In 1930, Picasso Had a Vision of Manhattan as a Four-Layered Traffic Lasagna

For Renzo Picasso, could it be that sharing a last name with last century's most famous painter pushed this visionary architect deeper into obscurity?

First there was that bizarre diagram of what looks like a giant spaceship buried beneath central London. Who made this weird, wonderful map?

The same hand, it turns out, that produced two captivating visions of Manhattan: one of its concrete canyons filled up with a multi-layered traffic lasagna, another showing a boulevard weaving, spaghetti-like, over and under a bunch of avenues.

Strange maps of a never-realised future. Made more intriguing by that name and job title: Picasso, architect. Did the great painter have a now-forgotten architectural interval some time between his Blue Period and his Surrealist Phase?

But no, this is not Pablo. Meet Renzo Picasso (1880-1975), no relation. This Picasso is a Genoese architect, engineer and inventor; an urban enthusiast, dreamer and planner. His legacy is obscured by being not only the other Picasso, but also the other Renzo: students of modern architecture know about Renzo Piano (b. 1937), another Italian master-builder – coincidentally also hailing from Genoa.

Piano designed such landmarks as the New York Times Building in New York and the Shard in London. In contrast, the other Renzo's architectural schemes never made it off the drawing board, the beautiful maps and plans he drew their only tangent with reality. 

Renzo Picasso first visited New York in 1911, and was awestruck by its sky-scraping architecture. He began producing architectural observations and comparisons, and eventually started drawing plans for the future, with particular attention to transit systems and traffic infrastructure. Not just for New York, but also for other cities, including his native Genoa, for which he designed a number of New York-style grattanuvole ('cloudscratchers').

None of Picasso's grand schemes came to fruition. It's easy to thus label them 'utopian'. But is it so far-fetched to imagine Genoa's waterfront embellished by his 50-story Torre della Pace ('Peace Tower')? And would his plan for four-layered transit arteries not have solved the traffic gridlock in New York and other cities?

Perhaps the dismissive 'utopian' epithet can be reserved for Picasso's more patently unworkable plans, the ones for military vehicles. At the end of World War I, then-lieutenant Picasso designed two fantastic contraptions: the motovol, a winged motorcycle; and the auto-scafopattino, a motorised canoe fitted with artillery. 

The vehicles are reminiscent of some of Da Vinci's designs, or of the creations of Belgian artist Panamarenko, who builds vehicles that can conquer sky and space – on the condition that they are never tested. As engineering, they would fail. As art, they are vehicles for contemplating flight.

Perhaps that is the right attitude to appreciate Picasso's urban designs: wistful what-ifs rather than serious proposals. The passage of time seems to have left us with no other option.

Piccadilly Circus Tube Station (1929) – drawn to coincide with the opening of the new circular booking hall, this diagram shows Piccadilly Circus Tube Station from a subterranean perspective, providing a three-dimensional view of the complex of entrances, hall, escalators and tube lines.  The buses are shown floating on the invisible surface. The statue of Eros is labelled as a ‘world centre’.

American Multiple Highway (1930) – Manhattan's main arteries are overlaid with four layers of traffic. The top layer is reserved for trains, the one beneath for express car traffic, the third one for parking space and the ground level for local traffic.The Multiple Highway would extend off Manhattan, across the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, and through the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels. 


Crosstown Boulevard (1929) – diving under every other avenue, this boulevard provides a speedy connection between the east and west sides of Manhattan. Note the 'aero-garages' at the end of airplane runways pasted high up along the city's straight-line street grid. 


Genoa Transit System (1911) – already inspired by New York, this never-realised scheme divides long-distance (red) from local traffic (green), and individual vehicles (surface) from trains (underground). Multi-level walkways provide access.

Torre della Pace (1917). Note the Lady Liberty-like figure on top.


Motovol and auto-scafopattino (both patented 1918)

All images from the Renzo Picasso Archive. See also its presence on Facebook.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.