It’s difficult to pin down the exact number of buildings in New York City. One source estimates 860,000, another source pins the number at 1,053,713. Whatever the number, we’ll know eventually, thanks to Australian-born James Gulliver Hancock, who has made it his mission to draw every single one of them.
Here’s his story:
When I moved to New York City, I really wanted to get to know Manhattan better, beyond a traditional tourist experience. New York was my new home, and I needed a way to understand it. Drawing every building is my version of a diary of my experience in the city—and it doubles as my own personal map. When I walk by the buildings I’ve drawn, it’s like seeing old friends.
If I’d set out to draw all the best buildings or all the brick ones, I’d wind up having that tourist experience I was trying to avoid. I really like the concept of just all the buildings. By concentrating on the city at large, I get to embrace all the fun buildings between the famous ones, like a crumbling brownstone or that weird falling-apart one I pass every day. Going all out provides me with a more realistic view of the city.
I’m actually not sure how many buildings there are in New York City. The number 900,000 comes up a lot though. I draw, on average, four buildings in a week, so it’s a long-term project to be sure. [Editor’s note: By our tally, this means James is about 1,100 buildings in. Maybe he’ll pick up the pace!]
One of my favorite drawings is actually a set of two. I did a commissioned piece for a couple who were moving into together. They wanted drawings of the apartments they had lived in separately that they could hang in their new, shared apartment. I thought that was a very sweet sentiment, and consistent with the love New Yorkers have for their homes.
The idea of a collecting project wasn’t new—I’d attempted to draw all the cars in Los Angeles, and all the mountains in Switzerland—but New York was the first place that I worked on the project daily. And it also wasn’t until I focused so much on a project that it took off (and into the world of book publishing!).
I have drawn all my life, almost obsessively, in the margins of my books at school, at cafés on napkins—everywhere. My focus through college was finding ways to marry my hand-drawn pieces with different types of media and using computers to bring everything together. A turning point came when I left Sydney and started sharing a studio at the Pencil Factory in Brooklyn. I started making friends who focused on illustration, and then started doing small projects.
I remember the day I deleted all the typical design applications from my computer except Photoshop so that I couldn’t take on any other types of projects. Now I do illustration full-time, and can’t accept all the projects I get offered.
I think a large part of my success is personal drive. I naturally want to draw, to the point where I don’t just want to do it all the time—I need to do it. No one else can make me draw. Every illustration I do is entirely up to me.