The Titan City
New building technologies and theories of urban planning in the 1920s gave rise to intoxicating visions of future cities.
The Titan City typified a new 1920s conception of the urban future—a modern metropolis of high density, advanced technology, and centralized planning. Most prognosticators around the turn of the century had foreseen a metropolis of giant crowding towers—chaotic, congested, and teeming with gadgetry. In the early 1920s, however, these apprehensive projections were supplanted by optimistic prophecies of absolute order. Architectural theorists envisioned an ideal city transformed by technology and rationalized by planning. Their visions were quickly embraced by the general public. By the second half of the decade, this city of towers had become the new popular image of the urban future.
American utopianism had traditionally disdained the city, but these 1920s prophets espoused a new kind of urban optimism. They shared a resolute faith that science and technology could solve all social problems and shape the urban future. Armed with the new planning principle of zoning and inspired by advances in engineering, transportation, and construction, they expected to build skyscraper cities that would be everything the contemporary city was not. In his 1930 book The New World Architecture, the critic Sheldon Cheney exhorted: “Let the vision be of a city beautiful, clean-walled, glowing with color, majestically sculptural, with a lift toward the skies; and let it be simple, convenient, sweet-running, airy, and light.” He wrote, “Thinking about it, visioning it, will make it come true.”
In these schemes, high-rise buildings would house all the necessities of urban life, including businesses, residences, and places of recreation and religion. Giant towers would be widely spaced for light and air. High-speed transportation systems might link their tops. Buildings would shoot up one hundred stories and higher, but their modernity lay not so much in their huge scale (many were in fact smaller than those proposed in previous decades) as in their clean lines and simple, sculptural massing and their rejection of traditional ornament.
To fully appreciate the radical change represented by these skyscraper-city visions of the 1920s, one need only look back at popular images from the decades just before. Perhaps the most popular and perennial earlier prophecy is one that appeared from 1908 to 1915 in a well-known picture book of New York City landmarks, King’s Views of New York. Imagining a vista up Broadway in about 1930, this perspective shows a great canyon of motley office blocks. Bridges spring from one rooftop to the next or tunnel through upper floors, and the sky swarms with dirigibles and airplanes. A caption describes this scene as “a weird thought of the frenzied heart of the world in later times, incessantly crowding the possibilities of aerial and inter-terrestrial construction.”
The idea of a vertiginous city overtaken by rampant technology was latched onto by many early twentieth-century illustrators. Winsor McCay, for example, the creator of “Little Nemo” and other early comic strips, often drew giant agglomerations of teetering towers. Most of the pre-1920s prophets arrived at their conceptions simply by enlarging on the present. Their chimerical images were extrapolations of the contemporary city and its problems, not proposals for alternatives.
In the early years of the century, the popular, often pessimistic image of the future city was principally the creation of artists and illustrators; most architects and planners meanwhile adhered to an urban ideal modeled on great European cities of the past. In the 1920s, however, architects became the chief oracles of the urban future.
The 1920s were pivotal years for the changing conception of the city. As the historian William Leuchtenburg has noted, “In 1916, Americans still thought to a great extent in terms of nineteenth-century values of decentralization, competition, equality and agrarian supremacy of the small town. By 1920 the triumph of the twentieth century—centralized, industrialized, secularized and urbanized—while by no means complete, could clearly be foreseen.” Architects adapted to the age with a growing professionalism in city planning and embraced the new concept of zoning as an unprecedented tool with which to control urban growth.
Indeed, it can be argued that the idea of the city rationalized by planning was a direct outgrowth of the country’s first comprehensive zoning law, the New York City statute of 1916. Of particular importance was the “zoning envelope”— a restriction on the maximum legal volume of a tall building requiring that it be stepped back at specified levels. In this formula some architects discerned the basis for a new aesthetic of simple, sculptural masses and subordinated ornament that they declared both modern and distinctly American. An enlargement of this setback formula also created the “superblock,” a giant stepped-back tower rising over a multiblock base. The setback and the superblock suggested a future urban topography of rationally spaced towers.
Early in 1922, the skyscraper architect Harvey Wiley Corbett and the architectural delineator Hugh Ferriss began a theoretical study of the requirements of the New York setback ordinance, and their collaboration spawned a series of articles in which, with escalating optimism, they proclaimed the propitious effects of zoning on skyscraper design and on the future metropolis. Ferriss created renderings in which he gave the legal formula for the setback an almost iconic identity. Widely published and exhibited, these drawings were of unparalleled importance in impressing other architects with the power, beauty, and inchoate modernity of unornamented setback towers.
