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The World’s Most Notorious Unfinished Buildings

Construction on Hiatus

The way that the history of world architecture is often told is one of great achievements, toppled by time. Of the seven wonders of the ancient world, only The Great Pyramid of Giza now remains; the others only available to modern people in the secondhand accounts of writings and art. We consider these and other wonders lost to time: whether by the rise and fall of empires or the wear of ages, war, and accidents. This makes us appreciate the architectural masterpieces that have stayed standing through such events all the more culturally appreciable: as relics of history, art, or simply living. Architecture captures the imagination as buildings are testament not only to the architect’s imagination, but the labor of workers, craftspeople, and engineers to raise stone, marble, and other materials into the sky. The destruction of these buildings feels always like a deep loss, a tragedy for the cultures that built them. 

But what of the other ways buildings can be lost to time: the lack of funds, disrupted construction, majestic blueprints left to exist forever in the imagination? The truth is, many masterpieces of architecture have struggled to leave the design phase, or been lost in the various stages of production. In fact, there are many buildings famous for their differing, unfinished states of completion. The reasons for this infamy vary from building to building, but these skeletons of buildings also tell a tale of human ambition through time: the eagerness of the mind’s eye, and the struggle to make vision a reality. 

Ta Keo Temple

ta keo temple
Ta Keo (Khmer: ប្រាសាទតាកែវ) is a temple-mountain in Angkor (Cambodia), possibly the first to be built entirely of sandstone by Khmers.By Supanut Arunoprayote, is licensed under CC-BY

This massive, unfinished structure was constructed in the thick jungles of the capital of the Khmer empire, Angkor, in modern day Cambodia. A Hindu temple built to resemble the holy Mt. Meru, Ta Keo was eventually dedicated to Shiva 25 years after its first stone was set. Ta Keo’s construction began in the 11th century AD by order of King Jayavarman V: one of the largest temples to be built in the history of the Khmer Empire, and built entirely out of sandstone. A massive 20-meter tall stepped pyramid surrounded by towers, galleries, and two library buildings, Ta Keo Temple is a popular artifact of the Khmer Empire among tourists and cultural historians alike. Standing on the steps of the pyramid atop the many towers allows for visitors and worshippers to look out among the vast, swaying canopies of forest: it’s easy to understand why such a serene locale would be chosen for a temple, and its abandonment comes with a sense of confusion. What could have kept a powerful king from moving the resources of his empire to finish construction on a building he himself commissioned? 

Although exact reasons for its unfinished nature are unknown, there are inscriptions which describe a strange accident: lightning striking the temple during construction. Taken as a bad omen of the gods’ displeasure at the temple, this lightning strike has remained the most popular explanation for Ta Keo’s lack of completion. Although the majority of the pyramid and surrounding towers were completed, the inscriptions and decorations were not, an accident which renders Ta Keo’s large walls blank, austere, more visually abandoned. However, despite being unfinished, Ta Keo remained a site of prayer until around the third century, and didn’t completely become abandoned until the 16th century. 

THE PALACE OF THE SOVIETS

In 1931, the Soviet Union announced a contest for a “Palace of the Soviets.” Fifteen architects would provide designs for a grandiose government building, both bureaucratic office, administration center, and congressional hall. Although the contest was called off by May of the same year, a new, second contest was opened to international architects in July. Over 200 applicants submitted designs, but it was Armando Brassini who captured the world’s attention with his plans for a massive skyscraper, topped with a giant statue of Vladimir Lenin – of course. The plans became the talk of the world, with the imposing figure of Lenin watching over the horizon a vivid image in the geopolitical imagination. Before the first stone in the foundation was set, the USSR had made a statement with only the plan of this tour-de-force of steel and design. 

The Palace of the Soviets was planned to have 100 floors and be almost 500 meters of neoclassical ingenuity, which would have made it the tallest building of its time. However, like so many designs in the early USSR’s history, such a monumental accomplishment was not to be. While construction began in 1937, it was cut short by Nazi Germany’s invasion of the USSR in 1941. Soon after, the tons of steel beams already set for its frame were dismantled, to be used in the war effort to rebuild infrastructure and be forged into weapons for Russia’s defense. Resources remained scarce in the war and post-war years, and reconstruction never came. Today, the site of what would have been the temple of communist Russia stands as Moscow’s largest outdoor pool. 

