It is something that architects must grapple with from their first day of university to the final day of their career: What value can be placed on buildings that are never completed in the real world? While many projects do not survive the perilous journey from drawing board to construction site, one thing is clear: The ideas they represent can prove just as influential and inspiring as many finished structures. Here, we explore seven extraordinary unbuilt icons envisioned throughout history. This is the architecture that might have been:
Via Skyscraper City
Triumphal Elephant by Charles Ribart
The Arc de Triomphe in Paris is one of the best known icons in France, but it could have been so different had 18th-century architect Charles Ribart had his way. This monumental elephant could have stood at the end of the Champs Élysées, complete with highly ornamental interiors and a grand viewing platform accessed via a spiral staircase in its belly. The French government rejected the proposal, but Ribart’s sectional drawing remains one of the most remarkable visualizations of unrealized architecture.
Via the Library of Congress
Automobile Objective and Planetarium by Frank Lloyd Wright
The mile-high Illinois Tower might be his most well-known unbuilt project, but Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned many more that never left the drawing board. Designed in 1924 for wealthy businessman Gordon Strong, the Automobile Objective would have formed a striking sculptural landmark atop the picturesque Sugerloaf Mountain in Maryland. While Strong ultimately turned down Wright’s ambitious proposal, it inspired the architect to explore spiraling forms further, perhaps planting the seed for the Guggenheim, constructed 15 years later in New York.
The Manhattan Dome by Buckminster Fuller
Famed engineer Buckminster Fuller teamed up with architect Shoji Sadao in 1960 to propose a two-mile-wide geodesic dome over Midtown Manhattan, with the aim of regulating weather and improving air quality in the city. Fuller was robust in response to questioning over the potential construction costs of such a project, writing that “the cost of snow removal in New York City would pay for the dome in 10 years.” While never realized, Fuller’s dome has since inspired many contemporary firms, including Grimshaw Architects and Foster + Partners.
Bangkok Hyperbuilding by Rem Koolhaas/OMA
The Office of Metropolitan Architecture is known for its avant-garde icons completed around the world, but the unbuilt Hyperbuilding proposed for Thailand’s capital arguably constitutes its most outlandish project to date. The kilometer-high self-contained city was envisioned as an ambitious solution to overcrowding problems, exploring ideas relating to connectivity, accessibility, and vertical living on a vast urban scale. Some of these theories were more recently made real in the shape of OMA’s Interlace condominium in Singapore.
New York-based design firm Axis Mundi proposed this dramatic ecclesiastical building for Strasbourg in France, comprising seven monumental “folds” that echo the pages of a book. A bas-relief of an abstracted gothic cathedral emerges when early-morning light strikes the eastern façade, forming a modern homage to the great French cathedrals of previous centuries. While the Cathedral remains unbuilt, the atmospheric renderings of Viviane Liao and Masaru Ogasawara keep Axis Mundi’s vision alive.
A scenic, snow-topped render by Allied Works Architecture gives a glimpse of the spatial flow and undulating forms that would culminate in the proposal for the National Museum of Fine Arts in Québec City, Canada. The firm’s design was a competition finalist in 2010 — losing out to OMA’s cascade of cantilevered boxes — but Allied’s visualizations undoubtedly are atmospheric and serve as a striking counterpoint to their portfolio of completed works.
Zaha Hadid won an international competition to design Tokyo’s National Stadium for the 2020 Olympic Games, but her large-scale, sculptural proposal was ultimately scrapped on the back of protests from local residents and a host of prominent Japanese architects. The world awaits the new proposal, but Hadid’s stadium remains significant as a symbol of the challenges faced by architects attempting to see highly politicized projects come to fruition.