In a 1922 article entitled “The New Architecture,” Ferriss declared, “We are not contemplating the new architecture of a city—we are contemplating the new architecture of a civilization.” Six months later, he predicted that within a generation American cities would be transformed by the zoning laws, and he accompanied his forecasts with fantastic drawings of future urban vistas. Corbett soon began to echo his colleague’s optimism. He proclaimed that the “new type of city with its innumerable spires, towers, and domes set back from the cornice line, will provide a fascinating vision, all the novelty and originality in the world brought under a larger scheme.”
The fantastic visualizations in Ferriss and Corbett’s 1925 Titan City exhibition were really a summary of many of the professional speculations and pet projects that had occupied the two for several years. Ferriss’s zoning-envelope studies were represented in a series of twelve-foot monochromatic paintings at the Wanamaker show. Corbett provided the concept behind a series of views of grand avenues and terraced promenades, rendered by the artist Robert Chanler and his staff. The Titan City show also portrayed ideas by other designers. Ferriss’s mural of apartments on bridges, for example, was a variation on Raymond Hood’s “bridge homes,” which had appeared in The New York Times earlier that year. Airplane landing platforms built on the roofs of skyscrapers were copied from schemes developed by some of Corbett’s students.
The Titan City exhibition helped spark a brilliant efflorescence of visionary urbanism, and in the later 1920s both professional and public interest in cities of the future reached unprecedented heights. The most frequent approach envisaged a city plan of regularly spaced setback towers, usually connected by aerial highways. A second type clustered skyscrapers in nucleated centers. A third variation featured isolated towers surrounded by open space. The megastructure—an entire city contained within a single building—constituted still another approach.
One particularly regimented version of the orderly avenue of pyramidal towers was proposed by Francisco Mujica in 1929. Mujica, a Mexican archeologist and architect, believed that the pre-Columbian stepped pyramid offered a native, “Neo-American” precedent suited to the requirements of the New York zoning law. He envisioned regular rows of nearly identical hundred-story setback towers, connected by elevated pedestrian bridges and layered levels of traffic below. Even though Mujica’s perspective drawing seems relentlessly rational, his declared motives were idealistic and humanistic. In his book’s brief text he exhorted: “Let us … work for the development of the modern city, giving it fully the mechanical and practical stamp of our century, yet not forgetting in our planning that each part of this gigantic human machine has a heart capable of soaring high and loving… .”
A Hollywood version of a concept similar to Mujica’s was created as a set for the 1930 Fox film Just Imagine, which transported audiences to 1980 New York. The set designers constructed a 225- by 75-foot model of a glittering metropolis in an old Army blimp hangar, complete with lofty towers of up to 250 stories, nine levels of multilane traffic systems, personal airplanes, and aerial traffic cops. Built to a scale of one-quarter inch to the foot, the tallest model represented a building almost two thousand feet high. In many aspects this set foreshadowed the extravagant models and dioramas created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, particularly the Democracity of Henry Dreyfuss and the Futurama of Norman Bel Geddes.
Many proposals by serious designers rivaled the fantasies of Just Imagine. In 1929 the transportation engineer Robert Lafferty proposed an elaborate multilevel traffic system that would include a continuous bridge-highway suspended between setback towers called “Station-Pylons.” Lafferty argued that “the 6" to 8" cables, and light strong structure of Airways 200 ft. in the air, will cast but little shadow,” and that “as this system will minimize noise and vibration, the beauty and attractiveness is obvious.” Another traffic engineer, John A. Harriss, put forth a plan for a network of multilane highways stacked six deep across Manhattan.
In his 1929 book The Metropolis of Tomorrow, Hugh Ferriss created the 1920s’ most complete and compelling vision of the future city. His scheme divided the city into three major zones—Business, Science, and Art—each dominated by a great setback “tower-building” rising one thousand feet or higher on a base of four to eight full city blocks. Spaced at half-mile intervals, these “primary centers” were to be built over the intersections of two-hundred-foot-wide avenues and to serve as “express stops” for the highway system. Secondary centers would be positioned nearby—for example, at the midpoint between the Art and Business sectors rose the center for the Applied and Industrial Arts, and between Art and Science stood the tower of Philosophy. To Ferriss this absolute hierarchy signified harmony and humanism. He wrote that this city would be “populated by human beings who value mind and emotion equally with the senses, and have therefore disposed their art, science, and business centers in such a way that all three would participate equally in the government of the city.”
