The Futuristic Skyscrapers of 1923 Were Supposed to Solve Traffic, But Had a Notable Lack of Dwayne Johnsons

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We're still waiting on our flying cars. But back in 1923, the magazine Science and Invention assured readers they were just around the corner. And to top it off, the buildings of tomorrow would be built to "solve" the traffic problem.

The skyscraper of the future, as imagined in the July 1923 issue of the magazine Science and Invention
Illustration: Novak Archive

We're still waiting on our flying cars. But back in 1923, the magazine Science and Invention assured readers they were just around the corner. And to top it off, the buildings of tomorrow would be built to "solve" the traffic problem.

An article in the July 1923 issue of Science and Invention highlighted the ideas of New York architect and engineer Harvey W. Corbett. As president of the Architectural League of New York, Corbett insisted that skyscrapers would continue to stretch toward the heavens. And flying cars would enable the people who lived and worked in these skyscrapers to come and go as they pleased.

Skyscrapers were surprisingly controversial at the turn of the 20th century. Driven by concerns over fires, some cities adopted stringent anti-skyscraper laws in an attempt to save lives. And we can still see the effects of those laws today. Sydney, Australia passed the Height of Buildings Act of 1912 after a 14-story building was erected in the city in 1911. The law restricted new buildings to 150 feet (or about 13 stories tall) because firefighters were unable to reach much higher than that. This caused Sydney to grow outward rather than upward. The law wasn't amended to allow taller buildings until 1957.

It wasn't just concerns over fires. Los Angeles adopted a height restriction of 150 feet in 1906 after San Francisco's horrific earthquake caused as many as 3,000 casualties earlier that year.

But the most ambitious architects and urban planners seemingly didn't think about things like fire safety and earthquakes. They were apparently much more concerned with the latest technologies and the construction of towering buildings that were supposed to make cities like New York look hyper-modern.

Detail of a 1923 illustration showing the skyscraper of tomorrow (Science and Invention)
Illustration: Novak Archive

The drawing above showed how the skyscraper of tomorrow would reach 1,000 feet and make the Woolworth building (at just 792 feet) look small. The skyscraper of tomorrow not only had height, it also had girth. When the Woolworth building opened in April of 1913 it was the tallest building in the world. President Wilson famously pushed a button in Washington D.C. to help illuminate the building on April 24th to show it off to the world. Today, the Woolworth building is still on the list of top 50 tallest in the world, and one of the top 20 tallest in New York.

The futuristic skyscraper that was imagined in Science and Invention had all the modern conveniences. As you can see, the flying cars of the future could land on the top of skyscrapers because each building would be fitted with "landing platforms." But that wasn't the only way the New York of tomorrow would benefit. The article predicted that there would be three or more levels of traffic.

Detail of a 1923 illustration showing the underground network of transportation in the future (Science and Invention)
Illustration: Novak Archive

From the July 1923 issue of Science and Invention:

No doubt in the future we will have at least three levels of traffic; one underground, that on the surface, and another above the surface. The underground arteries of traffic will comprise subways, under-river tubes, etc.

Motor trucks and other vehicles will have possession of the street or ground level with passageways through arches built under the large buildings, while an elevated roadway above the street level proper, will accommodate pleasure vehicles and pedestrian traffic.

The designers who dreamed of tomorrow's skyscrapers looked to the sky and also underground. New Yorkers of today, plagued by a dysfunctional subway system, probably hope that city and state leaders would revive such old fashioned concerns.

People here in the year 2018 are still imagining what the skyscrapers of the future will look like. As it happens, the Dwayne Johnson action flick Skyscraper opens on Friday. The physics may not add up for much of it, but neither did the physics of 1923, when these flying cars of tomorrow were promised to soon be filling the sky like mosquitoes.