Perchance to Dream

Architectural drawings capture the skylines that might have been

Those who know me as a suave, self-assured man-about-town will be surprised to learn that I spent a big chunk of my youth as a total nerd—geeky glasses, flat-top haircut, the whole tragic mess. Slouching through the multitudinous miseries of adolescence, I yearned to be Cool, envisioning myself cruising the boulevards in a snappy sports car, wearing a tweed jacket with suede patches on the elbows, puffing meditatively on an aromatic pipe.

In this soft-focus dreamworld, I was a hugely successful architect. Lounging in my office atop a sleek skyscraper (my own design, of course, and universally acclaimed), I dashed off dazzling sketches of cathedrals, country estates, theaters, department stores, and apartment houses—and then relaxed while my admiring staff translated the drawings into glass-and-steel-and-marble reality. My life was an effortless cycle in which each brilliant new design was the prelude to another—an endless stream of award-winning masterpieces.

Somewhere around the time I entered high school, the daydream dissolved. It became painfully apparent that my utter inability to draw anything more complicated than a stick figure meant that I couldn't produce a dazzling sketch if my life depended on it. Then I discovered that architects had to know about stuff like math and engineering—subjects that literally made my eyes roll back in my head. So I gave up on architecture and decided to pursue a career in a field more closely attuned to my skills. Full-time TV watching, maybe. Or writing.

Looking back, I believe the whole me-as-architect fantasy was Hugh Ferriss' fault. One Saturday afternoon in the library (I was a nerd, remember?), I found a book of drawings that Ferriss did in the 1920s, and I was smitten. The black-and-white images of skyscrapers—all dramatically lit, aloof and elegant, massive but not menacing, almost otherworldly but totally believable—seemed to embody all the glamour and energy and promise of urban life. When I read that most of the drawings were idealized depictions of buildings that were never built, I didn't care: The images were enough. I know now that Ferriss is considered one of the best architectural delineators ever (the American Society of Architectural Illustrators' annual prize is named for him), but back then I knew only that those drawings spoke to me.

Today, long after giving up any thought of designing buildings myself, I'm still fascinated by architects' efforts to put their visions down on paper. The drawings show so much. Those submitted in the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition, for example, offer an instructive view of the confusion gripping the architectural profession at the time: Some entries are resolutely Victorian, others are sure-handed essays in Neoclassicism, and a few are harbingers of something new—the birth of the modern age, crisply rendered in pen-and-ink.

Earlier delineations from the heyday of the Beaux-Arts era are vibrant with color and dense with detail. Examples from more recent years are less precise and more ­conceptual—all slashing lines and squiggles, meant to suggest more than define. The most intriguing are those offering a glimpse of what might have been. Today's Pennsylvania Avenue would look very different if the judges had chosen Thomas Jefferson's 1792 drawing, inspired by Palladio's Villa Rotonda, as the winning design for the President's House.

A similar what-if is sparked by a rendering from the Tribune Tower competition: In it, the upper floors of a skyscraper morph into a Godzilla-size Indian chief, complete with feather headdress and upraised tomahawk. It almost hurts to look at it—not only because the building would have been a kick-ass addition to the Chicago skyline, but also because it's the kind of landmark I might have sketched long ago in my imaginary architect's office in the sky.

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