The Architect and the #unbuilt
Every student had in his career a special project. An unspeakable fantasy, a criminal dream.
But let’s just assume, out of a politically correct sense of equality, that there were some of those which were more ambitious, more clamorous, simply greater than the others. Those kind of projects, to be clear, which could really mess up a long-experienced developer and the engineers of all sorts. In short, projects barely realizable, but extremely captivating.
In our practice, such a visionary tradition is not rooted in a naïf (mis)understanding of the discipline or in a more than justifiable sadistic challenge towards our engineering colleagues, but finds its raison d’être in the teachings of Etienne-Louis Boullée, theorist of the 18th century, master of an architecture symbolic in its expression, monumental, gigantic, astonishing in its concretization.
An architecture freed by any creative, structural, mechanical or financial bond. An architecture for the sake of the Architecture.
The Cénotaphe à Newton represents the power of this idea. Taking its inspiration from the evergreen tradition of the Roman referencing, it became the first in a series of a visionary utopic building, consecrated more to an idea, a concept then of a real use.
A fictional sphere, majestic in its dimensions (150 meters) and perspective (three level of bases) encasing a smaller armillary globe. That’s it. Nothing more. The mausoleum in itself stands as the idea of celebrating a physician by encasing “the vastness and sublimity” of Newton’s genius that led “to determine the shape of the Earth”, with the shape and the very vastness by the time expressed. The immensity of the universe enclosed in a building.
The call for a new order in the upheavals of the Revolution was therefore expressed in the celebration of symbols, with a formalism unconstrained from the classic repertoire, focused indeed in the enhancement of its evocativeness. Architecture simply became the tool to articulate these visions, with an intensity and a power never seen before, sprouting in many fascinating projects that the History, unluckly, never let to be realised.
Indeed, it didn’t take that much for another “Cenotaphe” to appear. Grandiose architectures, evocative geometries, rampant symbolism and reminiscences. A powerful set of elements solidly applied in the harmonious definition of a suggestive, fictitious Mausoleum.
Another “mausoleum”. Within one year, other versions of Boullée’s work started to pop out, but in a conic shape with 16 brand new pyramids around it. And this was only the beginning.
If you consider the Statue of Liberty a friendly gift from France, you would not be surprised then to learn how many other French “homages” gladdened the States, apart the 93 meters tall copper Lady. The Beacon of Progress may count between them.
Intended to give a purpose to the site of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, it was designed by Constant-Désiré Despradelle (yes, a French-born architect… again these French!) as the idealistic representation of the rise of the united America, just few years after the Civil War.
American interpretation of the Boullée’s ideas expressed through the Cénotaphe, the Beacon of Progress was composed by thirteen obelisks, as many as the original thirteen colonies, ordered around a central spire soaring 457 meters above Chicago, spreading from its top a “brilliant beacon of light”.
Unknown was its function: probably the base would have accommodated an amphitheatre, with a planned capacity of 100.000 people. What an occasion for the Chicago Bulls!
It didn’t’ take that much for the architects of His Majesty the King of England to shyly propose the English version of this rampant, architectural trend. It started as an “expansion” of the Westminster Abbey, with the clergy concerned by the amount of monuments and other trophies that were making the church “weirdly too crowded”.
And so it was. The Imperial Monumental Halls and Tower. A gigantic Gothic complex to complete and merge together the neaby Abbey with the Houses of Parliament, dominating the whole with a brand new tower, 167 meters high, overtopping both the Clock and the Victoria Towers. What today we would define as the most sumptuous and ambitious closet in the story.
Gentle concession of John Pollard Seddon and Edward Beckitt Lamb, two humble architects inspired by the determination of creating a “worthy centre to the metropolis of the Empire upon which the sun never sets” (or just something to rival with the clergy of St. Paul’s Cathedral). Needless to say, somebody accused the project of “exhibiting a certain degree of megalomania”.
What about an Architecture celebrating a new Age instead of the genius of a person or the greatness of a country? Communist Mother Russia achieved this goal in 1917, when its most prominent constructivist architect, Vladimir Tatlin, envisioned the “towering symbol of Modernity” itself (where modernity stood for World Comunism).
Even if it hardly resemble a gigantic skyscraper, and generations of young architects still believe that the Royal Academy model corresponds to the Tatlin’s sizes and planned dimensions, the original design was indeed aiming for a 400 meters high tower made of industrial materials such as iron, glass and steel. More like a conceptual framework than a conventional building, Tatlin’s design contained large suspended geometric structures, twin spiralled helix and open-air screens and loudspeakers for bulletins and manifestos. And everything was revolving and rotating, if the whole was not tricky enough.
The how, why or what are hardly explainable. Only one certainty over the monument made of “steel, glass and revolution”: it was not structurally practicable.
It’s in Germany that we get back to a sort of pragmatic approach, towards a design actually feasible, a realistic project: a triangularly shaped crystal tower, completely covered by a fully glazed exterior façade, where the inner steel skeleton accomplished all the load-bearing functions.
Nothing new, you may say, but an unprecedented idea for that time, in a scenario where tall buildings were still conceived within the frame of the masonry decorations and/or structure. Once again the architect, Mies van der Rohe, was driven by an ideal, the purity and the renewal expressed by the glass, in the specific context of the WWI aftermath. Sadly enough, the whole project was an entry for a competition, and our German friend “forgot” to observe all its directions….
In order to realize your personal utopias, you try following the rules, or rather you make the rules. A lesson that Speer achieved surely earlier than Mies, siding with the rising Nazi Party at the age of 25 and becoming in less than four years the Party’s First Architect.
