Hugh Ferriss was the most prominent urban portraitist in the American architecture world of the 1920s and ‘30s. Working as a delineator for architects such as Cass Gilbert and Raymond Hood, he rendered the evolution of both the real and the ideal metropolis.
Ferriss claimed that his role as an architectural delineator was “to tell the truth about a building”, which meant capturing not only its form and mass but also its mood and personality. His favorite subject was the skyscraper. When the New York Zoning Law of 1916 limited the bulk of skyscrapers by requiring setbacks and height restrictions, Ferriss rendered the extraordinary effects of these regulations on architectural form, working sometimes on commissions dealing with actual buildings, sometimes on more visionary studies for the metropolis. Both of these kinds of drawing, including Buildings in the Modeling, were compiled in his 1929 book The Metropolis of Tomorrow.
Specifically, Buildings in the Modeling offered an image of how buildings could be shaped or “modeled” in order to retain the maximum mass while remaining within the Zoning Law. The chiseled towers, drawn with a Conté crayon to create a soft, chiaroscuro effect, appear simultaneously dense and transparent; they also suggest a dramatic vision of the city center. Rejecting the deurbanized American landscape advocated by Frank Lloyd Wright, Ferriss promoted the idea of a concentrated metropolis, a major center of commerce, art, science, and technology. Although the buildings in his vision of the metropolis are simple, unadorned masses, each dramatically captures the psychological impact of the soaring skyscraper on twentieth-century Americans.
Publication excerpt from Matilda McQuaid, ed., Envisioning Architecture: Drawings from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2002, pp. 52-53.