Many of today’s most significant towers, including a number of those featured in Towers of Tomorrow with LEGO® Bricks, have visual or symbolic links to the visions of architects working in the early to mid-20th century, such as Antonio Sant’Elia, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright.

There are clear similarities between the architectural visions espoused by the futurists of the early 20th century and the forward-thinking architects who followed them, and the towers and cities currently rising all over the globe. Once the stuff of fantasy, these towers are proof – constructed in solid steel, glass and concrete – that the future is here.

Futurism emerged in the early 20th-century, led by FT Marinetti, an Italian poet, editor and art theorist. In 1909 Marinetti published his Manifesto of Futurism, which called for a complete overhaul of society, culture and politics, a dramatic break from the past, and a great leap towards the future. Compelled by contempt for Italy’s ‘smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians’, Marinetti and his cohort wanted to break free from the restrictions of older generations.1 At 30 the oldest of their number, Marinetti acknowledged that they likely had 10 years in which to finish their work – ‘(w)hen we are forty, younger and stronger men will probably throw us in the wastebasket like useless manuscripts – we want it to happen!’ Rather than being lamented, this was celebrated, seen as emblematic of progress and modernity.

For the Futurists ‘the vehicle became an idol, and speed – a new god’, and this new religion was expressed through their poetry, literature, painting, sculpture and architecture.

Sant’Elia

1888 - 1916

Italian architect Antonio Sant’Elia is attributed as the author of the Manifesto of futurist architecture, published in 1914. Echoing Marinetti, it called for a break from the past: ‘As if we who are accumulators and generators of movement, with all our added mechanical limbs, with all the noise and speed of our life, could live in streets built for the needs of men four, five or six centuries ago’. Rather than representing a ‘moronic mixture’ of centuries of architectural styles, futurist architecture was to be specific to the period – ‘an architecture whose reason for existence can be found solely in the unique conditions of modern life’.’2

Between 1912 and 1914, Sant’Elia published a series of drawings of a utopian city, his Citta Nuova, characterised by soaring structures, and high-speed transport through and between buildings. A significant feature of the Citta Nuova is a huge transport complex, at once an airport, train station and freeway.

If Sant’Elia’s Citta Nuova had been realised within a world governed by futurist ideals, his structures would not be standing today. Just as Marinetti expected the next generation to supersede their predecessors in literature and art, so too did Sant’Elia expect each generation to build new cities, demolishing the old. For Sant’Elia and the futurists, architecture functioned to serve the present and lead towards the future, rather than to venerate the past.

Le Corbusier

1887 - 1965

‘Look… into the sky towards those widely spaced crystal towers, taller than any buildings in the world. These translucent prisms that seem to float in the air without anchor to the ground, sparkling at night – are huge office buildings.’ 

Le Corbusier, ‘Plan Voisin, Paris, France, 1925’ accessed October 17 2017 

So did Le Corbusier imagine the perfect city, his Ville Contemporaine, reutilised in his Plan Voisin, a radical demolition and reconstruction plan for the centre of Paris.

Born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris in Switzerland in 1887, he adopted the name Le Corbusier in 1920. Over the course of his career, Le Corbusier was an architect, designer, painter, urban planner and writer, eventually becoming a pioneer of what is now known as modern architecture. Many of his buildings have remained iconic in their locales, and a group of 17 sites, collectively known as the Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, is inscribed on the World Heritage List. As well as his physical structures, Le Corbusier is notable for designs that, although never realised, left a lasting impact on urban planning from the mid-20th century.

In 1922 Le Corbusier presented his plans for his Ville Contemporaine, a utopian city that would house 3 million inhabitants. This plan was not rooted in any real geographic space, but was instead a physical representation of his theories on urban planning. The city would be centred on a central business district formed of super-tall cruciform skyscrapers, with the surrounding area populated by residential buildings. The concentration of all forms of work into these towers necessarily frees up the landscape – what is normally urban space becomes green space, and the city becomes parkland.

In 1925 Le Corbusier reimagined his Ville Contemporaine into the Plan Voisin, moving from a general theory on urban planning to a specific plan for the regeneration of downtown Paris. In this plan, the ‘most diseased quarters of the city, and the narrowest streets’ were to be demolished, replaced by seven cruciform towers to form a new business centre. This re-creation would increase the density of the centre fourfold, but would create a city of ‘pure air’, empty of people. While Le Corbusier called for large-scale demolition, he did not advocate complete destruction. Specific structures would remain, spread over the city: ‘the ancient churches would be preserved. They would stand surrounded by verdure; what could be more charming!’3

Frank Lloyd Wright

1867 - 1959

With a career spanning almost 80 years, Frank Lloyd Wright is perhaps the most recognisable name in American architecture. He is widely known for his conception of a uniquely American style of architecture, and for designing numerous iconic buildings across America. Wright’s concept of a utopian city was one in which man desired not to rule over the landscape, but to live within it. His distaste for skyscrapers and towers is well evidenced, through his paper ‘The tyranny of skyscrapers’, and through his public feud with Le Corbusier on the subject. Less well known, however, are Wright’s designs, created towards the end of his life, of skyscrapers and futuristic cities, the very forms he had previously railed against. Practically impossible at the time of their conception, some of Wright’s designs have direct parallels in cities rising around the globe today.

