The Metropolis of Tomorrow

by Hugh Ferriss

Published by Princeton Architectural Press

1998, 200 pages

Buy it online


Drawing Towards Metropolis

Reviewed by David Middleton


In the early half of the century Hugh Ferriss used his imagination to create unique visions of a possible future. From buildings that could dwarf any modern day skyscraper to bridge dwellings that could house thousands, Ferriss imagined them all. Buildings that would boggle the mind of any modern day futurist or science fiction writer. Known chiefly as an architectural delineator, he would render buildings for clients as well as making drawings for the architectural publications of the time.

The first three quarters of Metropolis of Tomorrow is dedicated to the original 1929 printing and was meant as Ferriss' essay on the modern city and its future as well as his philosophy on architecture as a whole. The book is printed on slightly off-white paper which helps with the illusion that what you are reading is old and adds well to the overall look of the production. The last quarter of the book is a biography of Hugh Ferriss written by Carol Willis. This, I feel, was an absolute necessity and helps put the entire book in perspective for any reader interested in understanding the man and his work.

Ferriss' thoughts on architecture are eloquent and at times touching. He speaks in a removed, often cold scientific tone, yet always with an undercurrent of passion for his subject. The real power of his work shines through in his renderings. Working mostly in charcoal, Ferriss had a unique style that made every building he drew epic in scale and grandeur. Huge megalithic structures rising out of seemingly self-created darkness. Buildings so monumental, they eclipsed everything in their shadow. Some renderings are savagely brutal with their simple blocked-in shadows and hard edges, others are full of such power, yet with an exquisitely delicate touch. With renderings of buildings both real and imagined, Ferriss gives us his view of the city as it is and as it could be. At times it is unclear as to what the metropolis will become: sinner or saint.

Going down into the streets of a modern city must seem -- to the newcomer, at least -- a little like Dante's descent into Hades. Certainly so unacclimated a visitor would find, in the dense atmosphere, in the kaleidoscopic sights, the confused noise and the complex physical contacts, something very reminiscent of the lower realms.

It's not always pictures alone that make an art book. The text and typesetting add so much to the tone of the work. In The Metropolis of Tomorrow it's a joy to see all these elements work seamlessly together to create a great art book. It took a while to dawn on me that what I first thought was sloppy typesetting was actually an exact reproduction of the originally published text. The Metropolis of Tomorrow is a resurrected piece of history with all its roughness and faults intact. I wouldn't call this a pretty book, but it certainly has a charm and a power beyond its looks. For those who have never heard of Hugh Ferriss this book is a shining example of his work. | October 1998


David Middleton is art director of January Magazine.