A dome that would have covered half of Manhattan … a cathedral that would have towered over Liverpool … the National Gallery’s ‘monstrous carbuncle’ … Naomi Stungo looks back over the 10 finest projects that never made it past the concept stage

Earlier this year, Will Alsop’s blobby design for a landmark on Liverpool’s famous waterfront was scrapped by regeneration agency Liverpool Vision. The cancellation of the distinctive scheme came days after another controversial building, Daniel Libeskind’s £70m spiral extension to the V&A Museum in South Kensington, London, was given the thumbs-down by the Heritage Lottery Fund for the second time – consigning that scheme to the dustbin of landmarks that might-have-been.

Does the cancellation of these two schemes herald the end of iconic architecture? Will 2004 go down in history as the year that egotistical clients suddenly suffered a crisis of confidence followed by a fit of rationality? History would suggest otherwise. A glance through the archives shows the client’s sudden abandonment of an architect’s grand vision to be as old as the architectural profession itself. Libeskind and Alsop are simply the latest members to join this famous club. Here are 10 of their predecessors …

1. Christopher Wren’s Whitehall Palace

Wren did get to build St Paul’s Cathedral – still London’s best-known icon. But his visionary masterplan – conceived within days of the Great Fire of London – for a new centre to the capital, laid out along a radiating network of grand boulevards and elegant piazzas, was probably too grand ever to be realised. In the event, the pressing need to replace destroyed shops and houses meant people started rebuilding ad-hoc, using existing foundations.

Likewise, his spectacular design for a new Whitehall Palace, in 1698, never came to pass. The original palace, the main royal residence from the 1530s onwards, was destroyed in a fire in 1698. (No bad thing, according to the visiting French noble le Duc de Saint-Simon, who described it as “the largest and ugliest palace in Europe”.) Wren drew up two plans for a new palace, the larger of which envisaged replanning the whole Whitehall/Westminster area and creating series of buildings linked by gardens and fountains – not dissimilar to Versailles. But parliament refused the money needed for this, or his more modest alternative proposal.

2. Mies van der Rohe’s Friedrichstrasse skyscraper

Another visionary, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was not one to be put off by details – such as the fact that the technology wasn’t available to realise his designs. As a radical young architect intent on shaking up Germany’s stuffy classical tradition, he was enthralled by developments in America, particularly the emerging art of skyscraper design. In a competition to rebuild a section of Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse in 1921, Mies proposed a crystalline tower, the steel skeleton of which freed the exterior walls from their

load-bearing functions, allowing an all-glass skin. The scheme, nicknamed “the honeycomb”, had three prismatic interconnecting towers, the idea being that the complex glass facade would continually change and dance as light played across its surfaces.

The unbuilt design rapidly achieved iconic status, although it was not until the 1960s that the technology that Mies’ design envisioned became available.

3. Edwin Lutyens’ Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral

Had the outbreak of the Second World War not halted construction, Edwin Lutyens’ Roman Catholic cathedral in Liverpool would have been the second largest church in the world. Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, to give it its rather puffed-up full name, was gargantuan in scale and ambition: 162 m in length, the nave was to be 42 m tall with a central dome larger than that of St Peter’s in Rome.

The comparison was no coincidence: Archbishop Downey (who, so the story goes, approached Lutyens in the Garrick Club and offered him a cocktail, upon which the two men became firm friends) wanted a cathedral to trounce Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s half-finished Anglican Cathedral. Gothic was out of the question; this was to be a building more Roman than even the Romans had built.

The first stone was laid in 1933 but work stopped during the war and afterwards there was no money to continue. All that remains of Lutyens’ building is the crypt on top of which Sir Frederick Gibberd’s 1967 cathedral was built.

4. Le Corbusier’s Palace of the Soviets

Stalin was not one for cathedrals. In December 1931, he ordered that Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour – along with its monuments to tsarist military history – be blown up, to make way for a glorious new Palace of the Soviets. An international architecture competition was launched and celebrated modern architects from across the world competed for the design.

These included Le Corbusier, who saw in the Soviet system a way of realising his vision of a building as a perfectly functioning machine.

Le Corbusier’s 1932 design featured a giant arch (seen as a suitably populist icon) soaring above a series of interconnected buildings, each with different functions. His design for a “non-monument” was rejected and Boris Iofan, Vladimir Gelfreikh and Vladimir Shchuko won with a scheme for a 100 m high statue of Lenin perched on top of the world’s tallest tower.

The scheme was never realised (the hole left by the cathedral became a swimming pool) but something of Le Corbusier’s design can be seen in the arch above Foster and Partners’ Wembley national stadium.

5. Buckminster Fuller’s New York dome

Foster’s great hero is the American architect and inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller, pioneer of lightweight prefabricated housing and the inventor of the geodesic dome. By the 1950s, geodesic domes were in use as houses, sports complexes and military installations. It was time to think big – seriously big.

