Journey to the End of the Night (Hugh Ferriss edition)

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Hugh Ferriss‘ renderings, at their best, are some of the most evocative examples of American art of the previous century. His renderings were at once broadly and lastingly influential (just look at the set design of Batman or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow for proof of this) However, for all their timelessness, they also captured the unique aesthetic spirit of an age. For all the influence he had, one would think everyone would know who Hugh Ferriss was.

The setting of his best renderings is night, but not just any night. It is a night where his buildings radiate light and life, and that’s because something is happening in them. Sometimes, the night is glamorous and his buildings are beacons of light. Other times, the night has become menacing and heavier, but the buildings still radiate light, and are shelters from that night. This often results in a very layered space, similar to Piranesi, in which bright objects in the distance are pushing dark objects in the foreground out towards the viewer.

Perhaps among his best known works is a series of sketches which show the development of form as it responds to building set-back requirements in zoning codes. Organic Processes in design development are here evident, as crystals seem to morph into buildings, their forms the logical result of the maximization of available light for the city below:


This sketch series, well-known to all Architects, but little known outside the profession, is an illustration of an Artist fully engaged in his society, aware of the social implications of his work. He is inspired by the zoning regulations, and his work springs from them. Hugh Ferriss is no Howard Roark.

Hugh designed no notable buildings, but together with his book, The Metropolis of Tomorrow, his body of renderings was enormously influential to many Architects, set designers, cinematographers.

One of the copies of The Metropolis of Tomorrow found its way into my grandfather’s book store, near the corner of Taylor and Olive in Saint Louis, Missouri. After that bookstore went belly-up in the 1930’s it eventually found its way into my hands, and as a Nine or Ten year old reading that book, I immediately knew that I wanted to be an Architect. How lucky I was that my Grandfather’s bookstore didn’t fare the Great Depresssion.

So I am quite happy that his work is a little more available than it once was, in that you are reading this and seeing just a few of his sketches.

But what I am very unhappy about is that, although Columbia University has a collection of his renderings, they are only viewable using a proprietary file format (“Mr Sid” and, no I did not make up the file format name). They are, in effect, under lock and key, only available to those who would pay a tax to those holders of the proprietary technologies which have encumbered these files. This seems so needless and wasteful, especially since many of these renderings are now in the public domain.

This should be different; those images should be available for everyone to view. Perhaps they will be one day, I would ask all who believe these items should be available to everyone to email:, and ask that these important works of art be made available to all.

Somewhere out there, in the night, a ten year old is sleeping, and waiting to be inspired.



The entire collection is now availabe on flickr!  Someone just did it, I don’t think the Avery library was involved though:

Hugh Ferriss saved by Web 2.0

Tuesday, 3 June 2008 — enigmafoundry

I had blogged earlier about Hugh Ferris’s renderings, and about how wrong it is for Avery Library to keep his renderings locked up in a proprietary file format.

And web 2.0 to the rescue–kosmograd has put the whole collection up on flicker!

Journey to the End of the Night (Hugh Ferriss edition)

4 thoughts on “Journey to the End of the Night (Hugh Ferriss edition)

  1. Great story. I have two Hugh Ferriss drawings that I would like to discuss with you

    Thank you for your comments, hope you’ve enjoyed your drawings, they have a wonderful quality that doesn’t completely come through when reproduced–there’s nothing like an original.

    More than happy to discuss…email me at enigma.foundry”at”, replacing “at” with @ (if I print my email, it gets flooded with spam)

  2. moid says:

    You can get around the Mr Sid file issue by downloading all the SID files you want from that website and then downloading and installing IrfanView, a free file viewer program. IrfanView can open and display MrSid files happily and it can save them out as jpegs so you can keep them in a format that anyone can view. Have fun with them.

  3. moid:

    Sounds like an awefull lot of run around when a very simple solution presents itself: just make them available as .png’s in the first place.

    Also irfanview is not “Free” software, and can only be used on the Windows platform.

    Simple solution: make the files availabe as .png’s a patent free standard which has viewers available for all platforms–Windows, Macintosh, Linux, Solaris, BSD…

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