What if the urban visions of famous architects and planners had actually been built?
Citizens would do well to revisit these unbuilt cities, to let their alternate histories roll around in the head. People might return to unbuilt architecture as inspiration for the future, but unrealized cities offer more than just old ideas renewed. They also remind people of how the world, so solid and certain to us now, could easily have been so different.
However much designers and citizens alike might wish or assume it, architecture does not remain aloof from wider social and political developments. Would Le Corbusier’s plan to turn Algiers into a linear city have reduced the pressure that burst from the Casbah and culminated in the Algerian Revolution or caused it to explode further and faster? Would Tatlin’s Tower, with its revolving chambers, loudspeakers and projections, be a long-malfunctioned post-Soviet ruin now, in dire need of repair and restoration by those nostalgic for what the future used to be? What would have happened to Iofan’s Palace of the Soviets with its colossal figure of Lenin (halted at the onset of the German invasion) after the fall of Communism and the iconoclasm that accompanied it?
Or consider that there is no Moscow at all anymore. What was once the capital lies under a vast reservoir. Its inhabitants were murdered or deported as slave labor under the victorious Third Reich’s plans. The Baltic, Crimea, the Volga, and the Middle Eastern oilfields are in German hands. Bolshevism no longer exists bar fractured forces east of the Urals and in the Caucasus. Hitler and Speer’s architectural plans have been realized. Berlin is replaced by Germania, declaring itself the “World Capital,” with a Volkshalle so large clouds form inside it, and a Triumphal Arch that could swallow up Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. Linz builds the grandest collection of art on the earth at the Führermuseum. The Deutsches Stadion in Nuremberg accommodates over 400,000 people. Huge, dread towers to the Nazi dead, based on the Tannenberg Memorial, rise across Europe. Yet the grandeur of Germania is capsizing under unstable soil, foundations slowly buckling, cracks appearing in walls; just as the sinking prototype Schwerbelastungskörper suggested.
Utopian/dystopian plans may envisage a world where they build on blank spaces, where they can somehow start again without memory or consequence, but the past cannot easily be erased. The millions of murdered Jews, Slavs, Roma, and homosexuals, some worked to death excavating building materials for Germania, may have been officially written out of Nazi history but the Earth would have remembered them, like a secret waiting to be discovered. There is a chilling moment in Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich when, amidst his fantastical plans and moral acrobatics, he talks to his friend, the SS Reichsführer Karl Hanke. “Sitting in the green leather easy chair in my office, he seemed confused and spoke falteringly, with many breaks,” Speer writes. “He advised me never to accept an invitation to inspect a concentration camp in upper Silesia. Never, under any circumstances. He had seen something there which he was not permitted to describe and moreover could not describe.”
This moment underlines the vital importance of looking at what happened, at what could have happened, and what could yet come to pass if we follow plans blindly or without formulating our own. “Other worlds are possible” seems an attractive proposition, but those alternate futures might be dreams, or they might be nightmares, depending on how people act in the here and now.