Making Mies Happen: The Allure of Unbuilt Architecture

Although Modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) has been dead for nearly fifty years, one Midwestern city is about to become home to perhaps the last building of his ever to be built.

In 1952, Mies was commissioned to design a building for the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington. Although plans were submitted to the University for approval, the project never got off the ground due to funding issues, and it was soon forgotten. Recently however, an alumnus who was seeking to give a major endowment to the University’s School of Art, Architecture, and Design, recalled the Mies proposal from when he was a student back in the 1950’s, and after a great deal of searching, the plans were rediscovered. So now, lo these many decades later, groundbreaking is underway, thanks to the keen memory and generous donation of that former student. The estimated completion date for the construction is sometime in June of 2021.


While this may seem a somewhat unusual project, i.e., building something that was planned but never executed at the time it was designed, there are a number of parallels in the history of architectural design. My personal favorite was the plan for a massive skyscraper to have been known, appropriately enough, as the “Hotel Attraction”, which would have attracted a great deal of attention in Lower Manhattan at roughly the spot where the Freedom Tower now stands at Ground Zero. It was designed by, of all people, Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926), who never built anything outside of Spain – and very little outside of Barcelona. After the 9/11 attacks there was, at least for awhile, some talk of finally building Gaudí’s tower in the location where he had intended it to go, but this turned out to be little more than wishful thinking.


More obvious examples of architectural plans that got shelved only to be completed later can often be found when looking at the history of major churches. The Cathedrals of Barcelona and Cologne, for example, halted their construction at about the same time, around 1500, once their interiors were more or less completed. For hundreds of years, until work on their facades and bell towers resumed in the late 19th century, they looked like this from the outside:



In both instances, the architects were able to modify the preserved medieval plans for the buildings, and finish the projects using contemporary materials such as cast iron and concrete.

Another famous example is the Duomo in Florence where, like in Barcelona and Cologne, major work stopped in the late 15th century, and did not resume until the late 19th century. Unlike its Gothic sisters however, the original design for the façade of Florence’s Cathedral was not followed, despite the preserved design for it by the great Florentine artist and architect Giotto (c. 1267-1337), who had designed the Basilica’s bell tower. Once construction was set to resume, it was felt that Giotto’s designs were not grand enough for the structure as actually built, so in the 1880’s, a rather birthday cake-like façade was slathered on the front of the building. Until then however, it looked like this:


Perhaps the most intriguing unbuilt structure in Florence however, is the façade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo. The parish church of the ruling Medici family, and where most of the members of that clan were buried, the structure is a touchstone for the development of Italian Renaissance architecture, and houses significant works of painting and sculpture. Like the aforementioned cathedrals however, work stopped on the Basilica itself around 1500, even though construction on other parts of the church complex continued in fits and starts for the next two hundred years. Thus, this is the face that the building has presented to the world for the last half-millennium:


What’s particularly intriguing, and a bit frustrating, is that not only do the plans for the façade still exist, but in fact so does the architectural model. In 1518 Pope Leo X (1475-1521), himself a Medici, commissioned Michelangelo (1475-1564) to design the outer and inner facades of the building. For funding and other reasons, the outer façade was never built, but we can see Michelangelo’s scale model of it today at the home where he grew up, which is now a museum. It shows how fully the artist had absorbed the lessons of his archaeological studies in Rome, and had it been built it would have made a significant contribution to the development of world architecture:


For the past decade, a group of Michelangelo devotees has been trying to raise awareness and funds to finally build the façade for San Lorenzo, but there doesn’t seem to be any movement on that score of late.

It’s not often the case that we get to revisit the past in order to take the plans of a great architect to fruition. Yet the allure of making the attempt is something that will always be hard to resist. So in light of the new-old Mies going up in Bloomington, let’s hope that someday, the Florentines – and perhaps, dare one say, New Yorkers – will get their act together and build some of the superlative designs just waiting for the right visionary to come along and fund their construction.

2 Comments on “Making Mies Happen: The Allure of Unbuilt Architecture

  1. A couple of comments on delayed buildings. First St. Vitus, the cathedral in Prague is another Gothic cathedral that was suspended and then finished in the 19th Century. I think the plan is original, but the intriguing thing about it is the stained glass is not really Gothic in style, but Art Nouveau. Some of them were designed by Mucha.

    On a more prosaic scale I think you can buy unbuilt house plans by Frank Lloyd Wright through the foundation at Talesian West in Phoenix & get your own Frank Lloyd Wright house. I think I read about it on their site.


  2. Yes, many Cathedrals or large churches were delayed during their construction and had those sorts of things happen. And although I have heard of ordering DIY Frank Lloyd Wright kits, I rather doubt I’d want to live in one of his houses. For one thing, he insisted on telling you what to *wear* when you were in one of his homes. Thank you for reading and commenting!


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