Monday, June 24, 2024

The most amazing buildings that were never built

Must read

The Never Built — the alternate universe of failed architecture proposals — sharpens and expands our view of the world.

It showcases forgotten, often compelling, concepts that may yet prove useful, and certainly inspirational.

It reminds us that our current reality could have easily been different.

It reveals the many factors that can sink architecture, from finances and politics to internal squabbles, deception, and bad luck.

It proves that ideas don’t die even when buildings do.

And it introduces us to a roster of talented architects and designers that may have been superstars if only that one undertaking had gotten off the drawing board. 

I.M. Pei, proposed the Hyperboloid, a 1,496-foot-tall office tower and transit hub to replace the station.

Phaidon’s “Atlas of Never Built Architecture” dazzles us with one more important facet of the Never Built equation: the often gorgeously rendered world of the visionary. 

The pure universe where architects can push boundaries — aesthetic, structural, social — without being held back by messy, boring reality.

Below are examples, in New York and beyond.

While none were realized, most reflect an abiding drive for bigger, better, more ambitious, more radical architecture — while also still strongly resonating today.

Hyperboloid by I.M. Pei — New York (1954)

In the 1950s, Robert Young, newly elected chairman of the ailing New York Central Railroad, searched for ways to develop the valuable land where Grand Central Terminal sat.

The railway, Young claimed, was losing $24 million a year operating the station. 

Young teamed up with property magnate William Zeckendorf, whose in-house architect, I.M. Pei, proposed the Hyperboloid, a 1,496-foot-tall office tower and transit hub to replace the station.

The 108-story, $100 million edifice would have been the world’s tallest — and most costly — structure, besting the Empire State Building by more than 200 feet.

I.M. Pei Was a architect working under William Zeckendorf at the time.
Getty Images

The hourglass shape and diagrid framing sharply reduced wind forces and required far less structural steel.

Zeckendorf described the plan as more valuable than the existing “second-rate” Beaux-Arts Building. 

Young, besieged by the railway’s plummeting profits and by a Senate investigation of the industry’s decline, committed suicide in January 1958, halting any hope for the structure.

The terminal received city landmark status in 1967. 

Finance Place by Henry Cobb — New York (1963)

In 1961, Zeckendorf acquired the Beaux-Arts Singer Tower (1908), briefly the tallest building in the world.

His idea was to attract the New York Stock Exchange, which had outgrown its building on Wall Street, to a replacement tower on the Singer site.

Architect Henry Cobb (far right), who was part of I.M. Pei’s firm, devised an ingenious tensile steel structure that permitted the floors to hang from rooftop trusses. Boston Globe via Getty Images

His “Wall Street Maneuver,” as he called it, was embodied in Henry Cobb’s 45-story tower, a few blocks north of Wall Street, which contained three quarters as much space as the Empire State Building.

The walls sloped inwards from the 279-foot-wide trading-floor base to a width of just 89 feet at the top.

Cobb, who was part of I.M. Pei’s firm, devised an ingenious tensile steel structure that permitted the floors to hang from rooftop trusses, allowing the enormous trading floor to be entirely free of columns. 

Zeckendorf claimed he had the backing of the Stock Exchange, but it never materialized.

The walls sloped inwards from the 279-foot-wide trading-floor base to a width of just 89 feet at the top.

Admitting that his was “a lost cause,” he sold to US Steel, which in 1973 opened SOM’s US Steel tower.

Ironically, Zuccotti Park, the result of a trade-off that gave US Steel more height and greater floor space, became the focus of the Occupy Wall Street movement 38 years later.

Leapfrog City by John Johansen — New York (1968)

The architectural dreamer John Johansen was serious about a plan that would have created a new neighborhood above the tenements of East Harlem, and perhaps altered the insidious process of urban renewal.

He developed “Leapfrog City” for a struggling area known as East Harlem Triangle, bounded by 125th Street, Park Avenue and the Harlem River.

Johansen developed “Leapfrog City” for a struggling area known as East Harlem Triangle, bounded by 125th Street, Park Avenue and the Harlem River.

Inspired by over-scaled industrial facilities and rail viaducts, Leapfrog employed a prefabricated superstructure of ten-to twelve-story steel towers to create housing above existing buildings.

Edifices linked by trusses contained steel wings that extended in two to four directions at various levels.

The system of “sites over sites” would allow families to just “move upstairs,” saving the city millions of dollars in relocation costs.

John Johansen (pictured) was serious about a plan that would have created a new neighborhood above the tenements of East Harlem Blackstone-Shelburne/ University of Chicago

In his feasibility study, the architect stressed that the system could be established ‘”in any neighborhood to any extent, at any time and in any configuration without destroying that neighborhood.”

(He sketched, for instance, a similar plan extending down Park Avenue.)

Johansen made overtures to the local chamber of commerce, banks, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Community Association of East Harlem.

The last expressed interest, but his effort was never able to attract the financial or political backing it needed.

