Last week was a very bad one for mass transit, a reminder that cars still rule the world, even in New York City. But it could have been a lot worse. Consider what might have happened if Robert Moses had realized his most demonic vision: an expressway plowing right through the middle of Manhattan.
It is a terrifying possibility to ponder, and one that might well have come to pass if Moses hadn’t turned the public against him with the monstrous construction of Madison Square Garden atop the once beloved, now reviled Penn Station. You can contemplate the horror for yourself at a new show just opened at the Cooper Union in partnership with the Drawing Center. Paul Rudolph: Lower Manhattan Expressway presents the darkest, yet most visionary work of one of the Real Estate Desk’s favorite architects.
As well as being a designer lumped in with the love-it-or-hate it Brutalist style, Rudolph was dean of the Yale School of Architecture during one of its most fertile periods in the middle of last century, when his students included such now-famous “starchitects” as Norman Foster and Richard Rogers. Among his many great works is arguably the coolest townhouse in the city, which is set to become a city landmark soon; a series of buildings in Sarasota, Fla., many of them threatened or already destroyed; and about a dozen prominent projects within a day’s drive of the city.
The show offers drawings, video, and a huge model — reminiscent of Moses’ Panorama at the Queens Museum — showcasing this radical road. The model was built in a harrowing two months by Cooper architecture students going off a few random drawings by Rudolph. Julie Iovine has a thoughtful write-up of the show in the Journal that makes clear how, even for Rudolph fans, the miles of massive apartment blocks that lined the 200-foot-wide highway, while certainly visionary, are ultimately vulgar:
The model reveals how monstrously out of scale the expressway would have been. Cooper Union visitors on opening day hovered around to see if their favorite SoHo shop, office or home would have been eradicated. There is relief in knowing that urban planners ultimately took a more human-centered path to developing the city, even if it meant they are still wrestling with traffic problems. Visions such as Rudolph’s are perhaps best left as inspiration for movie sets.