Architecture critics nearly always cite a handful of unbuilt skyscrapers as the best of the type, neglecting the vast majority of completed ones entirely. That begs the question, what is it about working in the tall building genre that propels architects to produce such interesting work? It could be any number of things, from the most fantastic wish to be free of gravity’s limitations and to soar, to the more down-to-earth wish to build cities that make a rational use of the land. In the following pages, we’ve recounted the stories of nine of these iconic but unbuilt structures. Some were theoretical and never meant to be built. Others ran headlong into conflict, everything from community opposition to world war. Still others were ready for construction but were scuttled because the numbers didn’t work, or worse, because their intended market experienced a catastrophic reversal. Those factors, however, have hardly ever slowed designers down, for in the end you can’t get past the fact that something tall is nearly always something big—and inspired skyscrapers have always been just the thing to flatter vain, money-encumbered clients. They, in turn, have often been just the type to ask that the work be done on the cheap: “You only had to draw the floor plan once, right? So cut your fee.” The opportunity is so magnetic that many an architect has been willing to do just that.
The stories of a few classic skyscrapers that were never built tell us much about what motivates architects, and their clients too.
October 1, 2003