Hugh Ferriss

Urban designer, United States
Best known for his dramatic depictions of the monumental architecture of a futuristic,
urban utopia, Hugh Ferriss contributed significantly in the 1920s and 1930s to an
appreciation for urban design within academic and professional circles, but more so
among a lay audience. Although he was a licensed architect, he chose not to build. He
dedicated his career to drawing, writing, and urban planning, becoming the preferred
renderer and consultant to some of the most notable practitioners of his day. Although
Ferriss shared with his modernist peers a belief in architecture’s agency in improving
urban society, he rejected the industrial references assumed in many of their proposals.
He sought to invest his designs with a spirituality that he felt absent both in international
style modernism and in an America dominated by corporate activity; the skyscraper—the
new icon of that activity—became his fundamental subject. His writings remained less
polemical and ultimately less influential than those of his modernist contemporaries,
whereas his widely circulated images became more influential. Although the last decades
of Ferriss’s career paled in comparison to his earlier notoriety, in the 1940s he could still
be lauded by such populist magazines as Time as “U.S. architecture’s most grandiose seer.”
Ferriss’s fame as an urban-design visionary proceeded from a pragmatic issue. After
New York City passed its zoning ordinance in 1916, which was intended to improve the
access of light and air into cavernous streets, new buildings were required to reduce their
massing as they rose in height. Ferriss’s “four stages” zoning envelope studies, published
in 1922 in collaboration with the architect Harvey Wiley Corbett, show the gradual
erosion of a tall block into a series of variously sized, adjacent, parallel slabs and were
the first studies to make architectural sense of this zoning legislation. He championed his
zoning solution, stating that the “efficiency and health of city life must be accepted as
mandatory requirements,” and he reinforced his brand of modernistic architectural
moralism and determinism, saying, “We are not contemplating the new architecture of a
city…we are contemplating the new architecture of a civilization.” In 1930, the historian
and critic Sheldon Cheney wrote, “More than any other architect… Ferriss influenced the
imagination of designers, students, and public. Many a building of 1928–29 looks like a
fulfillment of a Ferriss idealistic sketch of four or five years earlier.” Indeed, his zoning
study became a model for tall structures throughout the United States.
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Most of Ferriss’s renderings stemmed from commercial commissions for clients who
wished to join, for their benefit, 1920s economic optimism with the progressive spirit that
his drawings invoked. He also collaborated frequently with architects of the caliber of
Raymond Hood and Wallace Harrison and became the public-image-giver to projects
such as Rockefeller Center, the United Nations, Lincoln Center, and the New York
World’s Fair. Despite the fact that Ferriss had an aesthetic penchant for the architecture
of modern capitalism, he recognized the skyscraper as “a symbol of an age in which there
is no spiritual-ity.” Yet he believed that capitalism’s power might be used to reform the
city. His commercial work became intellectual and formal fodder for his theoretical
explorations, which strove to reinvest architecture with humanistic dimension. Unlike
most of his modernist peers, who may also be called “visionary,” Ferriss maintained that
modern technology was stifling the human spirit and chose to regard the city as an
extension of nature rather than the machine. He emphasized organic, geological, and
metaphysical analogies in reference to the “crystalline” properties of his architecture.
Ultimately, Ferriss’s intentions rarely transcended symbolic gesture.
Ferriss’s best-known publication, The Metropolis of Tomo rrow (1929), was a testament to his rendering talents,
his idealism, and his commitment to fashioning structures whose effect would restore
architecture’s lost emotional content. The book was divided into three parts. The first
part, “The City of Today,” features many of the tower renderings that established his
career. The second part, “Projected Trends,” depicts work ranging from his realistic
zoning studies to such fantastic proposals as multitiered streets clinging to the 20th story
of a building facade. Ferriss recognized the far-fetched nature of his proposals, yet he
surmised that they were nonetheless inevitable. The final part of the book, “An Imaginary
Metropolis,” summarizes his design theories for a Utopian city. In his Metropolis, vast
boulevards slide through a midrise urban fabric and link mile-high towers with gardens
arranged on the ledges of their stepped-back massings. For all its visionary appearance, it
was formally little more than a City Beautiful scheme; with no provision for industrial
sectors or housing, it addressed only a bourgeois citizenry. The city’s core, comprised of
a triangulated business, art, and science zone punctuated by a soaring “tower of
philosophy,” underscored Ferriss’s desires for a humanistic city yet proffered no
plausible social, political, or economic theory by which to implement the new society.
Ironically, the publication of his urban scheme coincided exactly with the financial
collapse of 1929, sobering his faith in architecture’s reach.
Ferriss’s second book, Powe r in Buildin gs: An Artis t’s View of Con temporar y Architectu re (1953), was far less ambitious in scope. Produced
following a journey across the country, the book portrays what he considered to be
America’s most inspirational structures, ranging from recently completed hydroelectric
dams to pre-Columbian pyramids. Almost embarrassed by his earlier naïveté, he began to
dedicate his drawing skills to built and pending designs rather than imaginary
architecture; his rejection of capitalism’s ability to work for social change is signaled by
the book’s near absence of high-rise towers.
Although Ferriss was alternately considered an architectural theorist and a delineator
of remarkable talent, history has established him only as the latter. Ferriss rejected the
Beaux-Arts representational tenets that he was taught at Washington University in St.
Louis; he felt that emphasis on two-dimensional drawing—plans, sections, and
elevation—was foreign to human experience. Likewise, he rejected the isometric
representations used by his staunchly modernist peers, stating that such techniques
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yielded passionless images and, by extension, passionless architecture. Ferriss conveyed
his ideas nearly exclusively through perspective. The drawings for which he ultimately
became renowned were noteworthy not for their accuracy (he took technical liberties in
order to show multiple vantage points in one view) but for their emotive capacity.
Ferriss-conceived architecture revealed through a subtractive process, leaving ultimately
finely chiseled masses where historical ornament was subjugated to smoothly massed
surfaces. After building up layers of carbon, he would begin to reveal the form of his
subject through erasure, yielding scenes whereby his architecture would appear as a
brilliant beacon. If the purpose of the setback ordinance was to suffuse the city of
darkness with light, then his system of erasure and the dark-to-light techniques of his
drawings were an appropriate parallel to this transformation. Although Ferriss’s work
continued to be well received by the general public, professional and academic
communities tended to be less generous. In 1954, six years before Ferriss’s death in New
York City, the architectural historian Vincent Scully dismissed Ferriss as “the last in a
line of romantic-classic architectural artists which began with Piranesi and Boullee.”

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