Unbuilt Britain: the landmarks that never were

A cathedral to dwarf St Paul's, a palace in Whitehall and a 19th-century pyramid - Jonathan Glancey reveals some extravagant abandoned building projects

Suddenly, architecture is back in the headlines. Why? The completion of the Shard London Bridge, of course. At 310m, this pointy skyscraper by the Genoese architect Renzo Piano is not as tall as the 828m Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, currently the tallest man-made structure in the world, but it is the tallest building in the European Union – high enough, then, to make the front pages. It’s even been called a 21st-century successor to the Eiffel Tower.


So, too, has the 115m ArcelorMittal Orbit, the bright red observation tower for the London 2012 Olympics designed by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond; another media favourite, it’s Olympian, controversial and tall.

I can’t help wondering how these headline-stealing structures would have been treated if they had never been built. Which unbuilt buildings stick in our minds – not just those of living memory, but designs conjured hundreds of years ago? With Mark Rickards of BBC Scotland, I’ve made a series of five short programmes on this very subject: Unbuilt Britain. This has given me the chance to travel the country and reach back through history to find some of the magnificent, tragic and downright bonkers buildings that for one reason or another were never built… 

Lutyens’ cathedral

Imagine an English church so big that Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral would have fitted comfortably inside. The magnificent and impossibly expensive design above was Edwin Lutyens’ domed Roman Catholic cathedral for Liverpool. A fusion of classical, Baroque and Byzantine architecture seen through a 20th-century lens, it was to have outshone the city’s neo-Gothic Anglican Cathedral, completed in 1978, a short walk away. Begun in 1933, the year Hitler came to power, it was the war with Germany that caused work to stop. Only the cavernous crypt was completed, and a low-cost, space-capsule design in concrete took its place.

Adam’s South Bridge

Edinburgh’s South Bridge is an elevated street leading to the city centre. Narrow, busy and rundown, it is a sorry reflection of the design originally proposed by the 18th-century neoclassical architect Robert Adam at the time of the city’s famous Enlightenment. However enlightened, the city fathers were unwilling to pay for Adam’s monumental scheme for one of the most ambitious of all 18th-century streets. With its colonnades, pediments, porticoes and balconies, Adam’s South Bridge was to have been among the grandest and most fashionable of European boulevards. A much cheaper scheme by Robert Kay was built instead.

Willson’s pyramid

London expanded rapidly from the 18th century; all too soon its churchyard cemeteries overflowed with more corpses than the newly gaslit city could manage. In 1829, Thomas Willson, a young architect, came up with a solution, proposing nothing less than the biggest pyramid of all time on Primrose Hill overlooking the city. Inside, 94 floors of corridors, reached by spiral ramp and steam-powered lift, were to be lined with catacombs for five million bodies. The base of this macabre monument would have been the size of Russell Square. Its sheer scale was simply too much for Londoners to bear. 

Inigo Jones’s palace

The ambitious Stuarts believed in the divine right of kings. As God’s representatives, they dreamt of a palace in London that would make the Louvre and the Escorial seem small beer in comparison. Inigo Jones drew up detailed plans for a palace stretching from the Thames to St James’s Park in one direction and from what became Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square in the other. The plan was dropped when Charles I lost his head, only to be revived after the Restoration. It was laid to rest by William and Mary, who had no wish to live in central London.

McCaig’s Tower

As a monument to personal vanity and to his family, the Scottish businessman and self-proclaimed art critic John Stuart McCaig designed, and began building, a slightly Gothic version of the Roman Colosseum overlooking the Inner Hebrides on a hilltop above Oban. McCaig was also a philanthropist and the work involved in the construction of what is today known as McCaig’s Tower employed masons and labourers who would have been penniless otherwise during the recessions of the 1890s. This strangely haunting amphitheatre, designed to celebrate high culture and the McCaig cult, was never completed; it remains an empty shell.


Listen to Jonathan Glancey present Unbuilt Britain: Monday-Friday at 1.45pm, Radio 4