In the end, The Palace of the Soviets had barely ever gone past the design phase: its legacy exists in the demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, ordered by Stalin once blueprints had been drawn up, and in the imagination. The mere spectre of the huge, still face of Lenin, overlooking both the Kremlin and the Moscow River, haunted those 20th century nations who already felt threatened by the Russian Revolution and the rise of communism in eastern Europe.

The National Monument of Scotland

the national monument of scotland
The National Monument (right), viewed from the Salisbury Crags with Nelson’s Monument on the left.By Saffron Blaze, is licensed under CC-BY

No list of notorious, unfinished buildings would be complete without a building whose very name has been replaced by its people with that of shame, embarrassment, and disgrace. Yes–The National Monument of Scotland, known more colloquially as Edinburgh’s Disgrace, has even been named “the pride and poverty of us Scots” by even its own architect. 

Inspired by a neoclassical movement in Scotland in the 19th century, a measly few marble columns in Edinburgh are all that were ever built of the National Monument of Scotland. The dream of The Highland Society of Scotland was of a monument to rival the Parthenon of Athens, with the inside functioning as a church and a crypt built below. Among other movements, the Scottish Enlightenment had brought a sense of national pride to the small nation, which was receiving recognition especially for its peoples’ contributions to philosophy, science, and the arts. The Highland Society wanted a building as a statement to cement these contributions in the architecture, as well as the libraries, of its capital city. 

In addition to recognizing Scottish developments in the arts and sciences, the National Monument would also serve as a memorial to those soldiers killed during the Napoleonic Wars, following a similar structure’s commission in London. However, the monument had funding problems from its outset. Specifically, it had no funding–the high costs of such a lavish project with little projected income made the monument’s funding be passed over for Edinburgh’s other projects as the city expanded in the early 1800’s. 


Builders were promised no national funds, and ended up hoping on a loophole for church resources that never granted them anything more than wishes. Although others after the original builders’ time have tried to procure funding, no such monies have been made available. 

Additionally, the neoclassical style fell out of fashion during the Monument’s production. Call-backs to the ancient Greeks were seen as following England’s standards of high society, and not Scotland’s, and a new movement to call back to Scotland’s medieval history took over any desires toward the Hellenic. Today, only the twelve original pillars stand upon Carlton Hill as a reminder–and real world monument to irony–of what could have been Edinburgh’s Pride, rather than its Disgrace. 

La Sagrada Família

The La Sagrada Família in 1915.
The La Sagrada Família in 1915.By Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia is licensed under CC-BY-SA

This leads up to our first pick, the world’s most notorious unfinished building: La Sagrada Família. Located in Barcelona, Spain, this Roman Catholic Basilica has been in construction since March, 1882. Meant to symbolize the coming together of natural and divine beauty, La Sagrada Família’s curved arches rise into the high ceiling like tree trunks, into a canopy of windows that filter light onto church-goers during mass and prayer. 

La Sagrada Família’s architect, Antoni Gaudi, was more than aware that construction of the city-block sized cathedral would not be finished in his lifetime: he left intensive drawings, sketches, and plans for the nave, 18 towers, crypt, and every other facet of this extraordinary piece of human ingenuity. A brilliant and talented architect, he also became a devout Catholic as he worked on the basilica over the course of his lifetime. Gaudi’s gained religiosity, cultivated skill, and brilliant imagination made La Sagrada Família an anticipated treasure of the world, with its intricate carvings, rising spires, and blending of natural and manmade elements. 

Unfortunately, Gaudi could not have possibly foreseen how the amount of time, money, and work necessary to complete his vision could be stalled by world events. Many of his plans were lost during the turmoil of the Spanish Civil War and following Second World War. For the better part of the 20th century, La Sagrada Família relied exclusively on private donations to pay for its work, and very little work was accomplished. However, despite legal disputes, land permit problems, and the painstaking work of carving the stone that decorates the cathedral, La Sagrada Família is on schedule to be completed in 2026. Assuming, of course, that no further delays stall Gaudi’s masterpiece yet again. 

Conclusion

Whether due to funding, cultural changes, or unforeseen events, many of humanity’s most incredible architectural projects have been left unfinished. The question with each of these wonders remains: to what effort do contemporary architects and engineers take to make these buildings a reality? In the case of La Sagrada Família, plans of the original builder do remain–finishing construction can be argued to be an authentic representation of the original designer’s plans. However, the will and want to complete these unfinished buildings is not always present, and these notorious works-in-progress will forever stand as evidence that not all blueprints translate to the physical world.

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