Architectural projects that were designed but have never been constructed have always captured my imagination. To me, the unbuilt represents possibility and vision.

Books that I enjoyed while I was an undergraduate, and still have a place on my shelves, included Unbuilt Oxford by Howard Colvin, and London As It Might Have Been by Felix Barker and Ralph Hyde.

Both out of print, but well worth tracking down if you too feel the allure of the unbuilt.

I started working with Timeline Films, who made Dreaming The Impossible: Unbuilt Britain for BBC Four, after they got in touch with me through the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain - a group for everyone and anyone interested in architecture and its history.

There have been countless plans to connect mainland Britain to the outside world

I began by giving research advice, then one thing led to another and I ended up in front of the camera!
We wanted to look at some of the mind-boggling unbuilt plans from the past and find out why they hadn’t been constructed.

Some of them were clearly outlandish and technically impossible, but many of them were actually going to go ahead – until a twist of fate, finance, or public opinion pulled the rug from under them. 

We wanted to investigate schemes from across the UK. There are loads of unrealised projects for London, precisely because it is the national hub, but it would have been rather metro-centric not to look further afield.

Two of the schemes that we explore are in Scotland – the Mid-Scotland Ship Canal and the Bruce Plan for Glasgow.

Robert Bruce designed this stark, modernist vision for regenerating Glasgow in 1945

The Bruce Plan is fascinating because it demonstrates a moment when Victorian architecture was so out of favour that planners were on the brink of obliterating the historic buildings of Glasgow’s city centre and replacing them with a Modernist ideal.

Fortunately, it didn’t happen - they’re exactly the same buildings – by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson, for example – that tourists flock to see today. 
Architecture and drawing have a very close relationship, so the graphics for the series were really important.

The brilliant graphic designers at Playdead did a fantastic job of conjuring up 3D visuals from the surviving assortment of plans and perspectives, so that you get a sense of what it would have been like to experience some of these buildings and urban spaces.

Joseph Paxton's only surviving drawing of a giant elongated Crystal Palace brought to life

It was a privilege to talk with so many experts, often in wonderful surroundings, or in strange places. Interviewing under the seabed of the Channel was certainly novel!

Norman Foster and Eric Kuhne fitted us in to their busy schedules with clients – fortunately the time they gave us didn’t put any yet-to-be-realised projects at risk! 

Talking with contemporary architects is a key part of the series. The problems that architects of the past were grappling with are essentially the same that face us today – a rising population, the need for transport and communications, and the desire to represent ourselves in what we build.

The schemes we look at are historical, but they help us to appreciate how architecture and infrastructure play a crucial role in our present-day and future lives.

Dr Olivia Horsfall Turner is the presenter of Dreaming The Impossible: Unbuilt Britain.

Dreaming The Impossible: Unbuilt Britain continues at 9pm on Monday, 19 August on BBC Four. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


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  • Comment number 13. Posted by Olivia Horsfall Turner

    on 27 Aug 2013 19:16

    Many thanks for all your enthusiastic and appreciative comments. I’m really glad that you enjoyed the series – we certainly enjoyed making it for you.

    Steven – I’m delighted that you’re planning to use ideas from the programmes with your KS3 pupils – I really hope it gets them excited about architecture, design and history.

    I’m sorry, John Frewen-Lord, that you found the use of imperial measurements less than satisfactory. The irony of the apparent ‘xenophobia’ of this is not lost upon me, given the subject matter of the second programme. The reason that we did not use metric was indeed – as pacques’s comment suggested – because of the historical context. As a researcher, I couldn’t resist looking into things a bit further, and I see that you have a particular interest in this matter, having written a book on the subject of going metric: it evidently should have been required reading for all of us working on the programme!

    On the subject of books, many of you have asked if there are plans to publish a book based on the series. There are certainly more than enough schemes to fill a volume, but at present that isn’t on the cards. I really do recommend to you the books that I mentioned in my blog post – 'London As It Might Have Been' and 'Unbuilt Oxford'. Hopefully they will go some way to satisfying your appetites for more unrealised projects. They are both extremely well written and illustrated and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

    Thanks too for your suggestions about future projects – who knows...

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