A city skyline can be a hopeful, inspiring testament to man’s life on Earth. Would these staggered vistas be so evocative of creativity, innovation, and new beginnings if their stalagmites of steel and glass were replaced with towers of wood? James McNabb is an artist who explores the skylines of imaginary cities that live solely in his imagination, carving buildings and towers individually by hand until they become extraordinarily detailed microcosms of metropolis.
Hailing from Philadelphia, McNabb has been drawn to the architecture of cities ever since he was a child. “I grew up listening to music and watching movies that depicted the city as the place where people go to be whoever they want to be and do whatever they want to do in pursuit of fame, fortune, and freedom,” McNabb tells Co.Design. To McNabb, a city’s towering height is a beacon of promise.
A trained furniture designer and maker, McNabb carves each of the buildings in his sculptures individually, working as rapidly as possible in a process that aims to recreate the fast-paced hustle and bustle of the urban environment. He uses a bandsaw for his work, taking pleasure from the way the marks of the saw blade mimic the textures and patterns you would find in a real city environment.
“Like viewing the skyline from across the Hudson, I aim to make each of my sculptures engaging from across the room,” McNabb tells me. “But it’s also important to me that the sculpture be captivating enough for viewers to want to come closer and discover for themselves the layers of detail and consideration that have been incorporated into each individual piece.”
The cities McNabb carves do not exist in the real world: they are fantastic cities conjured solely from his own inner world. Nevertheless, McNabb’s sculptures are inspired by the activity of real cities, if not their literal architecture. “I try to imagine myself in the middle of the ‘make it or break it’ moments that happen in a city every day, like performing a concert at Carnegie Hall, or playing in game 7 at Madison Square Garden,” says McNabb. “I’ll also put my headphones on and listen to music that captures the energy of a city for inspiration.”
Given the detail required to create a city skyline from scratch, a single sculpture might take McNabb upwards of three months to complete. His finished sculptures come in numerous forms, including skylines that take up every inch of surface of an entire planet (shades of Coruscant!) or a Niven-esque Ringworld. McNabb has even made a city that defies gravity on the underside of a table, each leg its own towering skyscraper.
Only once has McNabb attempted to carve a real city, New York. The sculpture was done at the behest of the New Yorker, who commissioned McNabb to create their own version of the iconic Manhattan skyline. Although abstract and by no means a completely faithful miniature of the city, the sculpture still incorporates much of the architecture of America’s famous grid city, as well as important landmarks like Central Park.
“I believe cities are the epicenter of creativity and innovation. It’s where people go to be the best at what they do in the most competitive environment on Earth,’ says McNabb. “I’m inspired by the fast paced and frantic nature of living and working in the cities that never sleep. If nothing else, I hope my sculptures capture these same feelings and express these same ideas in a new and distinct way.”
You can see more of McNabb’s sculptures at his studio here.