BY George Pendle in Opinion | 01 JUN 11
Featured in
Issue 140

Shadow Lands

Great buildings that were never built

BY George Pendle in Opinion | 01 JUN 11

Frank Lloyd Wright, Drawing of The Illinois, a mile-high skyscraper that was never built, 1956.

In 1963, in a curious juxtaposition of tweed and sand, the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner visited Miami Beach. He was there to take part in a debate at the American Institute of Architects on ‘the quest for quality in architecture’, but he found himself a long way away from the chancels and apses with which he gained fame describing in The Buildings of England (1951–74), not to mention the stark European Modernism of Walter Gropius on whose work he had cut his teeth.

Pevsner reeled at the tropical gaiety of the buildings that surrounded him, taking particular umbrage at the brash Americana Hotel in which the conference was taking place. Pevsner derided the hotel for its vulgarity of form, cheapness of materials and incompetence of planning. The building’s architect, Morris Lapidus, who happened to be sitting in the audience, shouted back, ‘what’s wrong with vulgarity?’ Ignoring these cries, Pevsner sweepingly declared that the lack of quality in contemporary American architecture was due to a profound change in the nature of architects’ clients. In the centuries prior to World War I they had tended to be well-educated, adventurous and rich, he said. Since then, they had become poorly educated, timid and, although very rich, also very mean.

Timidity, ignorance and parsimony have continued to be as powerful as any wrecking ball in the creation of America’s skyline. In recent years, the collapse of the property bubble has seen a surfeit of grand projects cancelled and lesser ones take their place at the behest of clients who either lost their nerve or their shirts. The cancelled buildings now exist only as blueprints, press cuttings and forgotten presentations, a myriad of phantom structures that are superimposed on the existing landscape like a photographic afterimage. These ghost buildings speak both to a city’s urges and to its deep repression.

Unsurprisingly, the city most haunted by unbuilt buildings is New York. Take Herzog & de Meuron’s indefinitely postponed 56 Leonard Street. A residential tower whose 56 staggered floors were designed to rest upon – or rather crush – a site-specific sculpture by Anish Kapoor, the building could not help but seem like a comment on the loss of downtown artist space to luxury apartments. Or imagine the now shelved WTC Tower 5 by Kohn Pedersen Fox that in a wonderfully honest appraisal of the hierarchy of God and Mammon within Manhattan would have dramatically cantilevered J.P. Morgan’s trading floor directly over the roof of a Greek Orthodox church.

Frank Gehry’s recently completed 76-storey apartment building in New York – a boxy eyesore covered in the vaguest of metal ripples – houses 903 ‘luxury’ apartments aimed at the toilers of Wall Street. Yet casting a spectral shadow over it is Santiago Calatrava’s much trumpeted, but now cancelled, 80 South Street project. Intended to be 254 metres high – as tall as Gehry’s building – and located in the same district, 80 South Street was to be an awesome collection of offset glass cubes. Light where the Gehry is heavy, playful where the Gehry is stolid, it would have contained just ten massive apartments – houses in the sky really – suggesting a world far beyond Gehry’s factory-made concept of ‘luxury’. In its dazzle and excess, Calatrava’s building would have been a perfect monument to the booming New York of the 2000s. Unfortunately so in tune was it with the city’s overconfident psyche that when that faltered, so did it.

Calatrava has rapidly become the leading architect of the ghost skyline. His Chicago Spire, a 610-metre-tall twisting spiral was destined to be the tallest building in the US and an epic restatement of Chicago’s role as America’s second city, but it too was recently cancelled as Calatrava’s backers once again withdrew in fear. His ghost practice is not confined to the US. In 2000, his groundbreaking refurbishment of Britannic House in the City of London, which would have seen a giant steel horn rising from its roof, was also cravenly shelved. Nevertheless its spectral presence seems to have goaded the city into its past decade of architectural excess, for Calatrava’s unmade buildings hold what Colin Rowe, the architectural philosopher, described as ‘the presence of absence […] something that quite simply is not there’.

From the Tower of Babel to Frank Lloyd Wright’s mile-high skyscraper The Illinois (1956) and Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1920), unbuilt structures have allowed the essence of a city or a people to be captured and made mythological, in a much more substantial way than bricks and mortar ever could. A project like Siah Armajani’s ‘Fairly Tall Tower’ in 1969, which was to be 48,000 miles high, was always unlikely to be constructed, but it spoke to the Zeitgeist and fears of the time and made them whole. In New York this fantastical urge has been so strong, the layers of conceptual buildings so thick, that the Van Alen Institute has created an iPhone app to help excavate them all. Museum of the Phantom City turns your phone into a kind of architectural ESP meter, allowing you to wander through the city’s streets and see, overlaid on your phone, the highly speculative projects that had been planned for them, such as Buckminster Fuller’s Dome over Manhattan (1960) or Archigram’s Walking City (1964).

Unlike the mainly conceptual architecture featured on the app, Calatrava’s work is less visionary than simply far-sighted. Yet what his unbuilt buildings share with the visionary examples shown in the Museum of the Phantom City, is that there are two architectures ever-present in every city – one of ghost buildings, the other of completed ones, with the second often being but a weak echo of the first.

George Pendle is a writer based in Washington D.C., USA.