The Greatest Buildings Never Built

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Podcast Transcript

The world has many amazing buildings. From the 2,000-year-old Pantheon in Rome to the gleaming new Burj Khalifa in Dubai, humanity is often reflected in its buildings. 

However, some of the greatest architectural concepts were buildings that were never built. Whether it was due to a lack of money, having ideas before the technology to build it was available, or pure insanity, many of the greatest ideas for buildings were never constructed. 

Learn more about the greatest buildings that were never built and why they never saw the light of day on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The genesis of this episode came about from researching several notable architects. 

Despite having created some of the world’s greatest structures, their greatest ideas were ones that were put to paper but could never be built. 

There are a host of reasons why great ideas for buildings never see completion. The most common reason is a lack of funding. For example, construction actually started on the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, which, if completed, will be the tallest building in the world at one kilometer tall. However, finances and contract issues caused construction to stop in 2018 when it was only ? completed. 

One of the first buildings that was never created that I wanted to touch on is the Cenotaph of Newton. A cenotaph is just a monument to someone who died, that is not their tomb.

The Cenotaph of Newton was a proposed structure that was to honor Isaac Newtown. It was designed by the 18th-century French architect Étienne-Louis Boullée. 

Newton, who died in 1726, had become an icon of the enlightenment by the late 18th century. 

To honor Newton, Boullée proposed the construction of a structure that would have been one of the greatest buildings on Earth. 

It would have been a gigantic sphere that would have been 150 meters or 500 feet tall. The sphere would have sat in a three-tiered cylinder base as if a marble was placed in a holder. 

Inside the sphere, the only object was to have been a sarcophagus for Newton, although it isn’t sure if his body would have been moved. 

The small sarcophagus would have been overwhelmed by the size of the interior of the sphere. 

The inside was to invert daylight from the outside. During the day, it would be dark, and at night it would be light. The light would come from a single light suspended from the top, located at the center of the sphere. It is unknown how the light would function as it was decades before the development of electric light.

If it had been built, it would have been the largest building in the world at the time. It would have been larger than the Great Pyramid and taller than any cathedral in existence at the time.

Drawings and etchings of Boullée’s idea circulated widely, and it was both praised and derided. Nothing like this had ever been built before. The design looks like an art deco structure from the 1920s or 30s.

It was probably beyond 18th century technology to build something this big, but it is certainly possible today. Of all of the buildings mentioned in this episode, this is the one I would love to see built almost 250 years after it was designed.

Another massive building that was never built, and it is a good thing that it was never built, was the Volkshalle. The great hall of the people that was designed by Adolf Hitler’s chief architect Albert Speer.

Hitler had massive plans for what he wanted to do to Berlin after the war. He was going to rebuild Berlin as the new capital of the Reich and rename it Germania. 

The focal point of the new city would be a gigantic dome known as the Volkshalle. 

It would have looked like the US Capital building on steroids. In comparison, the US Capital is 289 feet tall as measured to the top of the statue of freedom at the top of the dome. 

The Volkshalle would have been 290 meters or 950 feet tall. Saint Peters basilica and the capital could both fit inside it. It was designed to hold 180,000 people. 

The dome would have been so large that weather formations would have formed inside it. It has been depicted on screen in alternative history television shows such as the Man in the High Castle on Amazon and HBO’s Fatherland. 

The Volkshalle is thought to have been the equivalent of a cathedral for a new Nazi religion that Hitler was to be the center of. 

The Volkshalle wasn’t built because Germany lost the war. However, it was far from the largest dome ever proposed. 

That distinction might belong to Buckminster Fuller. Fuller popularized the geodesic dome. A geodesic dome is a dome constructed out of regular triangles. They are extremely thin and strong, but Fuller took the idea to an extreme.

In 1960, he proposed a very audacious plan to put a two-mile-wide dome over midtown Manhattan. 

The dome would be made out of shatterproof glass that was coated with aluminum to reduce glare. 

The entire dome would have covered everything, including all of the skyscrapers in midtown, including the Empire State Building. 

The estimated weight of the entire dome was only 4,000 tons, which would actually weigh less than the air underneath it. There were concerns that if it were built, it would float away and would need to be anchored to the ground.

All combustion engines would have to have been banned under the dome because all the fumes would have been trapped. Similarly, it is believed that heating wouldn’t have been necessary because of all of the heat trapped below the dome. 

Needless to say, it never came anywhere near being constructed.

Another incredible structure was designed by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. 

In 1956, at the age of 88, he designed his most ambitious building ever. It was dubbed The Illinois. 

The Illinois would have been built in Chicago and would have been the tallest building in the world by a very very wide margin. It would have been one mile high or 1.6 kilometers.

It would have had 528 stories, 18,460,000 square feet or 1,715,000 square meters of floor space. It would have been twice as tall as the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world today. 

Wright thought that the building was feasible in the 1950s, given the technology at the time. However, analysis of his plans decades later showed that there were factors that he never considered, most importantly, the high winds that the building would encounter at such extreme heights. 

