Yesterday’s tomorrow is not today

Hugh Ferriss’ modernity

Image: Rendering by Hugh Ferriss
of the UN Building proposal (1947)

What’s so fascinating about [Hugh] Ferriss is what makes him so different to his near-contemporary Iakov Chernikhov. While the latter made fantasy cities out of bizarre amalgams of what did exist and what hadn’t yet been invented, Ferriss drawings take the actually constructed and make it look utterly unreal.

Owen Hatherley, “Fairytales and real estate” (2007)

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many

T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” (1922)

It’s an odd feeling one gets from time to time, that the future we remember was more futuristic than our own. And yet it’s unmistakable. The moment we inhabit is a peculiar retrogression upon the past; its temporality is all off.

Architectural sketch by Hugh Ferriss, 1917

Architectural sketch by Hugh Ferriss, 1917

Architectural sketch by Iakov Chernikhov, late 1930s

Architectural sketch by Iakov Chernikhov, late 1930s

Hatherley’s observation regarding the perpendicular paths of Ferriss and Chernikhov — paths that converge around the right angle of modernity — extends further than he even imagined. Whether working from unreality to reality or vice versa, the two celebrated draughtsmen charted a collision course from their respective points of origin. This might even be seen to represent a pattern of nonsensuous dissimilarity, inverting the old Benjaminian trope.

Meeting somewhere along the middle in the early 1930s, at least within the realm of ideas, the drawings of Ferriss and Chernikhov thereafter approximate each other visually (in terms of sensuous similarity) the further out one moves diverging from this date. That is to say, Ferriss’ sketches become more pronouncedly gothic the earlier on one looks. A tenebrous crayon rendering from 1917, shown above, amply illustrates this fact. Oppositely, Chernikhov’s sketches began exhibiting numerous gothic features toward the end of the 1930s, becoming progressively gloomier along the way. No one denies the influence of Hugh Ferriss over the comic-book city of Gotham; producers of the new Batman movies just announced would do well to take a look at Chernikhov’s later works for inspiration, especially after their blunder casting Ben Affleck as the dark knight.


Architectural sketch by Hugh Ferriss, mid-1930s

House of Books [Дом книги]. I. Golosov, P. Antonov, A. Zhuravlev (1934)

House of Books by I. Golosov, P. Antonov, A. Zhuravlev (1934)

Nor do the similarities end there. Some of Hugh Ferriss’ drawings from the early- to mid-1930s, inflected as they are with Art Deco elements, seem to parallel contemporaneous tendencies emerging within Soviet architecture.

While I’m usually not inclined to agree with Selim Khan-Magomedov’s interpretation of architectural development in the USSR, his thesis on so-called “post-constructivist” architecture is fairly useful for parsing this resemblance. According to this view, avant-garde architects from the 1920s and early 1930s went through an intermediate stage transitioning to the new stylistic norms prescribed by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Traditional and vernacular themes found their way into the otherwise blocky orthogonal arrangements designed by the modernists during this period. Unsurprisingly, the Art Deco movement that crystallized around the 1925 Paris Expo was finally coming into its own at about the same time in the West. Khan-Magomedov argues that aspects of the Deco synthesis, in itself already something of a hybrid style, were subsequently assimilated into Soviet architecture during this “post-constructivist” phase. Eventually, of course, architecture under Stalin stabilized to such an extent that it could be identified as its own distinct mode of building, independent of concurrent trends abroad.

Still, in the meantime certain affinities were immediately apparent, as can be readily seen by comparing the House of Books proposed by Golosov, Antonov, and Zhuravlev from 1934 with the Hugh Ferriss’ nearly simultaneous delineation reproduced above. The only major difference between them, besides the vaguely religious content of Ferriss’ depiction, is the more pastoral scenery that surrounds it, versus the Soviet structure tightly woven into the urban fabric.

Returning to our original theme, after what was perhaps a needless divagation, we may take a look at some of Hugh Ferriss’ eerie, interstellar drawings from the end of his storied career as a delineator. From the trademark “Babylonian megacities” of the 1920s and 1930s for which he became known, Ferriss adopted a more decidedly modernist approach in the 1940s and 1950s. He began sketching a number of architectural proposals advanced by modern masters such as Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer. Corbu’s Cartesian towers show up in a number of Ferriss’ urbanistic doodles from the 1940s. Later he prepared reams of drawings for the UN Building competition in New York, based on variations of the Corbusier/Niemeyer scheme.

Toward the close of the 1950s, Hugh Ferriss’ spooky Sant’Elian imagination ventured into the night sky. Embedding some of his characteristic motifs into a blasted lunar landscape, he dreamed up a primeval amphitheater situated atop the surface of the moon. Some of the shapes seem to anticipate the speculative compositions of H.R. Giger and Lebbeus Woods several decades later. The former’s nightmare biomechanics and the latter’s hi-tech wastelands clearly betray an overarching indebtedness to Ferriss. Each of these artists’ works — Ferriss’, Chernikhov’s, Giger’s, Woods’ — attest to the gradual slide of industrial utopianism during the first half of the twentieth century into post-industrial dystopianism during the second half.

Ferriss’ landmark 1928 book was entitled The Metropolis of Tomorrow. It is safe to say this projected future never arrived. Yesterday’s tomorrow is not today.

Hugh Ferriss’ architectural sketches, 1915-1961

Thanks to Martin Gittens (aka Kosmograd) for uploading these images to his Flickr account.

7 thoughts on “Yesterday’s tomorrow is not today

  1. Ross

    Two projects jump out on first impression:

    – The Étienne-Louis Boullée inspired Sphere, but far more like the Eiffel Tower in construction than a Buckminster Fuller Geodetic structure.

    – The Frank Lloyd Wright inspired Cantilevering Houses.

    Can you tell me more about these two?



    • Yes, of course Ian!

      Importantly, Hugh Ferriss designed very few structures of his own. He was first and foremost a “delineator” — one who illustrates architectural designs.

      So actually, your intuition regarding the cantilevered houses is more accurate than you know! Assuming you’re referring to the drawing I suspect, Ferriss was directly dramatizing Wright’s Falling Waters.

      Regarding the Sphere, I’d have to double-check, but I believe Ferriss was depicting the Perisphere from the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, the last of the great international expos. This would make sense given his very NYC-centric outlook.

      Are you back from your vacation?


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