Unbuilt London: Tall Towers And Strange Skyscrapers

A series in which we document the haphazard schemes, the outrageous ideas, the inspired projects and the ridiculous brainfarts that planners, developers and entrepreneurs have tried to foist on London over the years.

In the first part of Unbuilt London, we looked at the transport schemes that never saw a spade dug in anger. This time round we’re casting a glance upwards at the ghostly outlines of the towers and skyscrapers that never assumed their place on the London skyline.

A quick note: obviously the schemes collected here represent merely a fraction of all the ideas posited over the centuries, so we’re sticking to what we think are the significant ones, those which would have had the most impact on the city, and those that we just plain loved or loathed. If you think there’s anything we should have included, drop us a note in the comments.

The Imperial Monument Halls and Tower

In 1904, Britain’s imperial enthusiasm was at its zenith, and the vogue for Gothic revival had yet to subside. What better way of marking the epoch with a colossal tower and attendant halls commemorating the good old Empire, sited next to the Palace of Westminster? Drawn up by John Pollard Seddon and Edward Beckitt Lamb, the tower would have stretched 167 meters into the sky. Perhaps fortunately, London was spared a permanent reminder of the nation’s imperial hubris. Read more about the tower at Building Design.

St Paul’s Cathedral

The building that we know and love didn’t emerge fully formed from Christopher Wren’s mind: there were a total of five designs for the new cathedral. The design pictured, known as the Warrant design as it was given the Royal seal of approval from Charles II, came with a caveat: the architect was “pleased to make some variations, rather ornamental, than essential, as from Time to Time he should see proper”. Wren fully took advantage of this licence, resulting in the cathedral that remains with us today. The BBC has a good look at some of the other rejected designs, while in a report on a RIBA exhibition on the unbuilt towers of London, Ian Visits links to a remarkable scheme from the 1960s that proposed surrounding St Paul’s with a set of high-rise tower blocks.

Green Bird

A colossal green tower, shaped like a dildo. Why on earth did it never go ahead? The Green Bird, from the puerile minds at Future Systems, who also designed the Lord’s Media Centre, was proposed in 1990 and would have been erected in Battersea. The 83 floor, 442m tower is probably gracing the skyline of a parallel universe London where every building takes its cue from Ann Summers.

Selfridges Tower

An equally ludicrous scheme this, albeit from a more sober source: owner H. Gordon Selfridge himself backed the tower, which was drawn up in 1918, but  never went ahead. There were several other schemes for the unbuilt tower, but we like this one in particular for its wildly inappropriate scale.

Mansion House Skyscraper

A bit of a blunder by Prince Charles, this. In 1967 German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe drew up a design for a new building at Mansion House, similar in aesthetic (if not scale) to his celebrated Seagram Building in Manhattan. Though delayed for many years, the project was all set to go ahead in the mid-1980s. The appalled Prince of Wales inveigled upon Lord Palumbo, the project’s backer, to nix it, a tactic he has become rather familiar with. The Mies van der Rohe design was indeed abandoned, but it’s debatable whether the classically-minded Price was happy with the playfully postmodern building by James Stirling that went up in its stead: No. 1 Poultry.

London’s Pyramids

Had this project gone ahead, the thronging crowds in Trafalgar Square would have had more than a pair of lions to climb on: in the early 19th century a 110m pyramid was proposed for the site, the centrepiece of a military and naval memorial. Each tier of the pyramid would symbolise one year of the Napoleonic Wars. The pyramid, which would’ve cost the nation £1 million, got as far as a public exhibition, but no further.

This wasn’t the only large-scale pyramid proposed in the 19th century. As a way of dealing with the great increase in dead bodies that accompanied London’s huge population explosion, Thomas Willson conceived an enormous pyramid-shaped mausoleum, on Primrose Hill, capable of interring over 5 million Londoners. It never went ahead, and instead Kensal Green cemetery, followed by the rest of the Magnificent Seven, were built instead. There’s more on the mausoleum plan at Andrew Gough’s Arcadia.

The Millennium Tower & Citygate Ecotower

Designed by Norman Foster’s firm, the Millennium Tower was the most dramatic plan etched for the site at St Mary Axe where the Baltic Exchange stood until it was bombed in 1994. Had it gone ahead, the 386m gargantuan would have catapulted London onto the world league of super-tall towers (by way of comparison, the Shard will be a mere 309m when finished). The tower was cancelled, but in its place the Gherkin, also designed by Foster, was built.

An even taller skyscraper in the City was proposed in 2007, in the shape of the Citygate Ecotower, which at 485m is (we believe) the tallest building ever to be mooted for London.

The Reform Tower

Richard Trevithick was nothing if not ambitious. Having built the first successful steam locomotive in 1804, in his dotage he fixed his glance skywards, and designed a 300m tall, gold-covered tower to mark the passing of the Reform Bill in 1831. The importance Trevithick ascribed to his project is indicated by the image in the gallery above, which shows his tower in proportion to St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Great Pyramid of Giza. Incredibly, the design also called for a steam-powered ‘air cushion’ to propel visitors to a viewing platform at the apex. Unfortunately, the project was nixed when Trevithick passed away in 1832.

Crystal Palace Tower

The idea for a 1,000ft tower didn’t disappear, though. Asked to draft up a design for a memorial to the late Prince Albert in 1861, one architect had the marvellous idea of re-constituting the parts that made up the Crystal Palace into a thin obelisk, wobbling 304m up into the Victorian sky. In a way it was remarkably prescient, a vision of the glass-and-steel structures that would become commonplace in the early 20th century in Chicago and New York. However, it never made it off the draughtsman’s table, though had it gone ahead it’s doubtful the precarious-looking tower would have survived any longer than the relocated glass house actually did.