Port Holiday by Smith and Williams — Lake Mead, Nevada (1963)

Whitney Smith and Wayne R. Williams helped invent the vocabulary of everyday modern architecture in post-war Los Angeles.

In 1963, J. Carlton Adair, a bit-part actor, casino promoter and Las Vegas land speculator who owned swathes of land around Nevada’s Lake Mead, asked Smith and Williams to lend visual panache to his years-long scheme to develop his holdings into a township that he called Port Holiday.

Whitney Smith and Wayne R. Williams helped invent the vocabulary of everyday modern architecture in post-war Los Angeles.

Smith and Williams’ rendition of Adair’s dream had it all: a geodesic dome, an aerial tramway and a Modernist version of a castellated chateau.

All was infused with the zippy flair that reflected the optimism of early 1960s plans to turn deserts into oases and convert barren land into multimillion acreage.

Local and state officials endorsed Adair’s $320 million plan, which involved an artificial lake with 13 miles of shoreline, resort hotels, an eighteen-hole golf course, floating homes and a zoo.

Over several years he attracted a series of corporate backers, from Boise Cascade Home & Land Co. to Gulf Oil and General Electric.

Whitney Smith and Wayne R. Williams are pictured above. AD& A Museum

He overreached himself, however, eventually declaring bankruptcy in 1972, with just $200 in the newly named ‘Lake Adair’ company’s coffers.

Adair’s vision was eventually given life, albeit lacking the spirit of Modernism.

In 1991 a lake was created, known today as Lake Las Vegas, surrounded by Tuscan stucco luxury homes.

Moon Tower by Shin Takamatsu — Osaka, Japan (1987)

Few architects have lived up to the “more is more” spirit of postmodernism like Shin Takamatsu, whose outrageously expressive designs (many of them actually built) take inspiration from the spiritual, cosmic, futuristic and industrial.

“I am an old-school architect,” he once said. “Always dreaming of architecture as a monument or as something with a symbolic presence.”

Shin Takamatsu expressive designs that had inspiration from the spiritual, cosmic, futuristic and industrial forms.

In 1995 Takamatsu entered a competition to develop a centerpiece for Rinku Town, a new commercial development on reclaimed land adjacent to Kansai International Airport in the Osaka suburb of Izumisano. Takamatsu’s Moon Tower, thirty-five stories and 651 feet tall, accommodated a 300-room hotel, shops, a large casino, and a museum of the work of the French visionary artist Gérard Di-Maccio.

It was topped by a shining, convex moon 295 feet in diameter.

The reinforced-concrete building’s shaft was clad in glass with vertical textured lines and solid edges, offset the floating character of the shell-like “moon,” wedged between two “jaws” containing the museum: a crystalline hall showcasing Di-Maccio’s masterpiece, the massive oil painting Grande Toile (1997), on the ceiling.

“I am an old-school architect,” Takamatsu said. “Always dreaming of architecture as a monument or as something with a symbolic presence.” takamatsu.co.jp

Beneath the museum, a hemispherical glass dome contained an otherworldly restaurant inspired by the artist’s work.

In the end, the competition stalled and was never implemented.

The Di-Maccio museum eventually opened in 2010 in the tiny town of Niikappu, in the far north of Japan.

Il Porto Vecchio by John Portman — Genoa, Italy (1988)

John Portman proposed installing a triangular island in the city’s historic harbor, with a raised plaza shaded by a gridded concrete sunscreen.
Dan Harmon

John Portman elevated the idea of hotel lobby from regal parlor to galactic extravaganza.

For Genoa’s anticipated celebration of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s departure from his home city to the New World, Portman turned his showmanship inside out.

He proposed installing a triangular island in the city’s historic harbor, with a raised plaza shaded by a gridded concrete sunscreen — a nod to the medieval arcades of the city.

Portman (seen above) wanted to elevated the idea of a hotel lobby from regal parlor to galactic extravaganza.
Getty Images

There was also an undersea aquarium, with sail-shaped roof lights poking through the water’s surface.

He intended to remove the highway cutting off the seashore from the row of twelfth-century buildings whose porticos once stood at the water’s edge.

But the showstopper was a conical tower, sheathed in white Carrara marble, rising 843 feet above the plaza.

It would be the tallest tower in Europe.

Greg Goldin, co-author of Atlas of Never Built Architecture.
The book’s co-author Sam Lubell.

A ring of splayed columns at the base created a loggia opening onto a bank of elevators to speed people to the observation deck 33 floors above the boats bobbing in the harbor.

The pencil-point tower was meant to “give Genoa a visual identity, like the Eiffel Tower does to Paris or the Sydney Opera House does to Australia,” Portman said when the project was unveiled.

His plan was welcomed by some local press, but harshly dismissed by others as ‘retrograde’, and never won official approval.

A different harbor aquarium, by Renzo Piano, opened in time for the Columbus quincentenary.

This story has been excerpted from The Atlas of Never Built Architecture by Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin.

Latest article