Built and Unbuilt Wonders

6 05 2009

History is littered with grand schemes left unbuilt due to changes in circumstance, shifts of power or preference, or imaginations overreaching rational possibility. Urban and architecture nerds will often muse with a faraway look in their eyes about these projects and bold ideas as if they were missed opportunities in a city’s history, the big ideas that would have made all the difference. I recently discovered (via the excellent bldgblog) that an Australian magazine, Architecture Australia, gives out awards every year for the best Unbuilt Work, and it’s quite an interesting collection. 

Among the award recipients is what amounts to a napkin drawing by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, sketching out ideas for an ideal urban form for Adelaide, Australia, done entirely from descriptions of the city he was offered by a Dr. Hugh C. Trumble, an Adelaide native, whom Le Corbusier met in Bogota, Columbia. Short article from AA here. This is an appalling thought to me, designing a city without first-hand knowledge of existing form or culture, but for Adelaide it was no problem, as the napkin plan never amounted to anything. But the exploration of ideas may have had a profound impact on another city, Chandigarh, India, for which Le Corbusier developed a master plan in 1951.

Le Corbusier's 1950 sketch musing on the possible future urban form of Adelaide, Australia - www.architectureaustralia.com.au

Le Corbusier's 1950 sketch of the possible future urban form of Adelaide, Australia - http://www.architectureaustralia.com.au

I’ve been to Chandigarh. (Spent a lovely day in hospital there, in fact!) It is a largely medium-rise, block-planned city, with each small neighbourhood unit being laid out precisely and repeated over the landscape with surprisingly little variation. It seems to be one of India’s most automobile-dependent and sprawling cities, and its urban culture is almost entirely alien to my experience of urban India: it was orderly, clean, difficult to get around in due to distance rather than congestion, and ultimately devoid of the vibrancy I experienced in other Indian cities. Some visitors may find this to be a blessing, considering the unceasing press of humanity that characterizes most Indian cities; but to me it felt like a botched graft into the culture, one that has forced residents to adapt to its functions rather than serving their patterns of living. Much of the reason for the sprawling character of Chandigarh is the fairly strict segregation of uses pursued in the built form, characteristic of modernist planning but rather ridiculous in India where car ownership is an unaffordable luxury for most. And of course in 1950’s India car ownership would have been almost unheard of. My feeling is that Chandigarh may have been better off left as a collection of sketches on the back of an envelope. 

Looking at the different awards on the Architecture Australia website, I was reminded of original plans I once saw for the University of Alberta campus. The majority of this very formalized and traditional campus plan was never realized, as the university stayed very small until Alberta’s oil boom began in the 1950’s, by which time ideas had changed. But those familiar with the U of A will recognize its legacy in the quadrangle and other open spaces to be found on campus.

University of Alberta campus plan of 1912 - www.ualberta.ca

University of Alberta campus plan of 1912 - http://www.ualberta.ca

Bird's eye architectural drawing of the 1912 U of A campus plan - www.ualberta.ca

Bird's eye architectural drawing of the 1912 U of A campus plan - http://www.ualberta.ca

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