A less idealized scheme for nucleated centers of development was proposed in a 1929 project by Raymond Hood called “Manhattan 1950.” Hood, who would soon be one of the designers of Rockefeller Center, was already one of the country’s most celebrated skyscraper architects. In “Manhattan 1950,” he presented a plan for more than twenty tentacular bridges on which would be built luxury apartment towers, each of which might house ten thousand to fifty thousand residents.
An entire city within a single giant skyscraper—what today we call a megastructure—was a minor category of speculation during the 1920s. Illustrations of such buildings often appeared in the pages of science-fiction magazines. A drawing by Lloyd Wright (the son of Frank) published in the Los Angeles Examiner in 1926 depicted a thousand-foot tower covering forty acres at the center of a twenty-mile square of farms, forests, and parks. This structure would contain all the industrial, commercial, and residential requirements for a community of one hundred and fifty thousand. Although Wright’s schemes owed much to his father’s architectural and planning ideas, this drawing was intentionally given a comic-book character that undermined its seriousness.
All these various visionary schemes offered new conceptions of a clean, efficient, rational city, and their images were intoxicated with technology—the attenuated towers, the obsession with high-speed transportation, the aerial perspectives, the dramatic night views radiating man-made light. What was most novel about the super skyscrapers of the 1920s, though, was not their great height, but their simplicity of form and ordered plans. They embodied in a new way the traditional American faith in progress. To most early twentieth-century Americans the word progress signified technological and material advancement, but social progress was a corollary. As the historian and social critic Charles Beard put it, people believed that “mankind, by making use of science and invention, can progressively emancipate itself from plagues, famines, social disasters, and subjugate the material forces of the good life—here and now.”
The visionary architects’ belief in centralized planning coincided with a growing consensus in many areas of American society that planning, and not “rugged individualism,” would necessarily be the way of the country’s future. Some historians have found the roots of this conviction in the successful mobilization of industry during World War I, the nation’s first major attempt at government control over the economy. The historian Ellis Hawley, for example, has argued that the effectiveness of the wartime mobilization offered a model for peacetime management that became a central theme of postwar policy. He breaks with the conventional view of the 1920s as a period of competition and conservatism, and instead emphasizes the emergence of managerial and bureaucratic institutions which, led by organizational and technical experts, worked together to solve the nation’s problems.
The American visionary architects of the 1920s believed that change would be evolutionary, not revolutionary. True sons of their prosperous decade, they saw no conflict between Utopianism and capitalism. If action were to be taken to set rational and reasonable guidelines for future urban growth, they assumed, the irrepressible vitality of the capitalist system would eventually materialize their ambitious designs.
These optimistic prophecies were not without their critics. Most contemporary detractors concentrated on two points: that the skyscraper cities were inhuman in scale, and that they were economically impracticable. Some viewed them as malignant symbols of capitalist greed. Lewis Mumford, in his review of the Titan City exhibition in The New Republic, railed that “innumerable human lives will doubtless be sacrificed to Traffic, Commerce, and Properly Regulated and Zoned Heights on a scale that will make Moloch seem an agent of charity.” Mumford was a leading spokesman of the regionalist movement, advocating comprehensive region-wide planning and a deep ideological commitment to decentralizing cities. Like most regionalists, his chief interest lay not with the collective public good but with the individual home and the neighborhood.
The regionalists, in the end, proved to be the most accurate prognosticators of America’s real suburban future. It is easy to see the centralized supercities of the 1920s as authoritarian, oppressive, monotonous, and sterile. Yet the designers of those cities intended exactly the opposite; to them, the vision was democratic, liberating, and hygienic. These dreams of future skyscraper cities signaled both the demise of the persistent national inferiority complex in the face of European culture and offered, in the New World, a prefiguration of the global future. In assuming that technology could be tamed, the city planned, and the future designed for the benefit of mankind, the visionary architects of the 1920s became the masters of the machine-age metropolis and created America’s first modern conception of the city as Utopia.
Carol Willis, an architectural historian, is the curator for the touring exhibition “Hugh Ferriss: Metropolis.” This article is adapted from an essay in Imagining Tomorrow: History, Technology, and the American Future, edited by Joseph J. Corn (MIT Press, 1986).