Watkin’s Tower

The year is 1890, and Sir Edward Watkin, chairman of the Metropolitan Railway, which has just pushed its way out London’s north-west frontier, wants a flash new landmark to tempt people out into the newly-christened ‘Metroland’ on his new trains. Having cast an envious eye at France, where the Eiffel Tower is but a handful of years young, he decides that what London needs is a pleasure park with an enormous tower at its centre, and organises a competition to design it; Watkin even invites Gustave Eiffel himself to enter, though the Frenchman wisely demurs. Construction on the winning entry, a 358m, eight-legged creature, began in 1892, but the construction company went into liquidation eight years later, with the tower standing at a miserly 47m. Watkin died in 1901, and the tower’s stumpy base was dynamited. Yet Watkin’s work wasn’t entirely forgotten: in the 1930s Wembley Stadium was built on the site, and during the construction of the new stadium in the early 2000s, the original foundations of what is often nicknamed ‘Watkin’s Folly’ were uncovered.

Battersea Power Station

Giles Gilbert Scott’s neglected Thameside wreck has had many proposals dreamed up for it since the turbines stopped in 1982. Probably the most ambitious was a plan to return the site to its energy-generating origins by constructing a 300m chimney / eco dome as the centrepiece of a renewable energy plant. Unfortunately it was deemed far too distasteful for London’s delicate skyline (an image of the building poking out from behind the Houses of Parliament was widely circulated by naysayers) and Boris Johnson refused to back it, so the project was eventually scaled back into a more modest redevelopment, supposedly set to finish by 2018 but, according to doubters, more likely to complete when pigs fly… which, in the case of Battersea, they occasionally do.

Statue of Britannia

Okay, we know, it’s not technically a tower or skyscraper…. but its bloody tall, and would’ve made quite the impression on south-east London. This 80m Britannia was proposed for the apex of Greenwich Hill back in 1799.

See also: London’s unbuilt transport schemes.

Next time in Unbuilt London, we’ll be looking at bridges to nowhere and mad masterplans.

Sources:

The 1982 book London As It Might Have Been, by Felix Barker and Ralph Hyde, was of considerable help in compiling this post.

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  • http://twitter.com/jorgetxu Jorge Ruiz

    Amazing post!

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  • Herbert Wright

    Excellent round-up! I’m glad we never got the po-faced Mies skyscraper at Bank- Stirling’s block is much more fun, but the original Victorian facades were even better. 
    In this list, I would have included Arts & Crafts architect CFA Voysey’s 1925 proposal for twin 30-storey blocks on Piccadilly.  Also, Lambeth Council’s 1967 plans for 14 social housing tower blocks in Brixton averaging 30 storeys- that would have been like Glasgow in London! In this century, Grimshaw’s 217m-high glass prism The Minerva Building at Aldgate is significant, that one looked like a goer just after the Heron Tower enquiry cleared The City for new skyscrapers in 2002. 

    • Dean Nicholas

      Some great suggestions there, thanks for adding them. I’d completely forgotten about the Minerva skyscraper — was always a fan of that scheme, particularly as the blue blodge that went up in its place (also by Grimshaw) is awful.

  • Anonymous

    Nice post indeed
    But re. the crystal palace tower I believe there is a mistake in your comments in that glass (-covered) skyscrappers are a feature of late 20th century, not early 20th century. The reason being that the glass used to cover skyscrappers needs to be strong and was not developped until quite recently.

    And by the way it is quite sad that the Shard is not part of the list…

  • MJS

    How about the tower blocks proposed at Tolmers Square to match Euston Tower?

  • Dave McGeehan

    Your best post ever.  Smashing.  
    How mad is the Selfridges tower?  
    I’m afraid I rather like the Imperial Monument Halls and Tower, I’m sorry.

  • Philip Clarke

    The one tower I’d liked to have seen built was The Imperial Monument Halls and Tower, as what an addition that would have made to the Westmister area. Very impressive.

    A great building to highlight a nations’ pride for an empire which had defeated and saved the world from an evil dictator called Napoleon, and was to go on and for a time stand alone against another evil dictator called Hitler, before defeating him along with her allies, Dean. Tut tut. 

    Great post nonetheless.

  • Shuvalova E

    Well, I think one must create a Permanent Exhibition of Unbuilt Skyscrapers soon… Please keep me posted if smb will share my idea!

  • http://www.love-london-museums.com/ LoveLondonMuseums

    fascinating post, I’m very interested in architecture and how we choose to design our cities. Some of these designs are so ridiculous it does make you wonder if sometimes buildings are commissioned just for design sake and not for the benefit of anyone.

  • http://www.LondonRemembers.com/ London Remembers

    On the “Look at Life – Swingin’ London” DVD there’s a piece about Piccadilly Circus which reports as fact that soon (meaning probably mid-late 60s) the whole east side of Piccadilly Circus would be redeveloped as a giant shopping centre stretching across two main roads.  Thank heavens they got that wrong!

  • jayay

    And this book shows what could have been built in place of Watkin’s Tower…
    http://archive.org/stream/descriptiveillus00lynd#page/68/mode/2up

    They’re wonderfully odd… from Gothic to phallic to Eiffel Tower-like. And incredibly (over)ambitious: every one of the proposed designs was taller than the Shard (1016ft).