He also had issues with the elevators and how they would have worke. He envisioned “atomic power” elevators, whatever that meant, that wouldn’t use cables. 

Architects later had to deal with these problems when building extreme skyscrapers. 

The Nazis weren’t the only totalitarian government that wanted to build an enormous edifice to their greatness. The Soviet Union had actually started construction on a building that was known as the Palace of the Soviets. 

The Palace of the Soviets was to be built on the bank of the Moscova River at the location where the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour once stood. The cathedral was originally built in celebration of the retreat of Napoleon from Moscow in 1812.

It was demolished under the orders of Joseph Stalin in 1931. 

There was a series of architectural competitions for the creation of a building that would be built on the site. The building was to be the home of the Supreme Soviet and the focal point of the new country, taking parades and other events away from the Kremlin. 

The contest was won by Boris Iofan. His design was to be the pinnacle of monumental Stalinist architecture. 

The design had a grand hall that could seat 21,000 people where the major congresses would take place. Directly above the hall would be an office building supported by a steel framework that surrounded the great hall. 

On top of everything would be an enormous statue of Lenin. 

The entire height of the building was to be 416 meters or 1,365 feet, which would make it taller than the Empire State Building, the tallest building in the world at the time. 

Excavation at the construction site began in 1935, and by 1941, part of the skeleton of the building had been constructed with photos of the progress published in Soviet newspapers. 

When Germany invaded, construction was put on hold indefinitely. Construction workers were conscripted, and most of the steel earmarked for construction was diverted for the war effort.

In 1942, the steel beams were dismantled for rail bridges, and with so many men pressed into the war, they had no construction staff to maintain the wall, which kept the river water out of the foundation. 

After the war, there were several proposals to build a scaled-down version of The Palace of the Soviets, but they never amounted to anything because Stalin had lost interest. 

Of all the buildings I’ve mentioned, The Palace of the Soviets came the closest to being constructed. 

The Palace of the Soviets wasn’t the only over-the-top Soviet structure that was proposed. Another crazy structure was known as Tatlin’s Tower. 

Tatlin’s Tower was the brainchild of the Russian artist and architect Vladimir Tatlin. He designed a tower as a monument to the Third Communist International, which was founded in 1919.  

His tower was a monstrous steel structure, which in composition would have been similar to the Eiffel Tower. His plan was to build it in Saint Petersburg.

However, in terms of design, it would have looked nothing like the Eiffel Tower. His design looked more like a roller coaster with a metal double helix going around it. 

The proposed structure would have been 400 meters or 1,300 feet tall, much taller than the Eiffel Tower.

The real kicker is that parts of the structure would actually rotate on a schedule between a year and a day, depending on what part of the structure. 

There was a lot of interest in the structure, but the Soviet Union in 1920 was in no position to supply that much iron and steel for a project like this.

There is actually a model of the structure in the courtyard of the Royal Academy in London today.

There have been many proposed buildings that were never built. Probably more buildings have been proposed than have been built.

However, there was one proposed building that was absolutely bonkers. 

It was to have been an observation tower built for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris called the Phare du Monde, or Lighthouse of the World. 

The architect who proposed it was Eugène Freyssinet. The tower was to be 701 meters or 2,300 feet tall, with a spotlight and a restaurant on the top. 

This was yet another plan for the world’s tallest structure, something that many architects attempt. 

However, there was something different about this tower from every other proposed tower I’ve ever heard of. 

On the exterior of the tower would be a ramp that spiraled around it. The ramp would be designed for cars to drive up to the top, where there would be parking for 500 vehicles.

I don’t know if you have ever driven on a road that had a cliff on one side or even driven over a very high bridge, but the idea of driving around a tower with a constant tight curve over a thousand feet high is terrifying.

It was designed to show how important the automobile had become, which I guess it would have, but needless to say, the tower was never built.

Many ideas are floated by architects and designers, with no intention of them ever being built. Some of them are just thought experiments and others are an attempt at gaining attention. 

Nonetheless, it is fun to think about what the world would be like if some of these incredible structures had actually been built. 

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Senor-Droolcup, over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

My new favorite podcast

Gary Arndt’s history podcast is a must-listen, the new king of 15-minute deep dives on a daily subject. The writing and research are superb, and Gary is just plain PLEASANT to listen to every day. When he touches on areas of obscure history that I know well, I’m waiting to see if I can find a small error to crow about and that’s a very rare event (always acknowledged by Gary with humility and appreciation). Topics include something for every taste and Gary Arndt has the rare talent of making you genuinely interested in a topic you would never have thought would appeal to you. Best of all, I’ve been listening to Gary every day for almost 2 years and I have no idea who he voted for or what his political views could be. He deserves 5-stars just for that.

Gracias, Senor Droolcup! You have figured out my secret. I feel no need to insert politics into everything as there is enough of that in the world today. I figure if I can help people learn about the world they live in, I trust that they will be able to figure out the rest on their own.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.