Rudolph's LOMEX in Retrospect

Rudolph's LOMEX in Retrospect

Paul Rudolph: Lower Manhattan Expressway
Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery
The Cooper Union
7 East 7th Street, 2nd Floor
Through November 20

Paul Rudolph: Lower Manhattan Expressway is a show of about 30 full-sized reproductions of drawings for a megastructure proposed in the 1960s to be built atop the controversial highway near Canal Street. The show was jointly organized by the Drawing Center and the Cooper Union’s Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, and curated by Jim Walrod, an interior designer, and Ed Rawlings, principal of Rawlings Architects, who directed students in rebuilding a stunning 30-foot-long model of the project.

The show is, among other things, a testament to the continuing power of virtuoso architectural drawing—and virtuoso modeling—to evoke inspiring visions in the digital age. But at the same time, it suggests that image and model go only so far. The project cries out for context and history. “Had it been constructed, this major urban design project would have transformed New York City’s topography and infrastructure,” the curators write noncommittally of a project so emotionally charged that Jane Jacobs was arrested fighting it.

LOMEX, as it was known, was a famous battleground in the struggle between Jacobs and Robert Moses and all they respectively symbolized. The highway, linking the Holland Tunnel and the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges, had been proposed in various forms since the 1920s. It was supported by the Regional Plan Association and by mainstream business and political forces. It was opposed in the 1960s by local groups critical of the loss of housing and small businesses that the road would cause.

 In 1967 the Ford Foundation, whose new head was McGeorge Bundy (formerly National Security Advisor during escalation in Vietnam), asked Rudolph—known for large-scale projects—to imagine a development that ameliorated the impact of the highway. He proposed topping the sunken freeway with a series of residential structures, parking, and plazas, with people-mover pods and elevators to subways. The shapes of the buildings echoed the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges, and also recalled Hugh Ferriss’ ideas of bridge/buildings from 1929. Rudolph’s idea was organizing a new city core around modes of movement.

The power of the imagination and drawings begs the practical question: Is this megastructure magic or madness? Lay people will likely see a high degree of architectural hubris to the show. The images are “helicopter shots,” with no perspectives from the terraces of the terrace houses—and no people in evidence. Who would enjoy living above a road whose carbon monoxide production was an issue in the public debate? What would decades of soot have made of the place, had it been built?

Also lacking is any proposal of who would build and own such a development. The Triborough Bridge Authority? The city? The Port Authority? Opponents to the highway would have found the same fault with the Rudoph plan as with other “urban renewal” plans that produced empty plazas and litter-strewn corridors.

It’s not clear how widely known the project became to the public or its role in any debate about the highway. The original model was built for a film, it appears. The curators were unable to locate any portions of the film or even determine how far it proceeded. They display a script or voiceover text in the show. The original plan for an elevated highway was replaced in 1968 by a Lindsay administration proposal for a sunken highway with parks and housing adjacent; the same year, Jane Jacobs was arrested for disrupting a public hearing on the proposed highway. By 1971, the highway plan was killed entirely by Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

Not until 1974 were images and information about Rudolph’s proposal published in The Evolving City, a book by Peter Wolf, issued by the American Federation of the Arts with a grant from the Ford Foundation. But 1974 also saw New York’s fiscal crisis—hardly a time when anyone was thinking of big new developments.

Many first saw the Rudolph project on the cover of Reyner Banham’s 1976 book Megastructure. Banham noted the origins of the project’s A-frame and “terrassenhaüser” residential structures in the work of Antonio Sant’Elia circa 1916, and Rudolph’s citing of the precedent of the Ponte Vecchio in 14th-century Florence. Banham’s book was subtitled “urban futures of the recent past,” suggesting that megastructural thinking was already passé.

The original drawings, whose powerful perspectives are rendered in graphite or reddish brown ink, are in the Rudolph archive in the Library of Congress. (MoMA also owns an example, not in the show.) Red pencil drawings show ideas of how housing modules could be delivered to the site. Some of the drawings are displayed in a free-standing structure whose ball-and-stick design, the curators say, was inspired by Rudoph’s Lucite chair—a bit of an inside joke.

The show asks, What would Soho, Chinatown, and the Lower East Side look like today if LOMEX had been built? Or suggests other “counterfactuals”: What would the city look like had the World Trade complex not been built? Might the razed Radio Row have evolved into a real Silicon Alley?

A new generation is less aware of the battles over, and issues raised by, such projects. In this, the 50th anniversary of Brasília, there may be a willingness to think big again. This is a welcome recovery from the cynicism engendered in the 1960s and 1970s, if tempered with wisdom. We now have the word “scale-able,” which in Rudolph’s day referred only to mountains. But the LOMEX exhibition also comes at a time when big projects, if not megastructures, are being reconsidered in New York—Brooklyn’s downsized arena complex, Stuyvesant Town, even Ground Zero rebuilding. What is the role of architecture in all this?