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. 

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.