A Constructive Look at Buildings That Never Were

It might have been . . .

” . . . Of all sad words of tongue or pen,” John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in 1856, “the saddest are these.”

And they are particularly apt in the world of architecture, where history is littered with ideas, grand and modest, that never were realized. Hazards await at every turn in the long road that carries an architect’s fragile idea from the moment of inspiration to the laying of the final brick.

Of those ideas that never complete the journey, a few become the stuff of legend and the objects of wistful speculation. A favorite American example: Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1956 plans for a mile-high Chicago skyscraper, “The Illinois,” which went unbuilt for lack of interested investors. It would have been five times higher than any structure then existing--with 56 elevators, Wright proposed at the time, powered by atomic energy.


Most unbuilt projects are not destined for that sort of renown. The ideas are sometimes partially realized--often unrecognizably so--or are appropriated for other projects. Unbuilt designs for high-profile projects are often outlined in trade publications. But most simply fade into the never-ending fallout from the competition for prestigious projects and developer dollars.

“What Could Have Been: Unbuilt Architecture of the 80s,” an exhibit at the Modern Museum of Art in Santa Ana, rescues some recent ideas from the architectural slag heap. The goal, according to architect and exhibit curator Peter Jay Zweig, is to give the public a glimpse of “the America that might have been.”

The projects chosen for the exhibit help illustrate the variety of obstacles that architects face in trying to get an idea off the drawing board. And with its big names--Michael Graves, Philip Johnson, Robert Venturi and others--the show also demonstrates that no one is immune to the pitfalls.

Zweig recalls the first time he met Johnson, who with partner John Burgee designed AT&T;'s corporate headquarters in New York, one of the icons of post-modernism. Johnson took Zweig on a driving tour of Houston. “Before I had met him, my image of Philip was that anything he wanted would go,” Zweig recalled in telephone interview. “But as we went past the buildings, he’d just be constantly saying he didn’t get this (commission), he didn’t get that . . . . It happens to everyone.”

Also-rans in architectural competitions figure prominently in the exhibit. Top U.S. architects Cesar Pelli and Helmut Jahn are represented by separate entries in a competition to design the Columbus Circle office project in New York. There is also a design by Frank Gehry and William Turnbull for the Triton Museum in Santa Clara.

Other ideas died when financing ran out, for various reasons. The jazzy design by Sottsass Associati of Milan for Snaporazz, a hip restaurant planned for San Francisco, was killed when an architect on another of the owner’s projects went over budget.

The best-known project in the exhibit is Charles Gwathmey’s first proposal for an addition to the Guggenheim Museum. The design raised a storm of protest among preservationists who felt that it compromised the integrity of the original museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of 20th-Century architecture. (A second design by Gwathmey, scaled down but still contested, won approval from the museum board in October.)

“Most architects feel sometimes that (a project) might be the best piece they’ve ever done, and for one reason or another it’s not going to be built,” said Roberta Mathews, who organized the exhibit with Zweig and Lorry Parks. “It’s not because it’s an unsuccessful piece; there are just circumstances beyond the architect’s control.”

Mathews, speaking by telephone from her Dallas office, said many of the architects contacted for the exhibit were happy for the chance to show these unbuilt works to the public.

“These are wonderful projects. The architects, obviously, are very proud of them, otherwise they wouldn’t have sent them,” Mathews said. “They obviously don’t consider them failures. They consider them very successful pieces.”

“Very often, projects that don’t get built are still extremely influential and important,” said architect Robert Venturi of the Philadelphia-based design firm Venturi, Rauch & Scott Brown.

Unbuilt designs, Venturi explained in a telephone interview, are simply an accepted part of the profession. “There’s always some disappointment, but it’s sort of the nature of the game that not all projects go ahead,” he said. “You look back at anybody in history, and there are lots of projects that didn’t go through. Even in the case of very accepted architects in times of prosperity, it’s just part of the situation.”

Venturi, one of the country’s leading architects, is no exception. His design for a monument in Marconi Plaza, Philadelphia, marking the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the new world, is on display in “Unbuilt Architecture.”

