(Images: Discover 10 stunning examples of visionary architecture)
Few aspects of history are more compelling than a ‘what if?’. What if Germany had won World War Two? What if Napoleon had lost at Austerlitz? What if the Soviet Union had never collapsed or 9/11 had never happened? Each of these scenarios is fascinating to consider, even if we can only ever guess at what might have been. But there’s one area of history where our ‘what if?’s are more than simply guesses: architecture.
Across the world, filed away in dusty offices are drawings, plans and blueprints that could’ve changed the world, or at least the built environment. Vast structures are recorded here that only ever existed in an architect’s vision, but once had the potential to become resolutely real. That these examples of visionary architecture failed is a testament to the grinding realities of human life. That they were imagined at all is a lasting testament to the power of artistic dreams.
The Palace of the Soviets
(Image: Ilya Ilusenko)
Imagine standing at the foot of Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square. Now imagine that, instead of a mere 52 metres, the column is stretching a gravity-defying 491 metres into the air. Now imagine that it sits atop a vast skyscraper complex that completely dwarfs everything around it. Congratulations, you are now part way to imagining what Boris Iofan’s staggering Palace of the Soviets would have looked like.
Initially designed as a place for the new Soviet Congress to hold meetings, it soon metamorphosed into a gigantic monument to Vladimir Lenin. A 100-floor skyscraper would tower over the Kremlin, in Moscow, lit by a profusion of spotlights. At the very top, a metal statue of Lenin would stand, hailing the glorious new socialist future. The design was signed off by Stalin himself. If built, the Palace of the Soviets would have been the then-tallest structure in the world.
So what happened? The answer is World War Two. Construction was underway when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, but the war effort required the steel to be melted down. Once the frame was demolished, building never restarted.
Museum of Modern Art in Caracas
(Image: PAPADAKI S.)
To look at images of the unbuilt Museum of Modern Art in Caracas is to look at a work of either genius of madness. A vast, inverted pyramid, the building would have perched on the edge of a cliff high above the city’s Central Zone. It’s sides were designed to be sheer, impenetrable. The only light would’ve entered by a huge skylight in the roof. To those passing through the streets of Venezuela’s capital far below, it would have looked like some crazed temple to humanity’s forgotten gods.
The design was by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who would later find fame building the visionary structures of his home nation’s capital (which we’ve covered in a previous article). While there’s no doubt that his Museum of Modern Art in Caracas would have attracted global attention, it’s not certain how such a design might be faring today. As breathtaking as his sketches look, a huge, impenetrable pyramid crowning a colonial city might be regarding nowadays in the same way as the worst excesses of Brutalist architecture.
Sunny Car Centre
(Image: Sunny Car Center)
Images of Finland’s unbuilt Sunny Car Centre may not be much to look at, appearing, as they do, like some vision of a dull industrial estate. But go digging into the numbers behind it, and you’ll find your jaw dropping open in wonder at the sheer audacity of this visionary architecture. Sunny Car was designed to be the biggest car sales centre in the whole of Europe. Located in Hämeenlinna, eight floors totalling 75,000 square metres would have stretched up into the sky. Car lots would’ve sprawled over 30 hectares of endless asphalt. It was estimated that building it would’ve required over 200 years’ worth of man hours.
That the project died a sad death was due to a combination of factors, none of them particularly flattering. The company involved, Sunny Trading Ltd, reportedly struggled to find investors. Twice, the company fell victim to fake entities that swallowed hundreds of thousands of Euros and disappeared into the night. The company subsequently went bust in 2014, and the Sunny Car Centre contract was cancelled.
The early days of Soviet art and architecture today seem like the work of either madmen or forgotten geniuses. As the old Tsarist order came crumbling down, Russian visionaries began smashing down boundaries with such gusto that the results seem hallucinatory even today.
It was in this exciting, febrile world that Vladimir Tatlin designed the Soviet answer to the Eiffel Tower. An example of visionary architecture intended to stand in the middle of St Petersburg and house the Comintern (the organisation dedicated to bringing the light of Communism to the world), it would’ve stood 400 metres tall, and looked like a monument to the possibilities of geometry.
One of the strangest aspects would’ve been the three cylinders suspended within the metal frame. Each would’ve housed a different branch of Comintern, and each would’ve rotated at a different speed. The top one would have completed a turn once a day. Below it, a centre for executives would’ve turned once a month. Below that, a final lecture hall would’ve rotated once every year. Sadly, shell-shocked, post-revolution Russia simply couldn’t afford something so revolutionary, and Tatlin’s Tower was cancelled.
Visionary Architecture: The Illinois
(Image: Time.com via Wikipedia)
In 2020, Saudi Arabia is set to complete work on the dazzling Kingdom Tower. At a kilometre high, it will dwarf even Dubai’s monstrous Burj Khalifa, currently the world’s tallest building. Impressive as this is, in a parallel universe, it is merely a sad attempt to play catch up to the tallest structure ever built. Had Frank Lloyd Wright had his way, the mile-high Illinois tower would have been scraping America’s skies since the 1960s.
