Last November, the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a symposium to mark the 50th anniversary of the museum’s publication of Robert Venturi, FAIA’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Leafing through the book I was reminded how many historic and modern examples Venturi managed to squeeze into only 105 pages. The last chapter is devoted to the author’s own work, a dozen projects including a shingled beach house with a startlingly tall chimney. This little weekend cottage, designed in 1959, brought Venturi into the architectural limelight. Though never built, it was immediately published in Architectural Design, Vincent Scully called it “the first major project of the new Shingle Style,” and a cardboard model now resides in MoMA’s collection. It is not unusual for unbuilt work to advance an architect’s career—think of Peter Eisenman, FAIA’s House X or Zaha Hadid’s The Peak—and it raises an interesting question. How would their makers’ reputations have fared if such projects had actually been constructed?
It’s unlikely that, had it been realized, Venturi’s beach house would have added to the architect’s luster, since only three years later he would build the celebrated Vanna Venturi House. Eisenman’s House X, coming on the heels of Houses I, II, III, and VI—all built—would have merely confirmed his deconstructivist tendencies. On the other hand, the competition-winning Peak would have established Hadid as a practitioner a full decade before her first built commission—not inconsequential in what would turn out be a truncated career.
Mies the Minimalist Poet?
Architectural competitions have produced other tantalizing “what ifs.” What if Eliel Saarinen had won the 1922 Chicago Tribune competition? His Art Deco design anticipated Raymond Hood’s RCA Building by more than a decade and might have altered the history of the American skyscraper. On the other hand, Saarinen’s second place finish (Hood and John Mead Howells’ entry won out) brought him to America, ensured the creation of Cranbrook, and meant that Eero became an American architect rather than a Finnish one. And what if Congress and the Washington establishment hadn’t nixed Saarinen, Swanson & Saarinen’s competition-winning design for the Smithsonian Gallery of Art? We would have had a modernist building on the Mall in the 1940s, which would undoubtedly have influenced the architectural future of the nation’s capital.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s entry to the 1921 Friedrichstrasse office building competition in Berlin didn’t receive even an honorable mention, yet the 20-story tower became a modernist icon, immortalized in Mies’ lyrical charcoal and graphite drawings. The evocative crystalline glass cliff, almost expressionist, represents a very different answer to the tall building than his later boxy designs. Had it been built, we might have gotten Mies the Minimalist Poet instead of Mies the Minimalist Rationalist.
And what if the first glass-clad skyscraper in Manhattan had been built not by the international team responsible for the United Nations Secretariat but 20 years earlier—by Frank Lloyd Wright? In 1927, Wright received a commission to build two 14-story and one 18-story apartment buildings next to the old church of St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie in the East Village. The pinwheeling floors of the angular towers were cantilevered from a central “tap root,” with a glass-and-copper curtainwall hanging from the concrete structure. In his upcoming book Wright in New York (Oxford University Press, 2018), Anthony Alofsin, FAIA, calls the project “no less than an attempt to create an entirely new model for the modern skyscraper.”
Although St. Mark’s was scuttled by the Depression, Wright adapted the design to another urban project, Crystal Heights, in Washington, D.C. He described the spectacular real estate development—no less than 14 towers on a 10-acre site near Dupont Circle—as “Arabian Nights Entertainment” and “the apotheosis of GLASS.” This pioneering example of what today would be called mixed-use included a hotel, apartments, shops, an 1,100-seat cinema, an art gallery, nine bowling alleys, and a cocktail lounge with a 400-foot-long bar. The roof of the vast parking garage served as an arrival court for the hotel. Crystal Heights, designed in 1940, was scuttled by regulatory obstacles and the onset of the Second World War. Had it or St. Mark’s been built they would have altered Wright’s ill-founded reputation as an anti-urban architect.
