There have been some epically bad plans for New York City over the years, like drying up the rivers, building an underground city, and encasing Midtown in a bubble. There also was Robert Moses’ infamous design for a ten-lane expressway that would have cut through the West Village and leveled parts of Little Italy and Soho. Luckily, we still have our rivers, we still live aboveground, and Soho was spared so that today we can celebrate at one of four Marc Jacobs stores. Whether it was responding to the threat of nuclear destruction or traffic congestion, visionary urban planners and architects gave us some terrifically bad solutions that we now get to gasp and ogle over.
Dome Over Midtown
Some say New Yorkers live in a bubble. In 1960 engineer and architect Buckminster Fuller proposed to make that figure of speech a reality by building a dome over midtown Manhattan. The two-mile-wide dome would have been climate controlled to defray cooling and heating costs while also somehow providing bomb protection. Safety and higher quality of life were the main selling points of life in the bubble. The selling points for life in the bio-dome-adjacent neighborhoods (NoBiDo and SoBiDo) are less obvious.
Filling in the Hudson
Imagine a world where Manhattan and New Jersey were no longer divided by a river, a world where the two states were fused together by a dried-up wasteland. That vision was proposed in 1934 as part of a plan to fill in ten square miles of the Hudson River. This plan would have been an engineering marvel, and was proposed in an effort to alleviate the city’s growing housing and congestion problems, which were deemed to be “threatening to devour the city’s civilization like a frankenstein monster.” The cost of bringing New Yorkers and New Jerseyites closer together in 1934: $1 billion. Keeping them apart: priceless.
The Walking City
Part architecture, part science fiction, Ron Herron’s Walking City envisioned a post-nuclear New York where machines that move on their own would transport New Yorkers in smaller, tankard-like machines. Though an improvement over the 6 train at rush hour, Herron’s plan for these giant, Star Wars-style walkers was to populate them with portable neighborhoods that would collectively create a moving (and claustrophobic) metropolis.
Venetian Amusement Park
It was Queens’ dream to dredge Jamaica Bay Harbor and build a rival to Brooklyn’s Coney Island. In 1910, a Venetian-themed amusement park was planned for Jamaica Bay. Planners warned of acting too hastily, citing that proper regulations would have to be enforced so that “a second-rate Coney Island might not spring up like a mushroom.” Good thinking.
Bryant Park Landing Deck/Bomb Shelter
There’s nothing like lounging in Bryant Park under the shade of a plane tree with a book in hand and the insistent whirl of helicopters right above you. Such was the vision of industrial designer Raymond Loewy (minus the lounging part). In 1941, Loewy proposed meeting the city’s need for more rapid air transport by building a giant landing deck for autogiros (soon superseded by the helicopter) right above Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library. Loewy proposed that the ten-story-high platform, set on stylish steel pylons, could also double as a bomb shelter, as the large landing surface would shield pedestrians from an attack.
Layered New York
In 1931 a scale model of New York projected a vision of the city in 1980. The model, which was created for the film Just Imagine, depicts a city that embraces cars so fully it has created nine lanes and nine layers of traffic moving on belts to accommodate them. Crossing the street would be a cinch, with suspension footbridges between the soaring 250-story buildings creating what Modern Mechanix called “a pedestrian’s paradise.” Just imagine: no more jaywalking and plenty of vertigo.
The city of the future, according to the Italian firm Superstudio, is literally endless. In 1969 the firm proposed a utopia in which a single continuous structure spread across the world. Though more radical statement on urban sprawl than practical plan, the square block superstructure would wrap around the planet, covering its entire surface. Point taken.
You know something is a bad idea when the words “atomic,” “air tubes,” and “cinerama” are used as descriptors. But those warning signs did not stop Oscar Newman from putting forth a plan in 1969 for building a parallel underground New York City nestled in a subterranean bubble. Here’s the plan:
Step 1: Hollow out some earth to build an underground city to protect urbanites from an atomic bomb attack by, you guessed it, atomic bombing it out.
Step 2: Now that you’ve cleared out some space, ignore the radiation and build one or even several underground cities right below the original.
Step 3: Create an underground lair for the underground lair, which will house all the infrastructure and energy production. Won’t it get depressing not having sky and clouds? Not at all. See step 4.
Step 4: Use the remaining upper half of the bubble to create a “cinerama” upon which things like Coca-Cola ads will be projected in lieu of sky. Problem solved. Need air to breath? See step 5.
Step 5: Erect giant air tubes extending to the surface as tall as the Empire State Building. What happens if the aboveground city is attacked and the air tubes are destroyed? See step 1.
Another Horrible Plan for Grand Central
Poor Grand Central station. So many people have made plans for its demise that it’s hard to pick a worst offender. Vying for the prize would have to be world-class landmark ruiner I. M. Pei. In 1956, long before he desecrated the Louvre with his glass pyramids, Pei wished to demolish Grand Central and replace it with an 80-story pinched-cylinder glass tower. The hourglass structure would have included a crisscross exterior extending up to a crown-like point. But Robert Moses was not sold on Pei’s design and the plan was dropped, giving us one of few occasions to say: Thank you, Mr. Moses.
Midtown Airport the Size of Central Park
In mid-century New York, increased air travel was an exciting new problem that yielded some wildly horrible ideas, like building an airport covering 144 square blocks of some of the most valuable real estate in the city. In 1946, real estate bigwig William Zeckendorf proposed building such an airport that would sit 200 feet above street level and span from 24th to 71st streets on the west side of Manhattan, an area roughly the size of Central Park. Multi-story parking lots and highways would flow below the landing deck, along with “horizontal escalators” for pedestrians. The project would have cost $3 billion in 1946, but the visionary airport would only have been able to handle domestic planes. “Transoceanic” flights, meanwhile, would have to stick to good old LaGuardia.
Of the many terrible mid-century urban renewal plans, Buckminster Fuller’s wins for most overtly oppressive plan with utter disregard for human impact. In 1964, he proposed to rejuvenate the slums of Harlem by essentially tearing up the place and building 100-story buildings in the shape of nuclear power cooling towers. The Harlem River Project would have housed 45,000 Harlem residents living harmoniously amongst 15 concrete nuclear-themed facilities.
Thank you for sparing us from this fate.
New York City