the most amazing buildings ever made

Did you know that if things had gone differently, the Pompidou Center could have been an egg? In the competition for the art center in Paris in 1969 – eventually won by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, with their symphony of pipework from the interior – a radical French architect called André Bruyère submitted a proposal for a giant oval tower. Its bulbous building would rise 100 meters above the city streets, covered with glittering scales of alabaster, glass and concrete, its walls swelling out in a curvilinear riposte to the tyranny of the straight line.

“Time,” declared Bruyère, “instead of being linear, like the straight streets and vertical skyscrapers, will become oval, in tune with the egg.” His consecrated Oeuf would be held aloft on three chunky legs, and the facade would be monorailed and circled around the structure along a floating ribbon. The atrium was to be in the form of a closed sphere, like a yolk.

Baghdad was by far Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous project – unless the king was assassinated in a coup

“Between the hard geometries,” said Bruyère, “comes the sweetness of volume [with] curves in all directions, in contrast to the faces where the angle always falls straight from the sky, always similar. So, the egg.” Sadly, it was not to be. His oval poetry didn’t impress the judges and Paris got his hi-tech hymn to plumbing instead.

L’Oeuf de Pompidou is one of many amazing schemes featured in the Atlas of Never Built Architecture, a bulging collection of dashed hopes and shattered dreams that traces a fascinating universe of “what ifs”. A world of second place and second best, an encyclopedia of hubristic plans that were too big, too expensive or too weird to make it off the drawing board.

It contains the best laid plans suffered by the victims of political coups and economic crises, together with the megalomaniac visions of the soldiers that emerged, and projects that were destroyed by budget shortfalls, natural disasters and even a plane crash . It is a gruesome catalog of corruption, bankruptcy and death, as well as a reminder of the wasted hours and unpaid labor endured by architects. But all this makes a very entertaining romp through what the world could have looked like, if fate had chosen a different path.

One range presents a stunning vision of a pleasure island, where a needle-thin spire rises from the cone-shaped dome of an ornate pavilion, surrounded by lush gardens with more glass domes. The central building rises on a platform and is captured by a reflecting pool, reached by a majestic spiral ramp, recalling the procession route to an ancient ziggurat. It looks like the glitzy dream of a rich desert petro-state. And it is – except it is not the work of contemporary “historians” for the Gulf, but Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision, drawn up in 1957 for Baghdad.

Schöffer described his skyscraping smartphone tower as ‘an intense, ever-changing living flame’

King Faisal II invited Wright to design an opera house for the city, along with a range of other stars of the day, including Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, Gio Ponti and Walter Gropius, who were commissioned to design government buildings, universities and design. , sports complexes and other cultural palaces. On his descent into the airport, Wright noticed a long, thin island in the Tigris River – a location he thought would be better than the downtown location he had been allocated. “The island is yours, Mr. Wright,” replied the king.

As was his custom, Wright quickly expanded his task, preparing a complete Plan for the Greater Baghdad Area, which he named Edena. Along with the opera house, there would be a civic auditorium, a planetarium, art museums, a large bazaar, gardens, fountains and serial highways, all working in the curved language of the Caliph-era of Baghdad, known as the Round City, when it will be. surrounded by concentric circular walls. It would have been Wright’s greatest project – had the king not been assassinated in a coup in 1958. The architect himself died the following year, aged 91.

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

Projects include bold parliaments for African cities, to a futuristic hotel hovering over Machu Picchu, as well as what the South Bank of the Thames would look like if American PoMo doyen Philip Johnson had his way (Answer: cartoonish neo-brutalist fantasy of the Palace of Westminster, overflowing with crenelated towers). but now prove to be unnervingly prescient.

One of them was Tour Lumière Cybernétique by the Hungarian-French artist. This illuminated beacon would be an interactive multimedia response to the Eiffel Tower, a skyscraper smartphone designed to broadcast a barrage of advertisements across the sky. With a series of loudspeakers, flashing lights, smoke signals, moving rods, rotating mirrors and more than 5,000 projectors, the tower was designed to communicate data related to weather, traffic, news and even the movements of citizens.

Robert Young said that building over Grand Central was not like ‘farmland worth $100 billion and not plowing it’.

Schöffer described it as “an intense, ever-changing and changeable living flame”. He saw his beacon as a way to democratize information – something he argued was limited to those in control of government and production. But by the 1970s, the possibilities of the cybernet were seen as a threat, seen as tools that would enable the invasion of privacy and limit personal freedoms. Schöffer’s tower may not have come to fruition, but its principles live on in the data-gathering hubs of “smart cities”, less broadcast on public notice boards than hidden in anonymous data centers.

Towers appear throughout the book, and this most ambitious type of building is the most likely to exist – and often has unintended consequences. The permanence of New York’s neoclassical Central Terminal, for example, is partly the result of the backstop prompted by a 1954 plan to replace it with a 109-story circular skyscraper. The hourglass-shaped design, by the Chinese-American architect IM Pei, was commissioned by the ailing New York City Railroad chairman Robert Young at the time. it was so foolish not to take advantage of the air rights above the historic station “a. a stretch of farmland worth $100bn without a plough”.

Pei’s project, known as the Hyperboloid because of its complex form, would be the tallest and most expensive building in the world at the time. But, faced with lost profits and a Senate investigation into the decline of the industry, Young killed himself in 1958, dashing any hope for the tower. Meanwhile, opposition to the plans helped fuel the modern preservation movement, when the beloved terminal was given landmark status in 1967.

While Pei’s tower may have offered stunning views over Manhattan, the same probably could not be said for the Indiana Tower, which was envisioned by César Pelli in 1981. The Argentinian-born architect, who would go on to design the iconic Kuala Lumpur Petronas Towers. was introduced to create a landmark for Indianapolis to rival the St. Louis Gateway Arch or Seattle’s Space Needle. His solution was a concrete and limestone obelisk 228m high, with a 2.8km path leading to the top, where visitors could look out over sprawling plains of Indiana farmland. “Like the Eiffel Tower in Europe, it’s something you have to see,” Pelli said. “He will be as well known in Moscow as he is in Singapore!”

If you’re going to make it bad, don’t make it big

The locals were not so impressed. Some thought it looked too much like a corncob, cementing the stereotype of Indiana as a rural backwater. Others compared it to an oil derrick, and one appeals court judge said it looked like a bundle of chicken wire. “If you’re going to do bad,” said the president of the local architects’ association, “don’t do it big.”

The external consultants brought in to assess the viability of the project were equally blunt. “Structures that you can lift to the roof and look out work in cities like Seattle,” they wrote, “where there are two mountain ranges and Puget Sound, but it may not be attractive in a midwestern setting just because there is no such thing. a lot to see when you get up there.”

The Italian master Carlo Scarpa was sanguine about his unrealized plans. Perhaps not building was the only way to ensure peace. “It’s better to do nothing,” he said, discussing his unbuilt Civic Theater for Vicenza. “That way everyone will be happy: the city council, because it avoided the criticism that can be directed at those who do something … the opposition, because it can be said that the administration does nothing, after the theater of war; those who do not want the theater, because it will not be there; those who want it, because they can continue to complain that there is no theatre; and meanwhile dreaming, each one alone, of an ideal theatre, made in his own image and likeness.”

Sometimes, the perfect project is best left to the imagination.

• Phaidon publishes Atlas of Never Built Architecture on 22 May 2024, £100

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