“A fleet of 16 of the large Sikorsky helicopters could fly all the segments into position for a 1.6 km high, 3 km wide dome in three months at a cost of $200m,” Buckminster Fuller wrote in 1960. “A dome of this size would cover New York City, east and west, from the East River to the Hudson, at 42nd Street, and north and south, from 62nd Street to 22nd Street – an area of 50 blocks which includes all of the upper Manhattan skyscraper city. A dome of this kind would prevent snow and rain falling on the protected area and control the effects of sunlight and the quality of the air.”

Obviously, Bucky’s megalomaniac plan never left the drawing board, although Grimshaws’ biomes at the Eden project in Cornwall are a homage – albeit on a much smaller scale.

6. Archigram’s Walking City

The closest we’ve yet come to Archigram’s seminal 1964 Walking City is probably Will Alsop’s Hotel du Département in Marseilles, a bright blue cigar-shaped building raised up on legs, built some 30 years later, in 1994. This has some visual parallels with Archigram’s iconic beast, although it is not a patch on the former’s ambitions.

Founded in the 1960s by Peter Cook, Warren Chalk, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Ron Herron and Mike Webb, Archigram set out to combine architecture and technology (hence the name – an amalgam of architecture and telegram). The Walking City project proposed a series of 40-storey-high nomadic urban machines, designed to roam in herds across the planet. Larger metropolises would be created when these vast beasts connected up to each other. “Moscow, a desert, New York Harbour, a Pacific Atoll and the Thames Estuary, any place and every place, a world capital of total probability,” wrote Ron Herron.

In 2002 the group won the RIBA Royal Gold Medal. As the citation said: “The phenomenon that is Archigram changed the world of architecture in the 1960s and 1970s and has influenced many world-class, and less famous, architects – and architecture generally – ever since.”

7. ABK’s extension to the National Gallery

Some buildings become icons less because of their actual design and more because of the rows they spark. This is certainly the case with Ahrends Burton & Koralek’s 1982 designs for the Hampton site extension at the National Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square.

Damned by Prince Charles in his famous Mansion House speech as “a kind of municipal fire station, complete with the sort of tower that contains the siren”, he went on to liken the practice’s design to “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. His remarks put paid to ABK’s modernist design and ushered in a new era of architecture in Britain. Post-modernists Venturi Scott Brown took over the job, which became the Sainsbury Wing, and mock Corinthian columns began to sprout up across the land.

8. Frank Gehry’s Maison d’Art, Nîmes

Frank Gehry would probably have hit the world stage earlier had he, rather than Norman Foster, won the 1984 international competition to design a “mediatheque” and modern art gallery on a site adjoining the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple in the southern French city of Nîmes. In place of Foster’s tightly controlled glassy box, Gehry proposed a pile-up of a building, topped off with a giant bull’s head – a nod to the region’s bullfighting tradition.

Gehry’s building consisted of a sequence of galleries set one on top of the other in a spiralling pattern. Each level ended in a viewing platform overlooking the Roman remains. Stairs and ramps interconnected at all levels so that you could move around the outside as well as the inside of the building (a feature seen much more recently in Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles).

The competition model showed a palm tree and a giant lizard on the pavement outside the building. Gehry’s intention was that the building should particularly appeal to children, with whom the future of French culture resided. The judges thought otherwise and Gehry had to wait until 1997, and the completion of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, to be catapulted to stardom.

9. Jean Nouvel’s Tour Sans Fin

How much better Paris’ dreary new business centre, La Défence, would have looked had Jean Nouvel got his way. In 1989 France’s leading architect proposed a Tour Sans Fin, or “endless tower”, to act as a counterbalance to the 320 m Eiffel Tower to the east.

This highly glazed cylindrical office block would have soared into the sky in a haze of coloured, transparent glass, seeming to vanish in ever-changing patterns of coloured light as it climbed to 70 or 80 storeys. Just how ethereal it would have been can be judged from Nouvel’s later Cartier Foundation building in Paris (1994), a building so glassy that it almost disappears.

10. Zaha Hadid’s Cardiff Bay Opera House

Britain isn’t much better when it comes to recognising its own stars as the much publicised fiasco over Zaha Hadid’s Cardiff Bay Opera House showed. In 1994 Hadid won a major competition to design the music venue and put Cardiff’s new waterfront development on the map. When it came to it, however, the powers that be could not cope with her weirdly wonderful design and the project soon descended into chaos and recriminations on all sides. It was finally abandoned and the project reassigned to Cardiff-based Percy ThomasPartnership – deemed “a safe pair of hands”. Percy Thomas proceeded to build an utterly unmemorable building from native Welsh materials.

Hadid went on to win the 2004 Pritzker Prize – architecture’s most prestigious gong. Frank Gehry, one of the jurors, said of her: “She is probably one of the youngest laureates and has one of the clearest architectural trajectories we’ve seen in many years. Each project unfolds with new excitement and innovation.”