by Adnan Morshed. University of Minnesota Press, 2015. 291 p. ill. ISBN 9780816673193 (pbk.), $37.50, ISBN 9780816673186 (cl.), $112.50.
Reviewed July 2015
Amy Trendler, Architecture Librarian, University Libraries, Ball State University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Impossible Heights is a window into a time when the elevated views made possible by the airplane and the skyscraper fueled utopian visions of what the built environment could become when designed from up on high by heroic master-builders. As the author points out in the epilogue, some of these same trends from the 1920s and 1930s would also give rise to the "misguided authoritarianism that would characterize 'slum clearance' and urban renewal in postwar America." It was the cities planned from the elevated view that Jane Jacobs would skewer so mercilessly in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House, 1961). While some of the problems of "planning from above" have been covered by Jacobs and others, Impossible Heights takes us back to an earlier time and offers a glimpse of the heady promise that the view from the air held for three designers of futuristic projects.
Architectural illustrator Hugh Ferriss's drawings of skyscrapers published in his book The Metropolis of Tomorrow (Washburn, 1929), visionary Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House, and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes's Futurama exhibit for the 1939 New York World's Fair are considered in the book's three chapters. All were designed during the interwar period when Americans were fascinated with flight and technological advancements—they had increased access to elevated views from skyscrapers—and there was much hopeful speculation about the "World of Tomorrow" that new technologies would bring about. Architectural historian Adnan Morshed (Catholic University of America) considers these trends in relation to the designers' work and posits an "aesthetics of ascension" that goes beyond the act of viewing from above and delves into the politics of elevated views and the role they played in the myth of the master-builder. As he describes in the three designers' signature projects, the elevated views were more than simply visual tropes, they were an important part of a forward thinking approach to design, and they supported the designers' personal mythologies as master-builders.
The scholarly treatment of the subject is suited to an academic audience. The author assumes the reader has some knowledge of the art and architectural historians and others cited in the text, and a concurrent reading of the footnotes is essential to keep track of the historical sources and later works that are referred to throughout. Without a separate bibliography, the extensive footnotes also function as a guide to further reading. A worthwhile purchase for academic libraries and libraries where there is an interest in design history or cultural studies, and of particular interest for libraries that support architecture or urban planning.