Hugh Ferriss- The Father of Gotham City


Some called Hugh Ferriss a draftsman, others called him a delineator.  More accurately– he was a trained architect, visionary designer and iconic artist.  Without ever formally designing a building himself, he is credited with influencing a generation of architects and creating the cityscape we call Gotham City.  His signature ‘moody’ style was honed during the 1920s– frequently presenting the building at night, lit up by spotlights, or in a fog, as if photographed with a soft focus. The shadows cast by and on the building became almost as important as the revealed surfaces. He had somehow managed to develop a style that would elicit emotional responses from the viewer. 


His book, The Metropolis of Tomorrow remains in print some 80 years after he sketched his shadowy images of cities where airplanes slide between towers and floodlights carve a backdrop to skyscraping peaks.  The Hugh Ferriss’ archive, including drawings and papers, is held by the Drawings & Archives Department of the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University. 


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1 / On Ferriss’s fifth birthday, somebody gave him a picture of the Parthenon. “I tacked it onto the wall and often thought about it,” he later recalled.


2 / Early clients included Vanity Fair and, during World War I, the federal government’s Committee on Public Information.

3 / A series of Ferriss’s melodramatic images appeared, mural-size, in The Titan City, a 1925 exhibit at Manhattan department store Wanamaker’s. 

4 / In 1928, Ferriss was asked to write about “Rendering, Architectural” for the Encyclopedia Britannica. His 4,000-word essay stayed in the encyclopedia until 1973.

5 / The Metropolis of Tomorrow cost $3 when first published in 1929. In 2008, a first edition on was priced at $750.

6 / By 1929, Ferriss occupied an Upper East Side penthouse with his wife and daughter and earned $20,810. Three Depression-wracked years later, they were back in Greenwich Village. His income: $1,861.

7 / When a Diego Rivera mural was removed from Rockefeller Center in 1933 because it included Vladimir Lenin, Ferriss was among 47 cultural figures who signed a letter of protest.

8 / When Le Corbusier and Russian engineer Nikolai Bassov squabbled over the base of the United Nations headquarters, with the press hungry for images, Ferriss saved the day by blurring the ground floor with foliage: “When in doubt, plant trees.”

9 / “Manhattanism is conceived in Ferriss’s womb,” proclaimed Rem Koolhaas in his 1978 book, Delirious New York.

10 / Since 1986, the American Society of Architectural Illustrators has presented an annual Hugh Ferriss Memorial Prize. 



2 thoughts on “Hugh Ferriss- The Father of Gotham City

  1. A great article. Very interesting. And of course, I’ll be on the lookout for more Ferriss work and information. Thanks for the introduction.


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