Urban Noir as Future-Gazing: Hugh Ferriss’s Metropolis of Tomorrow
The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, USA
As metropolitan observers—from American architectural critic Douglas Haskell to contemporary Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas—suggest, Hugh Macomber Ferriss’s drawings of the imaginary metropolis from the 1920s were essentially nocturnal fantasies, awash in a theatrical mix of artificial light, shadow, and darkness. Building on Ferriss’s drawings, this paper examines the conflicted meanings embedded in early-twentieth-century artistic representations of the night. Situated outside the realm of rational specularity, the night promised a peculiar alignment with future-gazing, for lack of natural light dissolved the visual stability of the world into a fertile field of imagination. The nocturnal city and its incandescent mystique were seen as a quintessential frontier for the deliberations of modernist aesthetics—for John Doss Passos, “Night crushes bright milk out of arclights, squeezes the sullen blocks until they drip red, yellow, green.” If in nineteenth-century Victorian reckonings, the night was a time of debauchery and social deviance, in the early twentieth century the Victorian denigration of the city night was permeated, as Lewis Erenberg argues, with a new appreciation of nocturnal modernity, one in which the illuminated night became an acceptable extension of the public realm. In Night as Frontier (1987), Murray Melbin posits that time could be conquered, populated, and filled with activities that were otherwise constrained by the limits of the daytime and the morality of a probing eye. What Melbin implicitly argues is that the triumph of night light was closely allied with the opening of a new vista and, by extension, the development of an empowered spectator, whose initial terror of darkness was overcome by a subconscious of conquest. For Ferriss, the conquered night offered a fictionalized venue for the renovation of the existing city, as the disruptive minutiae of the daytime city could be made to fade into the pixilation of artificial light and shadow.