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Unrealized Architecture and the Skyline of Tomorrow

Speercapitol A city skyline captures the lives of millions on the back of a postcard. In the past, our structures symbolized, perhaps, an attempt to reach towards the heavens.  Today, skyscrapers remind us of the massive egos of their builders. 

The world's greatest buildings are instantly recognizable and so the development of a memorable skyline puts one's city on the world stage.  But, just as a skyline shows us what a civilization has accomplished, so its unrealized architecture shows us an ideological vision unfettered by reality.

The design of imaginary and fantastical structures is probably where every architect begins. They doodle and explore the possibilities of imagination.  Over time the designer accepts constraints: economics, safety, usability, and the laws of physics.  While a modern building's steel and glass are immensly flexible, they are not unbounded.  A real architect combines vision with craft and the skill of building real things.  Then, an architect learns to express his vision in terms of what people are willing to pay to build.  Perhaps after achieving professional success, the desire to be fantastical may again rear its head.

While the World Trade Center's twin towers in New York City were 1368 feet in height, Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned a truly monstrous structure. To be called The Illinois, it was a mile-high skyscraper.  By design it would reach well above Chicago's clouds some 5280 feet into the air.  Completely feasible structurally, Wright envisioned 100,000 people working within the Illinois's 528 stories of aluminum, glass and steel.  Ultimately the concept was rejected for the same reason that other supertall structures have not be built: the amount of floorplan that would be needed for elevators quickly crowds out the usable space.  You would have a mile-high building comprised entirely of elevators and elevator support systems.  This problem remains unsolved.  Perhaps in the future someone will build The Illinois.

Totalitarian states with controlled economies offer unique opportunities to meld grandious architectural plans with strict political ideologies.  Perhaps most well known are the plans which Hitler directed Albert Speer to develop for Berlin after Germany's victory in the Second World War. His plans for the victorious capital of new Germania included the demolition of over 80,000 buildings to construct a parkway leading from the Brandenburg Gate to the Volkshalle.  Housing an enormous dome modelled on the Roman Pantheon, it was designed to be 1000 feet high with a diameter of 800 feet. It would house a crowd of 180,000 listeners rapt with the Furher's oratory.  Of course, the Allies had other plans for Germany.

The Soviet Union also sought out massive architecture to showcase its ideology and power as a nation.  The plans for Moscow included The Palace of the Soviets.  To be constructed over a demolished church, this massive complex was designed to house over 20,000 spectators with a pinnacle reaching 1360 feet into the sky.  The tower was to act as a base for a 330 foot statue of Lenin.  Construction was well underway when World War II interfered.  As the war on the Eastern Front took its toll, the building was abandoned and then deconstructed to put its steel to use in bridges and industry.

Today, North Korea is a brutal totalitarian dictatorship and so it is no surprise it has unrealized architecture motivated by its political ideology.  Pyongyang's Ryugyong Hotel sits in a permanent state of incompletion.  Trapped in a purgatory between existence and imagination.  It sits frozen by political hubris, incompetent management of the country's economy, and engineering mayhem.

Despite these fantasies, massive architecture does exist and is often realized.  After a 30 year lull in the race to host the tallest, most magnificent skyscrapers, construction has begun anew.  And, whereas in the 20th century the prestigious towers were found in the United States, today they sprout on Arabian Peninsula and throughout Southeast Asia.  Countries, businessmen, and political leaders vye for status with incredible structures they've asked their builders to realize

Which is more stimulating to the imagination, the unrealized structures of the past or the skyline of tomorrow?

November 8, 2007 in History | Permalink


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Architectural purgatory is not a fun place to be. But architects are definitely today's dreamers and explorers.

Posted by: Lyss | Jan 9, 2008 5:41:30 PM