None of these ideas would have improved as many millions of lives as a more extensive subway system, but they would have made the city a little more stylish.
Some ideas that never stood a chance are still magical to think about. Norman Bel Geddes in 1932 proposed floating an airstrip in New York Harbor, where it would rotate to follow favorable winds and connect to Battery Park by an underwater moving sidewalk; in ’49, Bel Geddes also designed a stadium for the Dodgers with an ahead-of-its-time retractable roof and, a decade before AstroTurf, synthetic grass.
A dreamy undated watercolor by Charles Lamb is just one example of the many times people have imagined the Cartesian street grid continuing up a z-axis to connect mammoth buildings with aerial walkways. (In keeping with these architecture-as-make-believe lines is the commissioning of a silvery-gray children’s bouncy castle for the museum’s atrium in the shape of the unbuilt Westinghouse Pavilion that Eliot Noyes designed for the 1964 World’s Fair.)
Other far-fetched ideas are hair-raising. A 1924 issue of Popular Science included a plan to reduce traffic and create more parking spaces by filling in and paving over the East River. A decade later, Modern Mechanix had a similar plan for the Hudson. In the early ’60s, Buckminster Fuller, Shoji Sadao and June Jordan proposed to double Harlem’s housing stock with 15 massive piles, raised on top of existing buildings, that would have looked like cooling towers from some Brobdingnagian nuclear power plant.
But over all, whether or not any particular lost ambition is to one’s taste, the more singular it is — the more completely it expresses a totalizing aesthetic vision like that of Wright or Fuller or Robert Moses — the more incongruous it looks against the noisy background of everyone else’s. (In this way the exhibition designer Christian Wassmann’s busy hanging is true to its material.)
The unfinished fantasy of New York City, this reminds us all, is of a thousand competing ideas canceling one another out — with envy, greed, destruction and lethargy — and arriving half by accident at a complicated…