The interior of Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim (right) is almost a carbon copy of Wright's in NYC (left)
The interior of Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim (right) is almost a carbon copy of Wright’s in NYC (left)

Frank Lloyd Wright intended his Mile High Illinois skyscraper to be the focal point of Broadacre City—a theoretical city he began planning in the 1920s.

While a one-mile-high skyscraper might have seemed fantastically out of place in Wright’s era, The Illinois skyscraper project was an exploration of horizontal space because, as he put it, some cities are simply “incorrigible” and Broadacre could use a tall building to act as a cultural and social hub, which would address some of the sprawl issues associated with growing urban spaces.

The foundation of Wright’s building was a massive column, shaped like an inverted tripod, sunk deeply into the ground. This supported a slender, tapering tower with cantilevered floors. In keeping with his belief that architecture ought to be organic, Wright likened this system to a tree trunk with branches.

He planned to use gold-tinted metal on the facade to highlight angular surfaces along balconies and parapets and specified Plexiglas for window glazing. Inside the building, mechanical systems were to be housed inside hollow cantilevered beams. To reach the building’s upper floors, Wright proposed atomic-powered elevators that could carry 100 people per trip.

Wright believed that it would have been technically possible to construct such a building even at the time it was proposed. At the time, the tallest skyscraper in the world was New York’s Empire State Building, which stood at less than a quarter of the proposed height for The Illinois.

It probably would have been possible to erect a self-supporting steel structure of the required height, but, of course, steel comes with a host of strength-to-weight challenges that arise when building structures of such great heights.

Not surprisingly, Dubai’s Burj Dubai clearly resembles the original design of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘The Illinois’—the only difference being is that The Illinois was designed 50 years earlier. Architecture critics always cite a handful of stories of unbuilt skyscrapers as the best of the style and, in doing so, completely neglect the vast majority of completed projects.
The folklore surrounding classic skyscrapers that never saw completion tells us much about what motivates both architects and their clients. These tales beg the question, what is it about working in the tall building genre that compels architects to produce such interesting work?

My hypothesis is this: Perhaps that which motivates architects to go taller and taller is a fantastic wish to be free of gravity’s limitations and to build something that inspires clients, investors and other architects as it seems to soar into the sky. Another, albeit more down-to-earth theory, is an appeal to rationality: Perhaps architects design tall buildings simply to create cities that make logical use of available land.

If The Illinois had been built in Chicago 50 years ago, would SOM still have had to blaze new trails in terms of technology in construction, MEP works, HVAC and even window cleaning mechanisms—all of which were designed and tailored specifically for this tower—in the Burj Dubai?

Fifty years ago, would Frank Lloyd Wright be faced with the same challenges that existed for SOM in its quest for the world’s tallest tower? Would his solutions have differed significantly? Would they have differed at all? 

From its inception, The Illinois was designed to stand 1,609 meters (5,280 ft) and aimed to provide solutions to the ever-sprawling city of Chicago. Had it been built, The Illinois would have incorporated 528 stories and a gross area of 18.46 million ft² (1.71 million m²/171 hectares).

Wright’s is arguably the most famous of the visionary buildings that never came to fruition. All of them aimed at addressing the increasing urban sprawl occurring in cities throughout the world. Before mile-high towers projects were launched in Kuwait, KSA and Dubai, the very concept was never considered financially viable.

But now, however, as Burj Dubai becomes simply a symbol of luxury with little concern for reason or the challenges of urban sprawl, it is the project that has come to most closely resemble Frank Lloyd Wright’s concept of a vertical city. It provides yet another example of the relationship between iconography and financial feasibility: Those with money, build high.

A similar situation occurred when the wealthy Guggenheim Foundation hired Frank Gehry to design a museum for the architectural playground of Bilbao, Spain. While their exterior forms differed somewhat, the interior architecture of Guggenheim Bilbao was designed to be almost a carbon copy of that of the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum in New York City.

This is not a criticism of the buildings, but instead a celebration of the designer’s aim and the relationship between himself and his building. For great architects, that relationship has never been a commercial one, but instead a relationship built on a mastery of art, design, building and style.

With regard to any of these relationships, and considering that for over 60 years his work has been recreated, regurgitated and downright copied, Frank Lloyd Wright proved it then as he continues to prove it today with the inspiration he provides to contemporary students and architects, he is still the master.

By Alaa Mandour