the most spectacular buildings that were never built

Did you know that if everything had gone differently, the Center Pompidou could have been an egg? In the 1969 Paris art center competition – ultimately won by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano with their inside-out symphony of pipework – a radical French architect named André Bruyère submitted a proposal for a gigantic egg-shaped tower. Its bulbous building would have risen 100 meters above the city streets, clad in glittering scales of alabaster, glass and concrete, as its walls swelled in a curvaceous response to the tyranny of the straight line.

“Time,” Bruyère declared, “instead of being linear, like the straight streets and vertical skyscrapers, it will become oval, in harmony with the egg.” His sacred Oeuf would be held aloft on three thick legs, while a monorail would pierce the facade and circle along a sinuous, floating ribbon through the structure. The atrium had to take the shape of an enclosed sphere, like a yolk.

Baghdad would have been by far Frank Lloyd Wright’s greatest project – if the king had not been assassinated in a coup

“Between the hard geometries,” Bruyère added, “comes the sweetness of a volume [with] bends in all directions, unlike these facades where the corner always falls straight from the sky, always the same. So the egg.” Unfortunately it was not to be. His ovular poetry failed to impress the judges and Paris got his high-tech anthem to plumbing instead.

L’Oeuf de Pompidou is one of many astonishing plans featured in Atlas of Never Built Architecture, a hefty compendium of dashed hopes and shattered dreams that maps a fascinating alternate universe of ‘what ifs’. It’s a world of runners-up and runners-up, an encyclopedia of overconfident plans that were too big, expensive or weird to get off the drawing board.

It contains the best-laid plans that fell victim to political coups and economic crises, alongside the megalomaniacal visions of overthrown tyrants, and projects thwarted by budget deficits, natural disasters and even a plane crash. It is a disastrous catalog of corruption, bankruptcy and death, but also a memorial to the countless hours of wasted work and unpaid labor that architects endure. But it all makes for a very entertaining exploration of what the world would have been like if fate had chosen a different path.

One spread shows a fantastical vision of a pleasure island, where a needle-thin spire rises from the conical dome of an ornate pavilion, surrounded by lush gardens dotted with even more glass domes. The central building stands on a platform and is surrounded by a reflecting pond, reached by a majestic spiral ramp, reminiscent of the processional route to an ancient ziggurat. It looks like the glitzy dream of a wealthy desert petrostate. And it is – only it is not the work of a contemporary “star architect” for the Gulf, but the vision of Frank Lloyd Wright, drawn up for Baghdad in 1957.

Schöffer described his towering smartphone tower as ‘an intense living flame, constantly transforming’

Wright had been invited by King Faisal II to design an opera house for the city, along with a range of other stars of the era, including Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, Gio Ponti and Walter Gropius, who were commissioned to design universities and government buildings to design. , sports complexes and other cultural palaces. While descending to the airport, Wright noticed a long, thin island in the Tigris River – a location he felt was preferable to the downtown location he had been assigned. “The island, Mr. Wright, is yours,” replied the king.

As was his custom, Wright quickly expanded his mission and devised an entire plan for Greater Baghdad, which he called Edena. In addition to the opera house, there would be a public auditorium, a planetarium, art museums, a grand bazaar, gardens, fountains and tiered highways, all created in the curved language of Caliph-era Baghdad known as the Round City, when it was surrounded by concentric circular walls. It would have been Wright’s biggest project by far – had the king not been assassinated in a coup in 1958. The architect himself died the following year at the age of 91.

The book’s two authors, Los Angeles-based architectural writers Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin, have searched far and wide to compile a collection with impressive geographic scope and depth, going beyond the usual suspects. Their research led to a “shortlist” of 5,000 projects, which they whittled down to 1,000 and then whittled down to 350 for the book – one of Phaidon’s hefty atlas books, which weighed 1.5kg and had a price tag of £100.

The projects range from bold parliaments for African cities to a futuristic hotel that would have perched above Machu Picchu, as well as what the south bank of the Thames would have looked like if American PoMo queen Philip Johnson had had his way (Reply: ( a cartoonish neo-brutalist fantasy of the Palace of Westminster, replete with crenellated towers.) There are plenty of plans that were not realized the first time but were later realized elsewhere, as well as ideas that were ahead of their time but now prove unnervingly prescient to be.

