On Thursday night I went to the opening reception for The Drawing Center’s new exhibit at The Cooper Union, “Paul Rudolph: Lower Manhattan Expressway.” I was lured by memories of the hours I spent in the library last fall writing my first graduate school paper about Rudolph’s design for a highway that would link the Holland Tunnel with the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. A highway here has been considered since the 1930s and was once championed by Robert Moses. Familiarity with Rudolph’s version of an LME bred a kind of perverse affection.
Even after researching and writing the paper, I was left with questions. Why did the Ford Foundation, which commissioned Rudolph’s “study,” choose him? Did it really expect that his megaproject would be realized? Did Rudolph himself? When the complete study was published in “The Evolving City: Urban Design Proposals by Ulrich Franzen and Paul Rudolph,” (1974), author Peter Wolf wrote that it was meant to “stimulate the imagination – to suggest evolutionary alternatives for cities.” W. McNeil Lowry, from the Foundation, wrote in his introduction to the book that Rudolph’s study had a “reasonable” chance for impact. Was this revisionism, in the face of Rudolph’s apocalyptic residential towers overshadowing the highway? By 1974, the megalomania of megastructure was out and the intimacy of the street corner was in.
The drawings at The Cooper Union are beautiful. Rudolph had to remind himself that renderings were only a “means to an end,” he once wrote. Most striking is seeing the enormous model in person (not the original here, but one that Cooper Union students recreated). It eats half of the Arthur A. Houghton Gallery. Even in relative miniature, the monstrosity took my breath away. If you’re familiar with downtown Manhattan, you can set an imaginary version of yourself down into Rudolph’s lower Manhattan – like the avatar in Google Maps street view – and feel the isolation of his creation. Step back, and his plug-ins and meandering highways put on display his belief in the power of technology and a-building-as-city to solve the problems of urban living. As a friend who I ran into said (in paraphrased form), compared with what’s being built in China these days, Rudolph’s design no longer looks so radical.
A friend accompanying my friend, who worked as a student with Rudolph at Yale, clarified that Rudolph never believed his design for the LME would be realized, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t dead serious about it. Despite its flaws – for one, the model suggests that inhabitants would get marooned on some blocks, unable to cross the highway – it symbolized ecstatic, if egotistical, hope for the city. And we could use more of that.
Paul Rudolph: Lower Manhattan Expressway runs through November 14 at the Arthur A. Houghton Gallery, The Cooper Union, 7 East 7th Street, 2nd Floor, New York, NY. Visit www.drawingcenter.org to learn more.
Photos of the model by Barb Choit / The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture of The Cooper Union.
Other images courtesy of the Paul Rudolph Archive, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.