Universally known as Hitler’s Chief Architect, he had time enough to design the Volkshalle, a monumental building topped with a colossal dome, new centrepiece of the reconfigured Berlin as Nazi Capital, representation of the ambition of the Reich, a “National Socialism hallowed Pantheon”. But the war broke out.
Irony of the history: the capacity and the dimensions of the building were so huge (more than 180.000 occupants) to allow the formation of an indoor micro-climate, with not-so-sporadic condensation rainfalls.
And here we are at the point of the story when every “wannabe-Great-Power” started to copy each other policies and programs. So… same story, same ambitions, same stalemate.
Intended celebration of the Soviet government, this sober project was conceived out of a competition based on a single, unique criteria: being visible anywhere in Moscow. You may understand then why they didn’t put any restrain even to a 100 meters high statue of Lenin, supposed to top this multi-layered, majestic, soviet wedding cake.
It has to be said: Russians were really putting every effort in it. They destroyed the already existing cathedral of Christ the Saviour (in a “that’s my spot” style), they developed new industrial techniques to produce the building materials (DS steel) and the designers were detailing the project even with the ongoing war… well, it all ended with the foundation being converted in the world biggest open-air swimming pool and, later, with the reconstruction of the church in 1995.
France in the meanwhile was all busy with yet another World Fair. An Exposition intended to celebrate the art and technology in the Modern life… Any chance you may know a better way to celebrate it than building another sensational, stunning tower? Well… the same as Eugene Freysinnet thought at the time.
Freysinnet wanted to achieve a sort of “upgraded” version of the 1889 Tour Eiffel. The Exposition centrepiece: 700 meters high (compared to the 300 meters of Eiffel’s building), it was supposed to be a concrete structure with an external spiralling road, leading to a top parking garage (capacity of 500 cars) with access to a restaurant and sun lounge. In order to complete the picture a beacon of light, if the whole was not eye-catching enough.
The run for the highest building was therefore set. And Frank Lloyd Wright determinedly jumped in advancing a proposal that today would turn pale even the Burj Khalifa itself.
The Illinois, the definitive Skyscraper, the King of Kings of the towers. The design for the government offices of a whole state: a 528-storeys building, 1.609 meters of height (while Burj Khalifa reach only 829 meters with its tip) in an elongated pyramid shape reinforced with protruding parapets.
The first skyscraper to suggest a tripod design to counteract wind oscillations (the same strategy adopted by the Burj Khalifa 50 years later). The only one to occupy all the available area of the floors with the elevators service space, slightly dulling its appeal. Not even the atomic powered mobility was capable then to captivate the favour of possible sponsors.
And talking of sci-fi glimpses, we arrive to the last case of our selected list. An ending gently conceded by OMA, and its contemporary Hyperbuilding.
Let’s be clear: it’s not a matter of dimensions anymore. Width, length and height lose their meaning when associated with such an experiment. “A self contained city”, as depicted by Koolhaas, “composed by a complex of thin towers and blocks of program”, connected and accessed by massive oblique elevators and channelled ramps.
And ok, yes, all right, the whole was contained in a 1.000 meters high sci-fi conglomerate of volumes and transparent overhangs. On this regard, OMA will write: “the building becomes a metaphor of the city: towers constitute streets, horizontal elements are parks, volumes are districts, and diagonals are boulevards”, in the permeating “ambition of the Hyperscale” (now it makes sense, doesn’t it?).
An allegory once again condemned to wait, as the Reseach Committee Office never went further than the theoretical stage. Because what seemed to be high-tech Architecture was not intended to be so, and a “de-escalation of technicality” was needed: feasibility through a degree of elementary simplicity. The key for the success of many of these buildings.
But to draw some conclusions, in this sentimental depiction of latent, charming wonders, we should not be too nostalgic. Because for every captivating, appealing project that has never seen the light, there has always been a terrific counterpart, somehow still inspiring in its reckless brutality, in its being extreme even beyond the generally accepted common sense, and nevertheless far enough to never be realized.
A list of these cases would be barely achievable. But nothing in the world reached levels of grotesqueness as what was intended to become London’s brand new first pyramid.
Let’s confess, Egyptian was the fashion of the time. Everybody was literally going crazy for the new discoveries back in the land of the Pharaohs, and Egyptology was just becoming a trend for the Indiana Jones of the period. From this “picture” to propose a 94-storeys high pyramid in the old fields of the dear, mighty England, you know… the gap becomes truly quite short.
It was a London architect, Thomas Wilson, the man who decided to physically fill it with such a pyramidal, gloomy titan: a mausoleum conceived “sufficiently capacious for 5.000.000 bodies”, covering a site of 7.000 sq.m. Stepped necropolis, winding walks, panoramic routes: the fragrant ingredients for a “splendid monument”, engaging people even from far away to get to it, imagined “picnicking” on its surrounding fields… Wilson even claimed a £ 10 million profit out of the pyramid for the public authorities. But weirdly to believe, the public opinion kept preferring the green, flat cemeteries and the idea of the slender English-style pyramid was therefore “inexplicably” abandoned.
Architecture is definitively a discipline of inspirations. We get inspired by everything, and our imagination works and processes all the stimulations we’re able to collect, in the frame of the rules we imposed ourselves. Unless we meet the Cétotaphe, teaching us how to imagine a world freed by any limits or constrictions, even beyond the technological bounds and average sense. Or our Wilson, instead, showing how gruesome such dreams could be.
In this juxtaposition of encounters, we find our own paradigm: the resolute jump into the enchanting, scary undetermined…
Author: Simone Costa