Howard Cook’s “Harbor Skyline” (1930), soft-ground etching and aquatint, from the National Building Museum’s “The Architectural Image, 1920-1950” exhibit. (Courtesy of National Building Museum)
Art and architecture critic

It’s curious that today, with many cities thriving once again and young people flocking to urban enclaves, “the city” doesn’t conjure much in the visual imagination. The mental image of urban life is relatively anodyne, a warmly lit habitat for consumption and social bustle, but without much of an architectural profile. After decades of neglect and misguided planning, we now focus on streetscapes, walkable neighborhoods and architecture that is well-behaved, neighborly, frugal and environmentally sensitive, without much thought to the aesthetic drama of the built environment.

How different from the image of the city presented in a fascinating and potent exhibition of architectural and urban images at the National Building Museum.

“The Architectural Image, 1920-1950” is drawn from the collection of local architect David M. Schwarz, recent winner of the prestigious Richard H. Driehaus Prize for architecture. No one idea or ideal emerges, yet it leaves you with the sense that the city then had more presence, more vitality and, in some cases, more danger than its diluted image today. Buildings are seen in vertiginous perspective, searchlights rake the sky from impossibly high towers, bridges fly across vast spaces with gossamer lightness. And cities during this era were still industrial, places where things were forged and cast, where factories housed the machines of production rather than spacious lofts full of modernist furniture, stainless-steel appliances and Italian faucets, toilets and tubs.

Most of the images are works on paper, etchings, woodcuts, engravings and lithographs. They are mainly monochromatic, their energy conveyed through the force of shading lines, shadows and vigorous formal design. Many of them worship geometry, the hard straight lines, the dizzying perfection of the skyscraper, the mechanistic guts of the city’s transit, electrical, water and other systems. Two prints by Armin Landeck, made in the early 1930s, suggest the power of visual revelation unleashed by building ever higher: Just as photography made it possible for artists to see in new ways, Landeck visualizes New York from high, meticulously rendering its clean and formal lines, and its irregularities, with precision and detachment.

Other images show the physical bulk of the metropolis moving and swaying as if subject to the dynamics of purely social energy. Howard Cook, represented in the exhibition by almost a dozen images, suggests a city of blunt plasticity, its architectural spaces seemingly carved, buffeted and distended by the power of people, commerce and transit. His 1930 soft-ground etching “Harbor Skyline” captures the smoke billowing from the engines of multiple boats, great clouds of steam and soot rising up into the landscape of the city above, connecting its watery byways to its man-made promontories.

Cook is one of three artists prominently featured in the exhibition. The other two are Charles Turzak, whose work is moody, whimsical and sometimes deliciously bizarre, and Louis Lozowick, who emigrated from Ukraine in 1906 and worked in a brooding, cubist-
inflected style. Turzak’s humor can be seen in a woodcut called “Adler Planetarium,” in which the spherical projector that would ordinarily cast the celestial patterns on the inner dome of the structure has migrated outside, like some kind of intergalactic alien wandering the streets. It’s a strange detail but might be read as a comment on the power of man to make his own world. Not only do we construct our own habitat,
we also have the ability to make facsimiles of the whole universe.

One senses that kind of power — or rather the thrill of power — throughout the exhibition, which opens with a striking image by an unnamed artist, showing an enormous architectural monolith towering above a lower-slung but sprawling cityscape. “Art Deco Archi­tectonic Building,” made sometime in the 1930s, is a charcoal and pencil drawing of a modern colossus, rising like a brute art deco ziggurat and topped by a tower that soars preposterously high into the clouds. It seems the perfect image for what the contemporary architect Rem Koolhaas has called the problem of bigness, the way in which super-sized buildings — made possible by the technologies that were emerging just before this image was made — need their own rules, their own theories. As the wall-text to this fascinating image puts it, there is no way it could actually function as a practical building, given the enormous size of the floor plates and resulting cavernous interiors.

But whoever made this image — probably an architecture student — wasn’t thinking in practical terms. He or she was indulging a fantasy, a projection of an ideal building out in front of the hard work of doing the actual design, the interiors, the systems, the circulation, all of the mostly invisible labor necessary to transform a fantasy into a viable building.

On first glance, it may seem that the two drawings by the Russian constructivist architect Yakov Chernikhov don’t quite fit with the main thrust of the exhibition, which is heavily focused on American work (though many of the Americans were immigrants), and in particular on the architectural expression of the sorrows and grandeur of American capitalism. But Chernikhov’s work also is explicitly in the fantasy mode — in 1933, he published his “Architectural Fantasies,” which contained thousands of visual renderings. Although he built little as an architect, he was extraordinarily prolific with his hypothetical designs. The two images in the exhibition are both exquisite little etudes.

It takes a bit of historicist self-discipline to appreciate the power of fantasy and projection produced in an age before computer rendering and limitless photographic manipulation. And it takes a similar self-discipline to keep in mind that all of these images were made before the complicated computer-design technologies that have made the realization of wildly sculptural architecture a now-
mundane reality of international design and construction.

Even in the past decade, we have seen a profound loss of legitimacy for many of the energies captured in this exhibition: the exuberance of form; the celebration of the man-made sublime; the pure, volcanic energy of the urban social world not just as a place for habitation, but as something larger than the individual, something with its own dangerous, revolutionary energy. In part, this change in attitudes reflects a swing in the pendulum: Avant-garde architecture needed the chastening discipline of thinking more coherently about livability; there is now a grand, grim, disgruntled consensus that the man-made world is leading us into wholesale planetary destruction; and unrest throughout the world, mainly in cities, hasn’t yielded much in the way of improved social conditions for the vast majority of people who took to the streets in recent years.

But it’s worth touring this exhibition without lapsing into nostalgia. The greatest single trend in the history of the species, today, is the rapid pace of urbanization. These images may reflect a period of several decades — roughly from the First World War to the high-water mark of mid-century American power and ambition — when cities were thriving, cauldrons of industrial might. But no matter how attenuated they become architecturally and visually, they will almost certainly be a source of new problems and new solutions in the future. The catalytic power of urban life will inevitably overwhelm the many well-
intentioned efforts to contain and channel it. The generic city, which is where we are today, simply can’t survive the thrilling and torrential power of mankind packed and pressed into critical mass. After the livable city will come the unknowable next city, which may be ugly, or beautiful, but certainly not bland.

The Architectural Image, 1920-1950

On view at the National Building Museum through May 3. For more information, visit www.nbm.org.