Think Big

A couple of years ago I read an interview with the maverick architect Lebbeus Woods from 2007. The eye catching aspect of the online article was a drawing of a reimagined New York.

Here is what he had to say about his thoughts regarding the drawing:

I think the main thought I had, in speculating on the future of New York, was that, in the past, a lot of discussions had been about New York being the biggest, the greatest, the best – but that all had to do with the size of the city. You know, the size of the skyscrapers, the size of the culture, the population. So I commented in the article about Le Corbusier’s infamous remark that your skyscrapers are too small. Of course, New York dwellers thought he meant, oh, they’re not tall enough – but what he was referring to was that they were too small in their ground plan. His idea of the Radiant City and the Ideal City – this was in the early 30s – was based on very large footprints of buildings, separated by great distances, and, in between the buildings in his vision, were forests, parks, and so forth. But in New York everything was cramped together because the buildings occupied such a limited ground area. So Le Corbusier was totally misunderstood by New Yorkers who thought, oh, our buildings aren’t tall enough – we’ve got to go higher! Of course, he wasn’t interested at all in their height – more in their plan relationship. Remember, he’s the guy who said, the plan is the generator.

So I was speculating on the future of the city and I said, well, obviously, compared to present and future cities, New York is not going to be able to compete in terms of size anymore. It used to be a large city, but now it’s a small city compared with São Paulo, Mexico City, Kuala Lumpur, or almost any Asian city of any size. So I said maybe New York can establish a new kind of scale – and the scale I was interested in was the scale of the city to the Earth, to the planet. I made the drawing as a demonstration of the fact that Manhattan exists, with its towers and skyscrapers, because it sits on a rock – on a granite base. You can put all this weight in a very small area because Manhattan sits on the Earth.

When I first read this, I thought “how wildly, insanely implausible. Wonderful but implausible.”

Then a few weeks ago, I saw online a map of an “extended Manhattan,” from 1922.

And yet, this map is the downsized plan of a “really greater New York,” by Dr. T. Kennard Thomson from as early as 1911. In an article published in 1916, he describes “a project to reclaim fifty square miles of land from New York Bay, to add one hundred miles of new waterfront for docks, to fill in the East River, and to prepare New York for a population of twenty million.” This is what it would look like.

What you’re looking at is Manhattan and Brooklyn attached by reclaiming land from the East River, which itself would be moved east, running from Flushing bay to Jamaica bay. Manhattan is extended south by some five miles (to the mouth of the Varrezano narrows). And several other parts of New York bay turned into land.

Now, I have no idea if this would actually be possible from an engineering point. Dr. Thomson assures his readers in the article in which he proposes the whole plan that the “majority of engineers, however, have acknowledged the possibility, and [that he has] received hundreds of letter of encouragement.” Obviously, he’s selling his own idea, so he’s biased, but beyond that, the whole article just brims with optimism and unbridled faith in progress. He sounds not just like a man who thinks this is possible, but that whether it is carried out in his time, it will sooner or later be accomplished. You should read the (quite short) article here, if only for its tone.


The tone, however, is significant, I would here like to claim. Of course it is posturing of a man with outrageously ambitions ideas. And to our ears, this sounds like pure fantasy, giving the confidence of the tone a slight ridiculousness. But what if instead of thinking of Dr. T. Kennard Thomson as foolhardy, we think of our own thoughts about New York city shackled by what it is, making us unable to think of New York as how it might have been? In other words, what if we all thought of New York a little more like Lebbeus Woods?

In 1911, New York was going through a massive expansion. The Flatiron building was still new, the Met Life tower was the tallest building in the world (briefly), soon to be overtaken (in 1913) by the Woolworth building. This is the time when most of New York’s subway lines were laid out, and in general when the city took the shape that we are so familiar with. Had people at the time thought (dreamed) bigger, like dr. Thomson, would it not have been possible that it actually become bigger? Instead of a Manhattan connected to Brooklyn, and very close to Staten Island, and a city of twenty million, we have eight million, and the Varrezano bridge. (Itself an engineering marvel and nothing to be sneered at in terms of size, but still far short of dr. Thomson’s plan.)

Let me even go a step further. I do not think it is an accident that dr. Thomson and Lebbeus Woods talk about a radical enlargement of New York at the moments that they do. For dr. Thomson, it was, as I said, a moment when New York was exploding. For Woods, it is a moment when it is again possible to dream big about big cities. What I mean by this is that New York was basically formed by the 1930’s. Of course it has changed since, but its scale was set by the time the Chrysler building was topped out (let’s say). But as Woods points out, New York’s size, the basis of its global appeal for at least half a century, is now nothing special. Since the 1990’s, Asian and Latin American cities have been exploding in the way that New York did a hundred years ago.

It is, I think and despite Lebbeus Woods’ best efforts, too late for New York. But the question remains, for these other cities: in your expansion, what will you look like? So, São Paulo, Mexico City, Bombay, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Beijing – should you encounter your equivalent of Dr. T. Kennard Thomson, this would be the time to listen to him.


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