It’s impossible to overstate how overwhelming this tower would have been. The Empire State Building would have been only a quarter of its size, the Burj Khalifa only half. Seventy-six elevators, each standing five stories tall themselves, would’ve catapulted hundreds upwards at speeds of a mile a minute. Five-hundred and twenty eight floors would’ve contained an entire city in miniature. Fifteen thousand cars and 150 helicopters would’ve been housed within the Illinois’ superstructure. Standing on the top floor, you would’ve been able to see seemingly forever. Regrettably, the design was only speculative, and lack of serious funding meant work never even got started on what must be one of the world’s most impressive examples of visionary architecture.
Beacon of Progress
(Image: The World Today Magazine)
Had it been completed, Constant-Désiré Despradelle’s Beacon of Progress in Chicago would’ve felt like something out of the Book of Genesis. A group of 13 sheer obelisks that would’ve joined together into a single, 457 metre tower (taller than the Empire State Building), this visionary architecture was designed to look like a long-lost structure from ancient Egypt. Rising from the centre of a plain, a vast staircase would’ve swept onlookers helplessly towards the monument’s base. Surrounded by enormous statues depicting science, rationality and progress, it would’ve been as awe-inspiring as it was terrifying.
Looking at pictures today, perhaps the closest real-life ever came to the Beacon of Progress was in the old Hollywood sets built for lavish productions by directors like D.W. Griffith. But while Griffith’s sets were made from wood, Despradelle’s tower would’ve been impossibly heavy stone. Proposed for the World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893, it was meant to represent the near-mythic founding of America. Although the Beacon of Progress was never built, the drawings inspired a whole generation of subsequent architects.
(Image: Antoni Gaudí i Cornet)
It’s likely there has never been another architect as strange and mercurial as the Catalan master Antoni Gaudi. Known today for his awesome, unfinished La Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, Gaudi tore up the rule book of Spanish architecture and replaced it with something that lay between madness and genius. In 1908, he nearly did the same for America. Commissioned to design a building for New York, Gaudi came up with a skyscraper that even today has the quality of a dream.
The Hotel Attraction would have been a strange beast. Standing at 360 metres tall, the visionary architecture eschewed the rigid, straight lines we associate with skyscrapers in New York. Instead, it would’ve grown almost organically from the landscape, a series of rocket-shaped towers that joined together at different heights to create a surreal fortress. While Gaudi got as far as the planning stages, it’s not known how much interest there was in his design. The visionary project was shelved, and Gaudi returned to obsessing over his cathedral.
(Image: via Wikipedia)
One of the many casualties of the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession was Hungary’s Balatonring. A twisting, turning, 4.6-km-long motor racing circuit, it was designed to raise Hungary’s sporting profile and attract millions in foreign investments. Originally slated to host its first MotoGP event in autumn 2010, the project was eventually cancelled when funding dried up across the entire continent.
Although work actually began on the project, little remains to be seen of Hungary’s bygone sporting dream. The area set aside for the Balatonring has become something of a wasteland, and the paths laid down for the tracks have become overgrown with weeds and grass. The plot itself has been sold off, and only the future will tell what becomes of it. For now, it simply remains another monument to the glories of the early 21st century boom years – and the destructive fallout left behind when it all came crashing to the ground.
(Image: US Army Corps of Engineers)
Winding down from Canada’s frozen north into the state of Alaska, the Yukon River is one of America’s great forces of nature. Spanning some 2,000 miles, it sends uncountable gallons draining into the icy sea every second. So when the Army Corps of Engineers decided to dam it in 1954, you better believe the results would have been impressive. The reservoir it created would’ve flooded an area the size of Wales and the state of Brunei combined.
The Rampart Dam was designed to generate enough hydroelectric power to light up almost the whole of Alaska. Ideal as that might seem to environmentalists today, at the time it was hugely opposed by eco campaigners. Part of the area flooded would’ve included the Yukon Flats, an area home to millions of waterfowl whose habitats would’ve been wiped out. Combined with cost objections from politicians in the contiguous United States and it was enough to shelve the Rampart Dam permanently. Had this visionary architecture been realised, though, the resulting reservoir would’ve been among the fifteen largest lakes on planet Earth.
Never Forgotten National Memorial
(Image: Cbone; this photograph shows the Mother Bereft Memorial)
Depending on your point of view, the Never Forgotten National Memorial of Canada (also known as Mother Canada) was either a heart-rending tribute to the country’s war dead that sadly never went ahead, or a tacky piece of tasteless tat that was thankfully canned. Designed to be a companion to the Mother Bereft statue (above) overlooking Canadian World War One graves in France, the visionary architecture was to depict a mourning woman, her arms outstretched towards Europe’s distant shores. Given the official go-ahead in 2015, it nonetheless proved so controversial that Trudeau’s Liberal government immediately scrapped it upon coming to power.
That the 10-storey statue would’ve been an impressive sight is beyond a doubt. However, the choice of location wound up infuriating many. Designed to stand on the shoreline of a National Park, permission to build it was eventually withdrawn by Parks Canada. At time of writing, there are no plans to build the Never Forgotten National Memorial in an alternative location.