10 Architectural Icons That Could Have Been Vastly Different
By Laura Kiniry, Popular Mechanics, 20 October 2014.
By Laura Kiniry, Popular Mechanics, 20 October 2014.
Picture the Paris skyline with a giant sprinkler in place of the Eiffel Tower, or London’s Tower Bridge being an underwater tunnel instead. It could have happened.
1. Gateway Arch, St. Louis
Photo: Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia Commons
Today its shape is an American icon. But, had the votes gone another way, St. Louis’s Gateway Arch could easily have been a rectangular stone gate or a series of pylons representing historical events. Architect Eero Saarinen’s award-winning design, a combined landscape and monument that is a lasting testament to Thomas Jefferson’s westward expansion from the banks of the Mississippi River, was only one of 172 designs considered.
Saarinen’s 630-foot-tall freestanding steel arch is shaped in a catenary curve - the same curve a free-hanging chain takes when supported on both sides. However, his original design had the curve at a much less pronounced 590-foot height, with its bases being square rather than their current triangular form. In the years between winning the contest in 1948 and the beginning of construction in 1963, Saarinen reimagined his monument to become the sleeker, more modern structure we know today.
2. Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
Photo: MykReeve/Wikimedia Commons
Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, built in 1997, is one of the world’s most photographed and unusual structures. Architect Frank Gehry, famed for his fragmented and non-rectilinear style, changed the face of this northern Spanish city with his design: a titanium-clad structure made of limestone and glass that ebbs and flows with no apparent rhyme or reason.
Bilbao’s Guggenheim is eye-catching to say the least. However, it wasn’t the only design considered. In fact, Gehry was one of three architects invited to submit a design for the new museum; the others being Japan’s Arata Isozaki and Austria’s Coop Himmelb(l)au. Today visitors could be pouring into Isozaki’s four-story, ellipse-shaped structure, or seeing Bilbao through Himmelb(l)au’s vision, which included lighting the building’s exterior from the inside with a series of illuminated translucent boxes.
3. Eiffel Tower, Paris
Photo: Nicolas Halftermeyer/Wikimedia Commons
Imagine the Paris skyline as if, instead of the Eiffel Tower, there were a 1,000-foot-tall sprinkler overlooking the city, or a monument dotted with parabolic or curved mirrors. Either of these might have been the case if Gustave Eiffel’s iron-lattice tower hadn’t won the design contest set forth in May 1886 for a temporary structure to serve as centrepiece for the Exposition Universelle of 1889 - a World’s Fair held in Paris. Eiffel and his team had the contest pretty much won before it was even announced, beating out more than 100 other hopefuls with a design that more than met the competition’s requirements: an iron tower with a 3,280-square-foot base and a height of 980 feet that could be easily dismantled (though it never was). The tower also had to be self-financing, meaning it would sell enough tickets to cover its building costs. Well, that part was a piece of cake. Since its opening, nearly 250 million people have visited the iconic tower.
4. U.S. Capitol, Washington D.C.
Photo: Martin Falbisoner/Wikimedia Commons
Perhaps the most famous feature of the U.S. Capitol is its enormous cast-iron dome, something that came to be thanks to an artistic eye and a bit of luck.
The building itself was the result of a design competition won by Scottish-trained physician William Thornton and his sandstone building with three sections: two rectangular wings on either side and a dome-topped centre. Construction began in 1793 and took decades. The structure’s original (and mostly ill-received) copper-covered wood dome was finally completed in the 1820s.
However, the country’s rapid expansion meant America needed a bigger building, and a new competition was held. Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter’s depiction of a cast-iron dome atop the Capitol - as well as a marble exterior for the building itself - caught the eyes of several congressman and senators. Walter enlarged the building to twice its length and decreased the size of his planned double dome (a smaller dome placed inside a larger dome) to accommodate the 19-1/2-foot Statue of Freedom placed on top.
5. Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy
Photo: Alkarex/Wikimedia Commons
The Pisa Cathedral’s freestanding bell tower is a stunning work of architecture and an irreplaceable piece of history. But it wasn’t supposed to lean, of course, and it wouldn’t be the iconic structure it is today without a hiccup from nature and a bit of clever thinking.
