The History of Forgetting
All buildings begin as architectural fantasies and perhaps one in a thousand or more get built. In addition to us hearing more and more about the ones that don’t or never will, a steady stream of updates – “X tower receives planning permission!” “Y tower topped out!” – accompanies those that do. Conditioned to living in perpetual anticipation, we’ve little time for the buildings when they actually get around to being completed.
Most buildings that don’t get built are quickly forgotten in our high-churn news cycle but some buildings are as much a part of our intellectual landscape as if they had been built. We must ask why. Frank Lloyd Wright’s mile-high tower, The Illinois, is a good example of an architect designing something we’ve never been allowed to forget even though it failed to find a client either before or after Mr. “Seagram” Bronfman famously abstained. Perhaps only architects were unaware that elevator cables sufficiently resistant to elongation didn’t yet exist. Thirty years earlier, Russian architects had been designing skyscrapers in a country yet without elevators.
Case in point is El Lissitzky’s 1925 Wolkenbügel. In English, it’s known as either Cloud Iron or Cloud Hangar. El Lissitzky was trying for a horizontal skyscraper and, as he was in Germany at the time, perhaps the names result from using two dictionaries to span three languages.
Despite the conceptual confusion, many people including myself have tried to will El Lissitzky’s proposal into existence.
Wolkenbügel is often mistakenly presented as an example of Constructivism but it’s an example of the contemporaneous structural expressionism known as Rationalism. It doesn’t really matter because in 1928 Constructivists and Rationalists alike were forcibly “unified” into an umbrella organization and former practitioners of both camps adjusted to the new rules of what was to become known as Post-Constructivism if it wasn’t built, or Stalinism if it was.
Late to the party, Le Corbusier’s 1933 entry for the Palace of the Soviets competition went down the structural expressionism route. It was never built but is still discussed and analyzed as if it had been.
It seems the only thing more reprehensible than demolishing an architectural masterpiece is to not build it in the first place.
The urge to compensate for this injustice took rendering to new levels, with virtual textures virtually distressed to simulate age, “camera” angles chosen to simulate period photography, and final outputs distressed to simulate aged photographs supporting false memories.
Unlike The Illinois, Cloud-thing, and Monument to the Third International, Palace of The Soviets at least could have been built because Le Corbusier designed it to win a competition and be built. LC generally made a sharp distinction between the career-builders he never expected to see built and the career-builders he did. His judgment failed him with his 1929 proposal for the Geneva Mundaneum. It’s a dog. It’s acknowledged on the Fondation Le Corbusier website but not in English. As far as I know, Karel Teige is the only person who ever wrote a criticism of it, the full text of which you can read here. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #9: Karel Teige].
1929 was a busy year for Le Corbusier so he probably wasn’t that chagrined it didn’t go ahead. Judging by how it’s been allowed to be forgotten, he wasn’t the only one.
Antonio Gaudí’s unbuilt oeuvre is almost as large as his built but his 1909 Grand Hotel proposal for Manhattan never progressed past concept. Nobody seems to have wondered how Gaudí’s upside down chain method would translate into steel frame construction. Perhaps Gaudí didn’t either for he seems to have misjudged both size and scale. The height was supposed to have been between that of the Chrysler Building and The Empire State Building but perhaps Gaudí can be forgiven since neither existed in 1909.
This hasn’t prevented contemporary visualizers from trying to give his proposal a meaningful scale.
This design doesn’t feature highly in Gaudí’s unbuilt oeuvre, perhaps due to the oddness of a Gaudí building not in Barcelona. Since 2003 when its construction was proposed by Paul Laffoley for the World Trade Center reconstruction competition, it has been mostly confined to the architectural oubliette.
An oubliette is a special kind of dungeon entered and not-so-often exited from a trapdoor in the ceiling. Inconvenient people get put there and forgotten. This brings us to the selective forgetting to support the dominant narrative of the present. Some buildings have the misfortune to arrive at inconvenient times. The McNulty House arrived in 1965 just as the architectural winds were about to blow in the direction of Post Modernism. [c.f. The House That Came to Nothing]
Much started to be forgotten in the 1970s, not least of all the social responsibilities of architects. Erasing all memory that governments once undertook to house their people is mostly completed now. Sydney’s Sirius looks set to go the same way as London’s Robin Hood Estate.
