The Metropolis of Tomorrow
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The Metropolis of Tomorrow

In his book The Metropolis of Tomorrow, Hugh Ferriss presented a dystopian vision of New York City. Ferriss produced a series of brooding, monumental images which portray New York as a cold and abstract domain, with prismatic skyscrapers standing like stern sentinels.

In his book The Metropolis of Tomorrow, Hugh Ferriss presented a dystopian vision of New York City.  Ferriss produced a series of brooding, monumental images which portray New York as a cold and abstract domain, with prismatic skyscrapers standing like stern sentinels.

Ferriss at work in his studio

Hugh Ferriss (1889-1962) trained as an architect at Washington University, but early in his career he began to specialise in creating architectural renderings of other architects’ work rather than designing buildings himself. Ferriss became an 'architectural delineator' – his role was to create perspective drawings of buildings from architects plans in order to convey three-dimensional space and form to potential clients. Architects often found that clients could not read architectural plans, and therefore employed delineators to produce drawings that were more dramatic and persuasive.

Ferriss arrived in New York City in 1912 and was employed as a delineator for Cass Gilbert, architect of the Woolworth Building, a famous skyscraper designed, somewhat anachronistically, in the Gothic style. Some of Ferriss' earliest drawings are of theWoolworth Building. After establishing himself as a free-lance artist, Ferriss found himself in constant demand.

 

Ferriss’s rendering of the Woolworth Building

By the 1920s, Ferriss had moved away from flattering images of real buildings, instead embarking upon a deep imaginative engagement with the city. During the Great Depression, skyscrapers came to symbolize the great discrepancy of wealth in American society: they were citadels of the rich, unreachable by normal people. Ferriss produced a series of images in which the city appears cold and abstract. He presented the buildings at night, lit up by spotlights or shrouded in fog. Skyscrapers are bathed in darkness and have a stern monumentality, like prismatic tombs. They express the uncanny feeling that there is something cold and inhuman about 'the city that never sleeps'. Skyscrapers are arrogant symbols of power in which humans have no place.

Ferriss published the images in a book entitled The Metropolis of Tomorrow (1929).  The title is, of course, a reference to Fritz Lang's Expressionist film, Metropolis.  Ferriss' book which conveys a powerful dystopian representation of the city. Ferriss also wrote the text of the book, which is poetic in tone, evoking the symbolic power of the skyscraper:

Buildings like crystal.

Walls of translucent glass.

Sheer glass blocks sheeting a steel grill.

No Gothic branch.

No Acanthus leaf.

No recollections of the plant world.

A mineral kingdom.

Gleaming stalagmites.

Forms as cold as ice.

Mathematics.

Night in the Science zone.

Daniel Okrent argued that Ferriss never designed a single noteworthy building, but after his death a colleague stated that he ‘influenced my generation of architects’ more than any other man. Ferriss has also had a profound influence upon popular culture, providing much of the inspiration for Batman's Gotham City and Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Hugh Ferriss’ archive, including drawings and papers, is held by the Drawings & Archives Department of the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University. Every year the American Society of Architectural Illustrators gives out the Hugh Ferriss Memorial Prize for architectural rendering excellence.

Anton Furst's conceptual art for Tim Burton's Batman (1989), inspired by Ferriss

Gotham City

Ferriss' influence spread to comic books. The Batman comic began in 1939 and was much grittier and more urban than any other comic of its time. Batman is set in Gotham City, which forms a powerful image of dystopia. The comic depicted the city at night, with the Gothic iconography of the full moon, silhouetted buildings and expressionistic use of shadow. This perverse city is populated by gangsters and grotesque, violent psychopaths.

By the 1970s Batman had become more sophisticated. The artwork was expressionistic. This is a panel from the 70s. A city street is presented as a gaping chasm, murky and mysterious. The text conveys the noirish atmosphere of the city.  Batman writer Dennis O’Neil said that ‘Batman’s Gotham City is Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at eleven minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November.’

In 1989, Gotham City was visualized in Batman the Movie, directed by Tim Burton. Burton has a strong visual sensibility and a unique vision. He said that he wanted Gotham to look as if hell had erupted through the streets and kept on going. The cinematic Gotham was designed by Anton Furst, who was born in London and studied at the Royal College of Art.

Gotham is presented as a generic American city, but one without building regulations or zoning laws. Instead, it represents unchecked development. The production design is eclectic – it refers to many architectural styles and movements of the 20th century. The architecture is a grotesque hybrid of styles in which traditional brownstones are overwhelmed by gargantuan modern structures.

Much of the city has a heavy-duty industrial aesthetic. The buildings have a guts-on-the-outside look, with exposed pipes, ducts and external structural frames. This echoes buildings like the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The industrial aesthetic was also influenced by Italian Futurism and the technological cityscapes of Antonio Sant’ Elia. Fascist architecture was another component. Gotham’s civic architecture features oversized bombastic statues are typical of Fascist architecture, recalling the heroic statuary of Arno Brecker, Hitler’s favourite sculptor.

Anton Furst's conceptual art for Tim Burton's Batman (1989)

Bibliography

Ferriss, Hugh. The Metropolis of Tomorrow, with essay by Carol Willis. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1986. Reprint of 1929 edition.

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Comments (14)
Ranked #11 in Architecture

Wow! Excellent presentation! The vivid description of 'architectural delineator' is very educational to me. Architects here who have not taken the Board exams to be registered architects are hired by registered professional architect as 'craftsman', it takes 2 years for a new grad of architecture before they can take the board exam. Thanks a lot Michael.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Very interesting info, thanks Ron.

Excellent, informative, and educational presentation. Thanks Michael for your extensive research

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks, Abdel, very kind of you to say.

too much for me.. I prefer quiet country life. The architecture needs of the future must make it happen that green spaces exist in cities, the stress of such a lifestyle requires some green

Beautiful article, I am with Brenda, give me some green spaces full of life...voted up

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks, Brenda and Francina. I agree, green areas within cities provide vital moments of respite. Ferriss' dark image of the metropolis, and the concept of 'gotham', have been used to promote rural and small town/suburban environments as alternatives to city life. It's all part of the discourse surrounding the city.

At first I wondered why you were embarking on the subject in your title of this article. Now I understand and am intrigued with your vast assortment of wisdom to bring this education to me. Well done book material and exceptional presentation.

I've always been fascinated by this perspective--since the first time I saw it.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks, James.

There's no doubt you're the best in this niche. Now I understand why Batman films have generally dark silhouettes of buildings.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks, Patrick.

Thanks. Nicely review

One look at this and I know you are my role model. voted dear.

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