Commissioned for the design by representatives of Philadelphia’s Italian-American community and by the city’s Italian consul-general, he planned two wide pylons, one on either side of Broad Street, each representing the facade of a famous Italian building. The project was nixed when backers decided against the location.

(Since the “Unbuilt Architecture” exhibit was organized, Venturi has been approached about designing a similar project in a different location, and he is undertaking a feasibility study.)

The architect also has had his share of unbuilt competition designs, including one for a mosque in Baghdad that would have been among the largest covered spaces in the world. These days, his firm tends to steer clear of competitions.

“When you get older, you kind of can’t afford it because you have more work in your office and you can’t take the chance,” Venturi said. “Competitions can be wonderful, but they also have enormous drawbacks.”

Alice Aycock is an artist in New York, but because she works in large-scale installation projects she often faces much the same obstacles that architects do in trying to realize a project. She also prefers to stay away from high-profile competitions.

“Anytime that I have entered into that kind of area . . . it’s usually been a negative experience,” she said. “It’s difficult to convince a jury without watering down your idea. Unfortunately, that’s where a lot of the large budgets are.”

One outlet for Aycock has been lower profile projects where she has more freedom to fulfill her creative impulse. “What I’ve found is that I have been able to realize a lot of my fantasies because I settle for very low budget situations that are not then located in such a highly public and controversial kind of situation.”

Occasionally she does compete for high-profile commissions, as when she was invited to submit a design for the Roebling Monument, honoring the family that designed and engineered the Brooklyn Bridge. A model of her entry, a large kaleidoscope through which viewers would be able to scan the bridge and parts of the Manhattan skyline, is included in “Unbuilt Architecture.”

The design was passed over because the jury was afraid that trash would collect in the sunken base.

Lately, Aycock has been confining many of her designs to paper. “I don’t think that someone would come along and build some of these fantastic structures, but one way of getting rid of some of the frustration is just drawing, where you’re only limited by your imagination,” she said. “You can work out some of the ideas without suffering the rejection and frustration.”

Many architects, in fact, work mainly on paper. Ensconced in academia, they are theorists whose works are not intended to be realized in concrete and steel. James Wines, leader of the controversial firm SITE in New York, creates designs that sometimes straddle the line between the practical and the purely theoretical.

The firm is best known for its series of Best Products showrooms marked by eccentric architectural details--facades that tilt at a crazy angle or appear to be crumbling, for instance. Wines also won a coveted 1986 competition to design the renovation of Los Angeles’ Pershing Square.

SITE has published books on architecture, including a 1976 work titled “Unbuilt America"--a 200-year survey of unbuilt designs by American architects. The book opens with some plans by Thomas Jefferson, including his anonymous entry in the competition to design the “Presidential Palace,” and closes with a set of 1976 plans for a human habitat in space.

The firm is represented in the “Unbuilt Architecture” exhibit by Wines’ U-shaped “Highrise of Homes,” which provides a series of platforms upon which buyers would build their own houses. Wines’ drawings show a collection of cozy surburban-style abodes, complete with front porches and garden plots.

“The ultimate conceit of architecture is always that you design everything, and the idea of this was that the only goal of the architect would be to set up a grid and provide the surface where the people would then establish their own identities, architecturally,” Wines said in a telephone interview. “So you have sort of a little bit of city and a little bit of country and a little bit of pop iconography. . . . It would be a piece of chance architecture.”

Wines insists that the project is for real. He had once hoped to see it built in New York’s Battery City Park but says he is now working with a firm that may want to build it in Japan.

Curator Zweig, based in Houston, has had his own share of disappointments: Five of his projects were halted in various stages when Texas oil prices plummeted. He included one, the “House of Walls,” in his exhibit. He has learned to take the disappointment in stride. “It’s like war,” he said. “You get numb to it.”

“What Could Have Been: Unbuilt Architecture of the 80s,” an exhibit of 51 renderings and 19 models of buildings and cities by 30 architects, continues through June 10 at the Modern Museum of Art, 5 Hutton Centre Drive, Santa Ana. Hours: 11 to 6 Tuesdays thru Fridays; noon to 5 weekends. Admission: free. Information: (714) 754-4111.