Hugh Ferriss and The Metropolis of Tomorrow: A Dystopian Vision of New York City
Some of the most captivating images of the modern city were created by Hugh Ferriss, whose book The Metropolis of Tomorrow presented a dystopian vision of New York. 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.
Hugh Ferriss (1889-1962) trained as an architect at Washington University, but early in his career he began to specialize in architectural renderings of other architects' work rather than designing buildings himself. Architects often found that clients could not read architectural plans, and therefore employed delineators to produce drawings that were more dramatic and persuasive. 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 client.
Ferriss arrived in New York in 1912 and was employed as a delineator for Cass Gilbert, architect of the Woolworth Building, a famous skyscraper in the Gothic style. Some of his earliest drawings are of Gilbert’s Woolworth Building. After he had set up as a free-lance artist he found himself much sought after.
Ferriss's rendering of the Woolworth Building
By the 1920s, Ferriss had moved away from creating flattering images of real buildings to a deep imaginative engagement with the city. During the 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. Skyscrapers are bathed in darkness and have a stern monumentality, like prismatic tombs. He presented the buildings at night, lit up by spotlights or shrouded in fog. They express our 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 called The Metropolis of Tomorrow (1929), which conveys a powerful dystopian representation of the city. Ferriss also wrote the text of the book and it is very poetic, 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.
Forms as cold as ice.
Night in the Science zone.
This refers to the crystalline, facetted forms, the lack of historical detail, and the cold, inhuman quality.
His drawings were also being regularly featured by such diverse publications as Century, the Christian Science Monitor, Harper's Magazine and Vanity Fair. His writings began to also appear in various publications.
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 also had a profound influence on popular culture, providing much of the inspiration for 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.
Ferriss, Hugh. The Metropolis of Tomorrow, with essay by Carol Willis. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1986. Reprint of 1929 edition.
Ferriss’s work has been analysed in a book by Dietrich Neumann called Architecture of the Night.