Le Corbusier’s plan for Algiers—Plan Obus—was even more ambitious. During the 1930s, the peripatetic architect dashed off many urban proposals during his international travels. Often these were no more than back-of-the envelope sketches made during lightning visits, but the Algiers project occupied him for more than a decade. The most striking part of the master plan is a sinuous elevated highway that follows the coastline and links downtown to a new suburban residential area. The roadway, more than 100 feet above the dense traditional city, is on the roof of a 9-mile-long linear building housing 180,000 people. How would this vertical casbah have performed had it been built? The noise and vibrations of the traffic would likely have made the homes beneath it uncomfortable, if not uninhabitable. In a decade or two, as traffic increased, the absence of off-ramps, shoulders, and rest areas would have become evident. One can only imagine what effect such an urban disaster would have had on Le Corbusier’s later career.
Or perhaps not. Eric Mendelsohn once wrote that architects are remembered best for their one-room buildings, and Corb would always have Ronchamp. Louis Kahn’s Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City is another one-room building that, had it been built, might have fulfilled the Mendelsohn Rule. Great stone walls rise out of the dense, historic fabric, and enclose a numinous top-lit sanctuary surrounded by pyramidal niches. The building that Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, called “a silent, contemplative, massive work of monumental power” could have been the architect’s culminating achievement. The design was shelved when Kahn died in 1974.
The Friedrichstrasse office building, Plan Obus, and the Hurva Synagogue are regularly included in architectural monographs. Unbuilt projects have been a part of architectural discourse ever since Andrea Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture, which includes examples of the architect’s own work but does not distinguish between buildings that were built, those that were unfinished, and those that had never seen the light of day. Of course, most of his designs in Four Books did exist; as Goethe observed, “You have to see these buildings with your own eyes to realize how good they are.” But some architectural reputations have been achieved largely—if not wholly—on the basis of unbuilt work. Think of Étienne-Louis Boullée, Joseph Gandy, Tony Garnier, and Antonio Sant’Elia; in our own day, John Hejduk, Lebbeus Woods, and Léon Krier.
Another celebrated modern non-builder is the British group Archigram, whose science-fiction fantasies were all the rage in the 1960s. In 2002, Archigram was honored with the RIBA Royal Gold Medal, but one wonders how its reputation would have fared had projects like Plug-In City and Living Pod actually been built. Technology was a big part of the Archigram ethos, but would all those mechanical gimcracks really have worked? Or would they have broken down, like the non-functioning retractable roof of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, or the failed “lenses” in the façade of Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA’s Institut du Monde Arabe? Would buildings with exposed structure and services have suffered the same fate as the Centre Pompidou, which required a major do-over after only two decades of operation? Adaptability and flexibility were Archigram bywords, yet one wonders how successfully its ponderous megastructures would have adapted to today’s digital world.
Better Left Unbuilt
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA, designed a number of notable unbuilt projects: the Mathematics Building at Yale University, the College Football Hall of Fame, a Staten Island ferry terminal, the Philadelphia Orchestra Hall. I came across a less well-known proposal in their book Architecture as Signs and Symbols (2004). The unsuccessful entry in a 1994 developer competition for a Manhattan hotel consists of 45-story tower sitting on top of a base that is festooned, Times Square–style, with illuminated advertising. The over-the-top postmodern design verges on self-parody, but as it was featured on the jacket of the book, it is obviously intended to be taken seriously. The most striking feature is a huge, 200-foot-tall crown on top of the building in the shape of a sunburst, or perhaps a jester’s cap, depending how you look at it. The flattened sunburst is basically a billboard, in VSBA parlance a “sign.”
The Westin New York Hotel that stands today on the Eighth Avenue site was designed by Arquitectonica, but what if the sunburst proposal had been built instead? Would it have enhanced Venturi and Scott Brown’s reputation as semiotic pioneers? The building would probably have suffered in comparison to Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA’s neighboring New York Times Building, as does Arquitectonica’s garish design. Two decades later, long after the shapes and colors would have lost their ability to surprise, the building’s cartoonish top would have been a daily reminder that architectural jokes quickly get stale