How a St. Louis architectural illustrator’s work shaped many well-known fantasy worlds
What would Batman’s Gotham City be like without its towering skyscrapers and moody energy? What would Superman’s Metropolis look like without its massive suspension bridges or the Daily Planet? Can you imagine Dorothy’s Oz without its glistening Emerald City?
No one can.
These well-known fantasy worlds and countless others were inspired by the illustrations of St. Louis architectural illustrator Hugh Ferriss. Ferriss was highly regarded in his field for his one-of-a-kind detailed and signature drawings of skyscrapers and skylines.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with Andrew Wanko, a public historian with the Missouri Historical Society, about Ferriss’ work and legacy in the world of fiction.
Marissanne Lewis-Thompson: Who was Hugh Ferriss?
Andrew Wanko: Hugh Ferriss, he became famous for this sort of moody, bathed-in-theater lighting kind of world that he would build. He wasn’t just drawing buildings. He was actually sort of like illustrating this entire sort of shadowy, nighttime foggy world. And it was that aspect of it that really drew people to him. He believed that it was his mission to not just draw a structure, but to create some sort of emotional connection to it.
Lewis-Thompson: In 1929, Hugh Ferriss released his book, "The Metropolis of Tomorrow." There are so many detailed illustrations in there. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Wanko: The book collected 60 of Ferriss’ images. Some of them were ones that he’d drawn for architects already. Others were brand-new images that nobody had ever seen before. But it combined images of real world buildings with these visions of a near-future metropolis where skyscrapers are the size of mountains. And multistory highways cut through buildings. There were vertically stacked airports. You know this really incredible world that he was just dreaming up in his own imagination. Of course, this book is being published in 1929. His drawings are being published in magazines like Vanity Fair and Harper’s. They’re showing up on the front pages of the New York Times throughout the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. That’s exactly when this first generation that would come to be known as the golden age of comic books. Stan Lee is growing up as a child. This is when Bob Kane, the artist behind Batman, he’s seeing all of these things in the newspaper and magazines, and it has this really long-lasting effect.
Lewis-Thompson: How did his vision of a metropolis make its way to DC Comics?
Wanko: Hugh Ferriss was the most widely distributed architectural illustrator of his time. His images are showing up in all sorts of publications that the general public is taking in. It was almost impossible to stay away from these things. When you’re looking at these buildings that sort of redefined what an urban space looked like. Like the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, the Chicago Tribune Tower. Hugh Ferriss is the person illustrating them all for the public to see before they’re actually rising in the physical space. So I really think he became this like baked-in feature of all of those fantasy worlds that came out of comic books from the '30s to the 1950s.
Lewis-Thompson: Hugh spent a lot of time illustrating what his world would look like. Tell me more about that.
Wanko: His worlds as he saw them, a sort of perfect future city, would actually segregate out uses into different parts of the city. So over here you would have the science center, over here you would have the arts center, over here you would have the industrial center. It was a popular thing throughout the early 20th century. This idea of zoning cities, which of course led to all sorts of abuses of power and injustices against people as cities were zoned to get rid of things that powerful people deemed to be unworthy or unwanted. This is basically the entire urban renewal movement that happened in the 1950s and '60s, where whole entire swaths of people were displaced from cities. So you can see where Hugh Ferriss’ visions of the Metropolis of Tomorrow both inspired but fell short in a lot of ways.
Lewis-Thompson: What is Hugh Ferriss’ legacy today?
Wanko: The inspiration he gave comic books and films and arts is incredible. It’s beautiful. It sort of pushes the boundaries of imagination. It sort of opened up a whole new world of thinking about imaginary places and envisioning alternate realities. Of course, that is fantasy. I don’t think that he had as much of an effect on the real constructed world that we all live in on a daily basis.