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  1. ArchDaily
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  3. Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City / Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez

Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City / Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez

Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City / Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez
Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City / Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez , © Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez
© Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez

Robert Moses, the planner-politician-architect who infamously built overpasses too low for buses to bring New York’s urban poor to his beaches, is the subject of a new graphic novel by Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez titled Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City. Admirable for its candid rawness, their profile of perhaps the most polarizing and important figure in American planning history is no lionizing eulogy. The impressive triumphs of Moses’ tenure are juxtaposed with unsparing accounts of his regrettable social policies and the often-shortsighted consequences of his public infrastructure. For each groundbreaking feat of structural engineering and political mobilization, there is another story told of his callous social engineering, the consequences of which reshaped the lives of New Yorkers as much as his architecture.

The chronicles of ‘Big Bob the Builder’ are told through an entertaining and well-illustrated sequence of panels that combine elements of pure biography with critical analysis. Born into a gilded life of wealth and privilege, Moses’ prosperous upbringing was the springboard for his later forays into New York political life. Raised in New York and educated at Yale, Oxford, and Columbia, the well-pedigreed young Moses set his sights early on political science and government. He was a dreamer and an idealist, intent on resolving the city’s planning deficiencies by overhauling its notoriously corrupt and inefficient bureaucracies. But as he gained a foothold in the city administration and began climbing his way up, it became clear that his agenda would also be shaped in part by his extraordinary personal ambition and no small measure of social elitism.

© Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez
© Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez

Ascending in political circles solely through appointments, Moses found his way into a series of public offices that gave him the resources to bring about his extraordinary and sometimes ingenious visions of urban reform. Often gathering political support by any means necessary, Moses pushed through a series of overhauling infrastructure projects of unprecedented scale and cost. Among his grandest and proudest achievements were Jones Beach (Long Island), the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the Triborough Bridge, the West Side Highway, and a slew of public parks, pools, and playgrounds across the five boroughs. Entire neighborhoods were routinely displaced with little public input to make room for his mega-structures, and his efforts at rehabilitating “blighted” areas were similarly disruptive. He was later quoted as saying, “I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without removing people as I hail the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs.” [1]

© Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez
© Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez

In order to get his way, Moses bullied and strong-armed his way through committees and bureaucracies, often wielding the threat of his own resignation and demanding the resignations of those who objected. Where committees didn’t exist, he created and chaired them, showing remarkable adroitness in matters of legislation as well as design. For years, his seemingly unstoppable rise through New York’s public ranks continued unabated until 1934, when, at the height of his confidence and ambition, he ran a disastrous campaign for New York Governor and lost. Down but not out, he was able to maintain administrative positions of considerable power and influence, and his prolific output continued until Governor Nelson Rockefeller finally accepted a “surprised” Moses’ resignation in 1962. [2]

Often seen by historians as occupying an ambiguous place between protagonist and villain, Moses’ complex character demands a particularly nuanced depiction, one not easily achieved through the graphic novel medium. Inevitably, reducing his larger-than-life existence to a greatly simplified sequence of pictures and captions leaves both details and subtlety to be desired, but the authors do a commendable job of capturing the conflicting facets of his persona. Distilled though it is, the novel conveys Moses’ contradictory dualities: myopic visionary, callous idealist, builder and destroyer, social advocate and racist. And in communicating his discrediting inability to resolve these oppositions, Christin and Balez are quite successful.

© Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez
© Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez

On this last point, the authors ask (and answer): “Was Moses a racist as it was later claimed? Most probably, like many of his generation. But in truth, what characterizes Moses is his contempt for the poor and their suffering, whatever their race.” While many of his urban strategies have been unfairly retrospectively judged with the knowledge of contemporary planning practices and the benefits of hindsight, on this even the most deferential historical lens cannot redeem his mercilessness. One may even wish the authors had gone further in their condemnation, as their phrasing implies a dangerously inaccurate colorblindness that erases the supremacist origins (and effects) of his housing policies. Disproportionately affected in the mass displacements of his projects were people of color, immigrants, the poor, and other politically voiceless groups who lacked the recourse to oppose him.

© Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez
© Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez

Emerging from this narrative as the lone protagonist is a young Jane Jacobs, whose vocal objections to Moses’ servitude to the middle class and the automobile placed her at the forefront of a growing public opposition to his projects. She alleged that by helping to accelerate New York’s integration into the modern, post-war economy through resource intensive, large-scale infrastructure projects, the city found itself destroying those essential parts of the urban fabric that made city life tolerable. The authors’ celebration of Jacobs’ enduring critique reflects a broader consensus on the failures of this entire era of urban renewal. While Moses was not alone in his approach to the problems of the twentieth-century city, his unparalleled success and self-created stardom made him the face of a controversial urban movement and the object of history’s disaffection.

Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City, by Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez, published by Nobrow, is available now on Amazon.

[1] Goldberger, Paul. “Robert Moses, Master Builder, is Dead at 92.” New York Times, July 30, 1981. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/1218.html.

[2] Ibid.

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About this author
David Langdon
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Cite: David Langdon. "Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City / Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez " 31 Aug 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/772815/robert-moses-the-master-builder-of-new-york-city-pierre-christin-and-olivier-balez/> ISSN 0719-8884
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