The unbuilt city

by Steve

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Cities change. I’d like to say they evolve, but that sounds a little too thoughtlessly positive, as if cities are forever improving themselves in some sort of organic sense. I’d say they mutate, but perhaps that is too negative, and suggests a randomness that probably underplays the role of city planning. Plus, I’m no architectural expert, and I’m not your go-to man for understanding urban conurbations. So I probably shouldn’t say anything at all and leave you to look at the pretty pictures.

Yet I do find the paths untaken by cities fascinating. What might have been. In particular I’m drawn to the designs of the buildings that never were. Some seem to just be proposals for competitions, some appear to have got close to becoming reality. All offer a glimpse of what might have been. All would have changed the shape and personality of their specific city considerably. They would be famous landmarks. They would be cherished. They would quite possibly also be vilified.

But they would be as ingrained in the DNA of their city as much as any major building is. They would be lived in, worked in, experienced on a day-to-day basis. They would make some people’s lives better. They would maybe make some people’s lives worse. They would alter skylines, views, routes around a city.

A city at its best feels like a sort of glorious mess. I like the clash of styles of architecture and the quirks of streets and layouts that can only come from history rather than just town planning. The best cities develop a character – even the ones that appear to have had some sort of order imposed on them at some point (New York? Paris?) seem to transcend that and take on a life of their own.

So perhaps that is why I’m drawn to the unbuilt – these buildings would have added to that process, yet did not. In a way, the paths untaken shape cities as much as those that have been.

Perhaps there is something hauntological about these designs. They evoke a nostalgia for a future that never quite was. They are modern, futuristic, or at least a past idea of those terms. There is still a promise in these images, although that promise can never be fulfilled. I guess you can retain hope in the value and beauty of a building if you never have to directly experience it.

Should I wake up tomorrow as a multi-billionaire maybe I shall build my own city, composed of all these forgotten, unrealised buildings. It would probably be quite a culturally stunted exercise, but I think there would be a pleasing eerieness to a city inhabited by nothing but buildings that never were. I’m sure some oil baron has this kind of thing in mind anyway.

I’d love to establish some sort of credit for the images above, but they are in so many places on the internet without any obvious note stating their origin that I don’t really think I can give any sort of proper, robust attribution here. Maybe that says something about how popular these sorts of images are. Or maybe it just shows that people are reasonably gung-ho about attribution stuff.

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