Local MP Margaret Hodge suggested that providing a 3D scan of the building would be enough preservation to legitimize its demolition, raising the question of how much a digital version can really replace a building. Quite a lot apparently, if you’re of the mindset that a representation of something can be as good as the real thing. Charles Jencks’ theoretical whitewash is still brought into play to destroy all memory of the social aspirations of Modernism.
For all its talk of memory and history, the 1970s were the Golden Age of Forgetting. Any actual learning from history was replaced by consumable representations of learning from history. The world was rich with architectures before 1980 and it wasn’t just the misfits, the fringe and the outliers who were forgotten.
For example, whatever happened to Alvar Aalto? What values did his buildings express that are such anathema today? We already know the answers to these questions. It is only Le Corbusier who is actively and overly remembered. My hunch is that Le Corbusier provided the DNA template for postmodern mutation known as the starchitect. As long as Le Corbusier remains unassailable, then replicant starchitects are the logical consequence. Soon, it won’t be possible to conceive of any other type of architect. It practically is now.
There’s a special architectural oubliette just for projects that are an embarrasment to their architects. Here’s two from Andrew “AEDAS” Bromberg’s portfolio circa 2006.
From around the same time we have Lee “ATKINS” Morris’ Trump International Hotel and Tower. The plug was pulled in the financial winter of 2008-9 just when the building was about to rise above ground. I carried vivid memories of the speedboat image for years. Now I’ve managed to track it down again, I find its power to disturb has only increased.
The building, however, was the product of considerable skill and thought.
Other buildings of the same time and place (and architects) were less blessed. There was Anara Tower. I remember writing of it something like “Avoiding the aspirational reaching and false perspective of stepped pinnacles, it simply towers for 80-odd storeys before culminating in that most perfect of shapes, the circle.” It wasn’t a lie.
The same architects’ Icon Hotel also represented skill of a kind that shouldn’t go unacknowledged.
Working the same patch, OMA had their share of forgotten buildings, though the Death Star did circle around once before heading for oblivion.
After trying so hard for so long, OMA’s only completed project in the UAE is this art shed.
Zaha Hadid Architects have had their share of forgotten buildings but with one completed bridge, two projects currently onsite in Dubai and one rescheduled in Abu Dhabi, look like having a better ratio of hits-to-misses.
There are some spectacular ones that didn’t happen though.
ZH herself said “the world will always have a place for exuberant architecture” and indeed it will as long as there’s the financial “exuberance” to sustain it. Financial exuberance is attracted to architecture and the attraction is mutual. It’s often ill-advised, ill-conceived, impestuous, short-lived, and plauged by broken promises and thwarted expectations.
What is eventually built represents only a small portion of architectural activity at any given time. As with first loves and adolescent tastes in music, the past is often embarassing and the urge to forget is great. Rather than the buildings that are built or the ones we want to remember, it’s the forgotten buildings that provide the truer picture of what the times were actually like.
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Here’s my picks for buildings headed for the architectural oubliette. (I’ll keep adding to this list as I remember to remember them.)
Frank Gehry’s 2012 Hong Kong Opus
It was dutifully acknowledged at the time but since then has since disappeared without trace. It was probably a difficult commission to refuse.
Zaha Hadid Architects’ Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre
From the same 2012, it had an initial burst of media accolades but recent allegations of overly-exuberant money laundering by the government of its namesake’s son should be enough to belatedly start the process of forgetting.
[In 2014] the Design Museum in London […] defended its decision to give its Designs of the Year top prize to a Zaha Hadid building in Azerbaijan, following widespread criticisms of the award on human rights grounds. “It’s a prize about architecture rather than politics and its architectural quality is outstanding,” Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic told Dezeen.
Diller+Scofidio’s Boston Institute of Contemporary Art
Oliver Wainwright’s recent puff piece commemmorating Elizabeth Diller visiting the UK, credited Diller+Scofidio as architects of NY’s High Line as well as a string of other projects yet omitted to mention their trite yet once-hyped ICA.
Makoto Floating School, Nigeria/2016 Venice Biennale
You’ll remember this one now – it was everywhere 2015-6. The link will take you to the website that lists, amongst other things, FAQs about why it collapsed – lack of maintenance, apparently. I remember reading that it collapsed because people stole the bolts holding it together. Regardless of the truth or falsity of this story, the fact it was propagated at all only reinforces the poisonous post-modern belief that architecture is wasted on the poor.