6 terrible construction projects we're kind of glad were never built

Go home Lenin, you're drunk. Image: commons.

Through history, many architects' renderings of the things they'd like to build have been outlandish, and many more never came to fruition. But there are a few so outrageous and unlikely that they stick out, even from the pile of tree-studded mile high towers and buildings shaped like animals or wicker baskets.

So, to make you feel better about that new block of flats proposed on your road, here are some of the worst. 

London's pyramid of death, designed 1829

In the mid-imperialist flush of the 1800s, a Londoner named Thomas Wilson decided it was about time the city had its very own Egyptian-style pyramid mausoleum, perched atop Primrose Hill (the highest point in the city). It was to be "sufficiently capacious to receive 5,000,000 of the dead". 

Everyone else thought this was a terrible idea, and they built a normal cemetery in Kensal Rise instead. 

Phare du Monde ("Lighthouse of the World"), 1937  

This was due to be an observation tower at Paris's 1937 World Fair (tagline: "Pleasure Tower Half Mile High"). It would have been (you guessed it) half a mile high, with a restaurant, sun lounge and beacon at the top, and a bizarre spiral road channelling cars up to a parking garage at the top of the tower.

Image: Newspaper advertisement, 1937.

Eugene Freysinnet, the tower's designer, estimated that the tower would cost $2.5m to build (still only $42m when you adjust for inflation). The city, meanwhile, calculated that $25m (that's $420m in today's money) was probably a more accurate estimate, and showed him the door. 

Alain de Botton's atheist temple, 2012

OK, so this one could still technically be built – but de Botton has gone very quiet on the idea since he first proposed in 2012 that a skyscraper-esque temples to atheism should be built in London, with more to follow worldwide. The mock-up looks a bit like something out of a Batman film: 

Image: Photograph: Thomas Greenall & Jordan Hodgson.

Its 46 metre height would represent the age of the earth (4.5bn years), with a single band of gold around the bottom representing how long mankind's been around. It isn't clear what the building would actually be used for; we're guessing just lots of sitting around, not thinking about god. Which is exactly what we should be doing with the few remaining metres of space in London, of course. Nobody needs houses. There are already loads of houses. 

Hitler's town hall, 1939

This giant dome, the "Volkshalle" was dreamt up by Hitler to act as the centerpiece of Germania, the utopia he was planning to build. It was such a terrible plan that even the guy who designed it admitted the noise inside, bounced around by that dome, would probably deafen people. He also predicted that the dome would collect precipitation, causing it to occationally rain indoors. 

Image: German Federal Archives. 

When they built a test block of concrete to see if Berlin's soil could support it, it sunk, but the ever-optimistic Herr Hitler decreed that the plans would go ahead anyway. Luckily, the war happened, so the noisy, rainy, sinking dome was never built. 

The palace of the Soviets, 1931

In 1931, the Soviet government held a competition to design a giant palace dedicated to itself. The only criteria? It had to be visible anywhere in Moscow. The final design, topped by a 100m statue of Lenin, basically looks like the giant wedding cake of a man who is marrying himself: 

The cathedral on the proposed site was demolished, and construction began, only to be halted when the steel from the foundations was ripped out for use in the war effort. Eventually, the plans were abandoned, and in 1958, the site was turned into the world's largest open-air swimming pool. 

The euthanasia rollercoaster, 2010 

Image: Julijonas Urbonas.

OK, this one was more of an art project than an actual planned structure. But it's so horrible we couldn't bear to exclude it. From the website of the designer, Julijonas Urbonas:

Riding the coaster’s track, the rider is subjected to a series of intensive motion elements that induce various unique experiences: from euphoria to thrill, and from tunnel vision to loss of consciousness, and, eventually, death.

Read that again:

Eventually, death.

Lovely.

Oh, and if you're lucky enough to somehow survive the coaster's corkscrew bends:

You would soon recover from G-LOC (g-force induced loss of consciousness), remaining unconscious, and your body would flail around in a chaotic fit that is called "funky chicken" in aeromedical slang, as the neurons in the brain – replenished with extra oxygenated blood pumped harder from the heart – begin firing once again. This causes arms and legs to twitch uncontrollably.

 

Anyway, next time you think about writing a furious letter to the planning department, relax. At least it's not a pyramid full of dead people, or a car park in the clouds. 

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.