10 December 2018
Even architects dream. They always have, and big time. Of what? Soaring skyscrapers or, quite the opposite, horizontal, huge domes, elephant-shaped arches and metropolises like mega-structures with no actual real buildings. Utopian habitations and perfect cities, basically. But, were people of the calibre of Le Corbusier, Gaudi, Mies van der Rohe, Lloyd Wright or Isozaki happy just to dream? Clearly not. They sketched out their dreams on paper and turned them into designs that have built the story of architecture without ever becoming reality. In Phantom Architecture: The Fantastical Structures the World’s Great Architects Really Wanted to Build, the essayist and critic Philip Wilkinson discusses these pipe dreams. Fifty projects in which the architects pushed materials to their limits, exploring new and ambitious ideas, defying convention and taking real creative liberties that sometimes paved the way to the future.
Wilkinson begins in 820, with an architectural drawing for a monastery known as the St Gall plan, named after the Swiss abbey in which it is conserved. It translates a lifestyle disciplined in every possible way into architecture, a transfiguration of the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience that governed the monks’ lives. He then leaps forward by more than a thousand years, from project to project. The book closes with Thomas Chung’s 2013 bucolic design for floating fields in China. This involved rooftop farms in which the agricultural space was rethought and modernised from a community perspective: green oases above the chaos of the cities were intended to help their inhabitants reconnect with nature and the benefits deriving from personal cultivation.
Some of the projects are true architectural masterpieces, others are just enchanting flights of fancy. It was not mediocrity that stood in the way of their being brought to fruition; it was politics, lack of funds or even over-cautious clients choosing to opt for traditional designs rather than these bold visions that saw them left on the drawing board. Needless to say, the fact that they were never built hasn’t stopped them becoming legendary. Each of these Utopian buildings has called into question the customary approach to design and is a clear manifestation of the belief that architecture can play a substantial part in people’s wellbeing, both in the Middle Ages and in 2030. Fuller knew that his design for an enormous dome in New York would never be realised but went ahead with it anyway to point the way towards lighter, more energy-efficient structures and cities. That was in 1968.