Wright’s uneasy relationship with skyscrapers was established in the very early stages of his career. In 1888, at the age of 21, Wright began an apprenticeship with the Chicago firm of Adler and Sullivan, working under Louis Sullivan, best known as the ‘father of the skyscraper’. The relationship between the two architects dissolved in 1893 with the termination of Wright’s employment on the basis of breach of contract for accepting independent residential commissions. Wright’s new-found independence soon fostered the development of his iconic Prairie style of architecture. Designed to be a uniquely American style of architecture, it focused on organic shapes, low to the ground, designed to blend into the surrounding landscape.

In 1932 Wright first elaborated his concept for a new style of city, which he saw as an alternative to America’s overcrowded and, he believed, obsolete cities. This plan was called Broadacre City, although its structure was more closely related to suburbia than a city proper. Each family was to be allocated a 1-acre property, resulting in a sprawling settlement. In Wright’s view, the advent of new technologies such as radio and television, as well as the development of the car, rendered densely populated centres unnecessary. Wright and Le Corbusier came to loggerheads over their antithetical plans for utopian cities, with a public dispute taking place through articles published in the New York Times. While Broadacre City itself was never realised, Wright’s plans can be seen to have pre-empted the development of some elements of American suburbia, particularly in the predicted reliance on the car.

Despite Wright’s contempt for cities, he believed that the skyscraper removed from the city could prove beneficial in certain circumstances. In 1956, he unveiled his design for a mile-high tower in Chicago, aptly titled the Mile High Illinois. Impressive by today’s standards, the 5280-foot-tall tower would have been four times the height of the world’s tallest building at the time, the Empire State Building. The mega-tall skyscraper (as it would be referred to in today’s parlance) was to be a more efficient alternative to the existing skyscrapers that Wright believed were a scourge on American cities. While Wright once saw the solution in his Broadacre City, the Mile High Illinois put forward a contrasting approach, by drastically condensing the city’s population rather than decentralising it. The tower was to have a capacity of 100,000, with space for 15,000 cars and 100 helicopters.

Legacies

Despite the differences between them, the three architects described here are united by their desire to improve society and the lives of individuals through the use of architecture. Over a century after the publication of Sant’Elia’s manifesto, the desire to condense populations and to build ever higher into the sky remains prevalent in architecture. And while many of their futuristic designs were never realised, aspects of their designs are present in towers and cities around the world today.

Sant’Elia’s Citta Nuova featured monumental structures that condensed transport and infrastructural elements into single buildings. This concept is becoming increasingly popular in modern cities, with the majority of new tower buildings including some combination of residential, commercial, office, leisure and transport functions.

The influence of Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin and Ville Contemporaine can be seen in cities the world over. Le Corbusier’s ‘tower in the park’ design has been utilised in New York City, in mid-century developments such as Stuyvesant Town and Co-op City, both collections of cruciform towers containing thousands of apartments while permitting large areas of public green space. Atlanta’s Bank of America Plaza, featured in the Towers of Tomorrow exhibition, is another example of Corbusian ideals put into practice, as the tower sits at a 45-degree angle from the street grid, with much of the resulting area filled with green spaces.

The Mile High Illinois’s influence can be directly seen in two towers today – the world’s tallest, and the soon-to-be tallest. The Burj Khalifa, today’s tallest structure, has visual links to Wright’s Mile High Illinois. Both are towering structures in steel and glass. Wright’s sketches show a triangular base, with the structure becoming narrower as it rises, much like the Burj Khalifa’s triaxial base and many setbacks. Both towers are supported by a central core, containing the building’s infrastructure, with the floors radiating out.

The Jeddah Tower, currently under construction in Saudi Arabia, has noticeable visual links to Wright’s design. Both towers appear as thin shards of glass, tapering into the clouds above. An erroneous report in 2011 claimed that the Jeddah Tower was initially designed to be 1 mile high; however, the tower was always planned to reach kilometre into the sky. While not quite as vertically ambitious as Wright’s, upon its completion the Jeddah Tower will be by far the tallest tower in the world.

Contemporary architects are conceptualising utopias, and designing ever taller and more impressive towers, just as Sant’Elia, Le Corbusier and Wright did. Today, however, the question is not if these towers will be built, but when.

  • 1. F.T. Marinetti, ‘The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism’, trans. R.W. Flint, in Umbro Appollonio ed. Documents of 20th Century Art: Futurist Manifestos
  • 2. Antonio Sant’Elia, ‘Manifesto of Futurist Architecture’, http://www.abc.net.au/cm/lb/4285602/data/manifesto-of-futurist-architect...
  • 3. Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow and its Planning, trans. Frederick Etchells, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1987, p280.
High rise building.
Casa a gradinata, Sant'Elia Source: Wikimedia
Sepia toned photo of building.
Casa Sant'Elia Source: Wikimedia

About the author

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Hayley Edmonds

Hayley Edmonds was a project volunteer at Sydney Living Museums.