The tower took almost two centuries to build, beginning in 1173. It stood upright until builders reached the third floor (it has eight) and suddenly realized they were constructing a tower atop clay. The project was abandoned until architect Giovanni di Simone took up the cause in 1272, making the upper floors taller on one side of the tower than the other to compensate for the lean. As a result, the leaning tower - whose modern height varies between 183 and 186 feet - would look like a lopsided wedding cake if stood perfectly upright.
6. Beijing National Stadium (The Bird’s Nest), China
Photo: Peter23/Wikimedia Commons
China’s Beijing National Stadium is a site to behold: It’s a bowl crafted of grey mining steel that resembles a bird’s nest, hence its nickname. Despite an uncertain future (finding events to fill an 80,000-seat stadium now that the Olympics are long gone has proved difficult), the structure remains one of the world’s most recognizable buildings.
Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron came up with the design, which was one of 13 contenders for a stadium to serve as centrepiece for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. While the Bird’s Nest was always a frontrunner, some critics say this is because the other entries focused too much on the stadium’s retractable roof. For example, one imagined the roof as a series of free-flowing forms that would close over the stadium like a series of petals. Another envisioned the roof as a flower that blooms open on command.
7. Canberra, Australia
Photo: Bidgee/Wikimedia Commons
Australia’s capital city didn’t appear organically. In 1908, the Australian government chose what’s now Canberra as its capital and a few years later selected American architect Walter Burley Griffin to design it. Griffin’s design is the Canberra known today: a planned city with an artificial lake running through its centre, two principal thoroughfares, and a series of wheel-and-spoke patterns making up its other major streets, and the incorporation of existing natural elements.
But what would have happened if Griffin’s design hadn’t made the contest deadline? Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen (whose son would later design the St. Louis Gateway Arch) submitted the runner-up entry, which consisted of curved streets, a winding, artificially configured river, and nearly a dozen bridges connecting it all.
8. Central Railway Station, Helsinki
Photo: Marcela/Wikimedia Commons
Recognized today by many as one of the world’s most beautiful railway stations, Helsinki’s Central Railway Station is a Finnish Art Nouveau structure designed by Eliel Saarinen - yes, the same architect whose plans for Australia’s capital city Canberra won second place. In this case, Saarinen trumped 20 other entries for the chance to reconstruct the old station in 1904. His winning design featured numerous elements of National Romanticism, a style reminiscent of early medieval architecture used to express Scandinavian ideals. However, his entry stirred a debate among colleagues, some of whom felt that Saarinen’s proposed architecture overshadowed the building’s purpose. Saarinen eventually changed his original design into something more modern and forward-thinking: the mostly pink granite structure with its arch-shaped entry and copper-topped clock tower that still stands today.
9. Tower Bridge, London
Photo: Kashif.h/Wikimedia Commons
Tower Bridge is as synonymous with London as Big Ben or Westminster Abbey, but the Victorian Gothic masterpiece easily could have been something completely different. Architect Sir Horace Jones’s winning design for a river crossing to assist road traffic without impeding river traffic was one of 50 proposals submitted.
Jones won with the bridge that now spans the Thames River: a work of steel and stone with two Gothic towers and a bascule bridge, which splits down the middle so that both sides can be raised, allowing boats to pass beneath unencumbered. Other ideas considered? An underwater tunnel, and a towering bridge span that would sit so high it wouldn’t have to be raised at all.
10. Tribune Tower, Chicago
Photo: Stuart Seeger/Flickr
Chicago’s Tribune Tower may be an icon today, but it wasn’t everyone’s first choice in 1922, when the Chicago Tribune newspaper hosted an international design competition for what it said would be “the most beautiful and distinctive office building in the world.” The contest attracted more than 260 entries, with New York architects John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood submitting the winning design. Their 463-foot-tall neo-Gothic tower with its decorative buttresses was a little too dated for some. If the sceptics had their way, Eliel Saarinen’s second-place design - a more modernized, simplified tower that went on to influence later buildings, such as New York City’s Rockefeller Centre - would have been the one to grace the Windy City skyline.
[Source: Popular Mechanics. Edited.]