Writings on Building and Architecture

by Dr. Cora Angier Sowa

Review of Unbuilt America

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Chapter 1 of The Loom of Minerva: An Introduction to Computer Projects for the Literary Scholar, "A Guide to the Labyrinth"
"The Eureka Machine for Composing Hexameter Latin Verses" (1845)
"Verbal Patterns in Hesiod's Theogony"
Selected Excerpts from Chapters of Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns
"Thought Clusters in Early Greek Oral Poetry"
"Holy Places", a study of myths of landmarks
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My painting of Poughkeepsie

"Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter..."

John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn"

Whether unbuilt buildings are somehow more "real" than the built is one of the questions raised by Sky and Stone's Unbuilt America, reviewed below.

Illustration: "Utopia I: Proposal for an Esplanade to be constructed on the waterfront at Poughkeepsie, New York, and some of the uses to which such an esplanade could be put," painting by Cora Angier Sowa, 1973

It seems particularly apropos now in 2004 to discuss buildings that exist only in our imaginations, either because they once existed in the physical world and were destroyed, or because they were never built at all. In New York, three years after the World Trade Center was destroyed, images of the Twin Towers, now spectacularly gone, and ever-multiplying fantasies of their eventual replacements -- or non-replacements -- occupy and absorb the public discourse. I discuss the multiple meanings of the WTC elsewhere on this Web site, in "The World Trade Center as a Mythic Place".

The classic evocation of the pathos of the imaginary city is, of course, Italo Calvino's Imaginary Cities. Calvino's cities are both alternative environments and evocations of the alternate lives of those who inhabit -- or might have inhabited -- them. But the review that I include here is one that I wrote in 1977 of another book, Unbuilt America by Alison Sky and Michelle Stone. Its pathos is that of the architects and dreamers whose plans never truly escaped from their imaginary state.

The illustration for this Web page is not from Sky and Stone's book. It is a wishful proposal of my own from 1973, for rebuilding the waterfront at Poughkeepsie, NY. In real life, the historic district by the Hudson River was being transformed into a vast, boring urban renewal project and highway interchange. In my mind, however, I could see it not as it was, but as I imagined it might be. My little sailing sloops seemed fanciful at the time, along with the chess players on the terrace above them, the strollers on the ornamental steps, and the loiterers on the esplanade next to the old warehouses. While there really is a small dome on the Poughkeepsie library, the clock tower was frankly "borrowed" from Waterbury, Connecticut, just because it looked good. I added realistic touches in the form of a man asleep on the steps and my name in graffiti on the wall.

The Wheel of Karma turns, however, and in the cyclical regeneration of ideas there is today in real life a renewed interest in the river as a place of enjoyment. Spurred in part by Pete Seeger's sloop Clearwater, there are even sailing vessels again on the Hudson, similar to those that were its earliest commercial traffic.

Review of Unbuilt America by Alison Sky and Michelle Stone (New York: McGraw Hill), previously published in New York Affairs, Summer/Fall 1977

by Cora Angier Sowa

A building that was built and then destroyed, a building that was planned but never built -- both exist for us now only in pictures and plans and in our fantasies. Nostalgia is as much about lost options as about anything else; so it was inevitable that an era that has given us Lost America, Lost New York, Lost Chicago and other Losts should concern itself with lost visions of the future. Where are those Art Deco Cities of Tomorrow, and those classic façades that were to transform Burnham's Chicago into an American Rome? More than nostalgia is involved. We are at an architectural and urbanistic turning point; the clout of mechanistic and Darwinian "progress" has been broken, along with the monopoly of the Bauhaus and International styles. When the Museum of Modern Art exhibited old student projects from the École des Beaux Arts, it did more then recognize a style to which it had been hostile; it lent respectability to a growing popular interest. We need alternatives both old and new, and we turn to what we formerly destroyed or ignored for what it can contribute to the future.

In this context we must place a new book, Unbuilt America, by Alison Sky and Michelle Stone, of SITE, Inc. Seventh in a series called ON SITE, it is an album of sketches, plans, and elevations for buildings dating from Thomas Jefferson to the Space Age, all of which have one thing in common -- they were never built. Some, like Claes Oldenburg's Tunnel Entrance in the Form of a Nose, were never more than "hypothetical proposals." Others were unsuccessful entries in competitions, like those for the New York Crystal Place or the Chicago Tribune. Still other projects, like Frank Lloyd Wright's Mile High Skyscraper, were shelved for lack of funding or an interested sponsor. Rejection sometimes ended in tragedy; Edgar Chambless killed himself when his plan for Roadtown -- a continuous city serving the country which he proposed in 1910 and again in 1931 -- was not adopted.

The architects are, for the most part, allowed to speak for themselves; the text consists mainly of excerpts from the architects' own proposals, and, in some cases, from descriptions by other writers; a short vita for each architect informs us of his or her most important works. The arrangement is alphabetical, with a few confusing exceptions: the very first, Jefferson, and the very last, O'Neill and O'Leary's Living in Space, are chronological; competitions, such as the chicago Tribune, Crystal Palace, U.S. Capitol, and U.S. Bicentennial, are alphabetized separately, and the winning entry is, unfortunately, not presented for comparison. There is a whole category of "Massachusetts Institute of Technology Student Drawings." I would have preferred a straight chronological arrangement. Such an order would have emphasized the cyclic nature of architecture; it would, for example, throw into relief the work of John Barrington Bayley, whose present-day classical designs refute the common claim that "one cannot build in past styles."

Every reader will find his own favorite Unbuilt, that he wishes could be erected. Pessimists will applaud Yona Friedman's Slung City, occupying the center of an abandoned Park Avenue, whose former structures decay peacefully beneath it, or Robert Grosvenor's serious (?) proposal to float Manhattan island out to sea. Romantics might prefer Raymond Hood's 1929 plan for apartments built, Ponte Vecchio style, along the Manhattan Bridge, or lovely artists' fantasies that stretch the definition of architecture, like Siah Armajani's Hologram Tower projected ghost-like against the sky. [Note in 2004: It is startling to realize that this is almost exactly what was done with the "Tribute in Light" twin searchlight beams that were projected into the night sky at the site of the World Trade Center to commemorate its destruction and former existence.]

George R. Collins' introduction is Platonic in its tendency to rate unbuilt architecture as somehow more real, more pure, than the built, in such phrases as "the experiment (the building) is merely to check the adequacy of the theories" -- a remark chilling to the admirer of flesh and blood and concrete cities! But this is a lovingly concocted book, and on the whole encouraging. For the variety and exuberance of its examples demonstrate that to every problem -- whether building a cathedral or a floating garden, a survival dome or a housing project -- there is a multitude of answers, coming from the often noble, sometimes silly and fallible, but always inexhaustible fertility of the human mind.

Copyright © 2004, Cora Angier Sowa. All rights reserved.

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