his cityscapes an alien feel. By the mi-1920s he was in great demand and worked with the most important architects of the period, rendering the Lincoln Center, the Rockefeller Center, the New York Times Building, and the Chicago Tribune Tower, among others. Ferriss’ renderings also appealed to the general public, and many were published in lifestyle magazines such as Harper’s and Vanity Fair. His work continues to inspire architects and city planners, as well as artists, filmmakers, and comic book creators.
In 1929 Ferriss’ popularity allowed him to publish The Metropolis of Tomorrow, a collection of his renderings as well as his thoughts on the future of architecture and city planning. We recently obtained the copy depicted here, which still has the rare original dust jacket. Below, a selection of images and text from the book.
The Metropolis of Tomorrow is divided into three sections. The first depicts buildings that had already been planned or constructed, including the Chicago Tribune Building:
The New York Daily News Building:
and The Chrysler Building:
In the second section, Ferriss discusses the evolution of skyscrapers based on contemporary trends in urban planning. New York City and other municipalities had recently established laws regarding the heights and volumes of skyscrapers to prevent them monopolising the sky. This usually involved the incorporation of set-backs, the requirement that at certain heights the building lose some of its width to allow light and air to reach smaller buildings and the streets below. In this famous series of four renderings, Ferriss demonstrates the new zoning requirements for skyscrapers and how architects incorporate them into their designs:
This drawing above is “a representation of the maximum mass which, under the Zoning Law, it would be permissible to build over an entire city block. The block is assumed to be two hundred by six hundred feet. The building rises vertically on the lot lines only so far as it is allowed by law (in this case, twice the width of adjoining streets).
Above this, it slopes inward at specified angles. A tower rises, as is permitted, to an unlimited height, being in area, not over one fourth the area of the property. It must be understood that the mass thus delineated is not an architect’s design; it is simply a form which results from legal specifications… It is a crude form which he has to model” (Hugh Ferriss, Metropolis of Tomorrow, p. 74).
“The first step which is taken by the architect is to cut into the mass to admit light into the interior… in contemplating the original mass, it was obvious that it contained great interior volumes which were inaccessible to light. he therefore cut out such portions – such ‘light courts’ – as would admit natural light throughout” (Ferriss, p. 74).
“The form as last seen presented certain peculiarities which, from a practical point of view, are unacceptable… such decidedly sloping planes as these are alien to accepted notions of construction and demand revision. The architect, therefore, cuts into them again, this time translating them into the rectangular forms which will provide more conventional interior spaces and which can be more economically constructed in steel” (Ferriss, p. 75).
“Upon contemplating this form, however, it is apparent that yet further revisions will be necessary. The ‘steps’, because of their multitude and their comparatively small dimensions, would not prove an economical venture in steel; clearly, it would be better to remove those steps which do not conform to the usual simple steel grill. Also, the uppermost steps are of too small an area to be of use: when the spaces necessary for elevators and stairs have been set aside, the remaining rentable area would not justify the expense of building. These too, then, are yet to be revised” (Ferriss, p. 76).
“After removing those parts which were just found to be undesirable, the mass which finally remains is that which is now illustrated. This is not, of course, intended as a finished and habitable building; it still awaits articulation at the hands of the individual designer; but it may be taken as a practical, basic form for large buildings erected under this type of Zoning Law” (Ferriss, p. 77).
Ferriss also comments on how these zoning requirements have improved architecture – no longer will buildings be constructed as large, characterless boxes. Instead, they will possess, “that effect of individuality which is essential to architectural dignity; it exposes more than one – and usually all four – of its facades; there is, in the majority of set-back buildings, a satisfying sense of vertical axis, and in all of them one’s eye is led (as it never was led in the corniced cubes) to a lofty consummation… With the return of the third dimension, Architecture seems to resume possession of a lost glory. And if there be anything in the theory that the building affects the man in the street, we may regard this architectural development as possessing human interest” (Ferriss, p. 78).
In this section Ferriss also describes other proposals for the future of city planning, such as the use of rooftop gardens and the construction of avenues directly through the bases of tall buildings. Above, he illustrates an imaginary district in which buildings are tall, thin, and separated by broad avenues to economise on space and simplify transportation. Below, he beautifully illustrates the predicted development of the glass Curtain Wall, now a standard feature of modern skyscrapers.
In the third section, Ferris takes account of all of these trends and technological advances to design his own city of the future, one characterised by broad avenues surrounded by smaller structures allowing light and air throughout the city, with a few skyscraper complexes for city management, industry, and the arts placed at strategic locations within regulated zones.
Here we see Ferriss’ imagination and artistic powers at their height, creating a vision of the future that, nearly a century later, still has the power to awe and inspire.
“Buildings like crystals. Walls of translucent glass… A mineral kingdom. Gleaming stalagmites. Forms as cold as ice. Mathematics. Night in the Science Zone” (Ferriss, p. 124).
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