One of these was the Tour Lumière Cybernétique by the Hungarian-French artist Nicolas Schöffer. This illuminated beacon would have been an interactive multimedia response to the Eiffel Tower, a skyscraper-sized smartphone designed to broadcast a barrage of notifications across the skyline. Packed with loudspeakers, flashing lights, smoke signals, moving rods, rotating mirrors and more than 5,000 projectors, the tower was designed to transmit data on weather, traffic, news and even citizens’ movements.

Robert Young said not building over Grand Central is like owning ‘$100 billion worth of farmland and never plowing it’

Schöffer described it as “an intense living flame, constantly transformed and transformable.” He saw his beacon as a way to democratize information – which, he argued, was limited to those in control of government and production. But in the 1970s, the capabilities of cybernetics were increasingly seen as a threat, seen as tools that would enable the invasion of privacy and limit personal freedoms. Schöffer’s Tower may not have been realized, but its principles live on in the data-harvesting hubs of “smart cities,” broadcast less on public billboards than hidden in anonymous data centers.

Towers appear throughout the book, with this most ambitious building type the most likely to run into trouble – and often bring unintended consequences. For example, the survival of New York’s cherished neoclassical Grand Central Terminal is partly due to the backlash caused by a 1954 plan to replace it with a 109-story circular skyscraper. The hourglass-shaped design, by Chinese-American architect IM Pei, was commissioned by Robert Young, then chairman of the ailing New York City Railroad, who felt that not exploiting the air rights over the historic station was as foolish as owning “a piece of farmland worth $100 billion and never turning a plow on it.”

Pei’s project, dubbed the Hyperboloid because of its winding shape, would have been the tallest and most expensive building in the world at the time. But faced with plummeting profits and a Senate investigation into the industry’s decline, Young committed suicide in 1958, dashing all hopes for the tower. Meanwhile, opposition to the plans helped spark the modern conservation movement, with the beloved terminal granted historic status in 1967.

While Pei’s Tower may have offered spectacular views of Manhattan, the same probably couldn’t be said of the Indiana Tower, conceived by César Pelli in 1981. The Argentinian-born architect, who would later design Kuala Lumpur’s iconic Petronas Towers, was brought in to conjure up a landmark for Indianapolis that would rival the St. Louis Gateway Arch or Seattle’s Space Needle. His solution was a 700-foot-tall obelisk of concrete and limestone, with a 1.7-mile walkway winding its way to the top, where visitors could look out over the vast plains of Indiana’s farmlands. “Like the Eiffel Tower in Europe, this will be the thing to see,” Pelli claimed. “It will be as well known in Moscow as it is in Singapore!”

If you want to make it bad, don’t make it big

The locals were not too impressed. Some thought it looked too much like a corn on the cob, reinforcing the stereotype of Indiana as a rural backwater. Others compared it to an oil derrick, while an appeals court judge said it looked like a bundle of chicken wire. “If you want to make it bad,” said the president of the local architects association, “don’t make it big.”

Outside consultants brought in to assess the project’s viability were equally blunt. “Structures that you can get to the top of and look at work in cities like Seattle,” they wrote, “where there are two mountain ranges and Puget Sound, but they may not be attractive in a Midwestern location simply because there is not much there is a lot to see when you get up there.

The Italian master Carlo Scarpa was optimistic about his many unrealized plans. Not building may have been the only way to guarantee peace. “It’s better to do nothing,” he said, discussing his unbuilt Civic Theater for Vicenza. “That way, everyone will be happy: the city government, because it has avoided the criticism that can be leveled at those who do something… the opposition, because it can say that the government does nothing, after trumpeting the theater; those who don’t want the theater because it won’t be there; those who want it, because they can keep complaining that there is no theater; and meanwhile he dreamed, every man for himself, of an ideal theatre, made in his own image and likeness.”

Sometimes the perfect project is better left in the imagination.

• Atlas of Never Built Architecture was published by Phaidon on May 22, 2024, £100

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