Dreaming The Impossible: Unbuilt Britain

Monday 19 August 2013, 12:38

Dr Olivia Horsfall Turner Dr Olivia Horsfall Turner Architectural Investigator

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.

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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.

The Bruce Plan - 1945 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.

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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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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Fantastic show - congratulations. I teach history at secondary level and will use some of these ideas to enthuse ks3 pupils. Really looking forward to pt 2 tonight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I wonder if you have any plans to publish a book based on this series. In my opinion, it would make an excellent publication!

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Hope they bring a book out would love to some if these designs in print, i would buy it !!! Great programme keep them coming

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Your program on the Channel Tunnel was beautifully presented and wonderfully researched. The various tunnel schemes were, as you put it, all about international relations. It was such a pity, therefore, that you chose to eschew the world's system of international measurements (the metric system) in its presentation, and instead continued with the rather xenophobic use of imperial measurements. It did spoil what was otherwise an excellent program.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    20th August 2013 - 21:30
    Hope they bring a book out would love to some if these designs in print, i would buy it !!! Great programme keep them coming


    I can't say better than that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Great series! Well worth watching.

    I seem to recall back 'when I were a nipper', seeing an article on Tomorrow's World that talked about demolishing all the buildings etc from the whole of south-east England & replacing them with a small number ('14' is in my mind for some reason) of 'tower cities'. The towers were to be 4 miles high & deliberately designed to sink into the ground as they were built until they hit bedrock. Another idea before it's time, I guess...

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Enjoyed them all; especially tonight's on London and Glasgow.
    Regarding London it would be fascinating roll forward Wren's model to take account of industrialisation, the motor vehicle, the blitz and the rise of the City. Would Wren's principles have taken the strains of the last 200 years?
    Regarding Glasgow there were similar horror plans for most provincial cites; one the best documented Poulson's and T Dan Smith's vision for Newcastle and its environs. Each would be worthy of a programme.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Thank you for a fascinating, intelligent and insightful piece of television. It was a pleasure to catch the programme this evening

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Wonderful programming, great history; allowing vast imaginary pondering. I truly love the use of the correct measurement, as it would have been utilised at the time of conception and design.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    A well researched and interesting new perspective on architectural history broadcasting.

    I look forward to the next episode...

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Excellent programme, really well done. Just so glad that the plan for Glasgow wasn't implemented. Many really interesting buildings and neighbourhoods were lost in carving the M8 through the city, truncating it from the west end, so had the plan gone ahead the entire character of the city centre would have been lost. Considering many of the high rise developments of the 60's are now being razed what would Glasgow have become now? I suspect many of the shiny new modernist buildings emerging along the Clyde will go the same way in 40 years or less. Many other cities must have had similar plans so the scope for further shows on this theme must be there surely.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Marvellous programme of revelation, and the Beeb at its best. Hope the wonderful Olivia will be set to work on further episodes sooooon! CB

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    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...

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Dear Olivia, what a brilliant series, but woefully too short in the number of episodes.
    I hope you get a recommission for more excellent insights - and you made a great presenter. Thank you for such a well-researched, informative series.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    gedparker is mistaken if he thinks that John Poulson had anything at all to do with the 1961-63 redevelopment plan for Newcastle, designed by the City Planner Wilfred Burns at the behest of T Dan Smith. And while he is entitled not to like the plan, he is again mistaken in likening it to Bruce's Glasgow plan. The Burns plan pioneered the concept of 'conservation districts' in Britain - areas of townscape value worthy of preservation - which were enshrined in national law and practice as 'conservation areas' some years later, in 1967. Smith himself prevented the redevelopment of areas in the neoclassical city centre - the area now known as Grainger Town. If anythging, Bruce's Glasgow plan was similar to the 1945 Newcastle plan drawn up by the city engineer Percy Parr, which also posited a more or less complete demolition of the city centre, though unlike Bruce's Corbusianism Parr's plan was a mixture of beaux-arts boulevards and sub-Hugh Ferris sykscrapers.

    An excellent series. I too would like to see more. One suggestion: Peterlee: the high rise town proposed by Lubetkin (and scuppered by the NCB), and the Science City proposed by T Dan Smith when he was chairman of the development corporation in the later 1960s (and here Poulson DID play a part).

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Watched this all on iplayer, the series was fantastic. I really hope there's a second series or more to come as it really was one of the most interesting and well presented programs 'watched for ages.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    An enthralling series of programmes. I liked the format of parallel presentation of two comparable schemes from different eras. I also discovered Colvin's 'Unbuilt Oxford' many years ago: the plan to build a road tunnel under Christ Church Meadow (happily unrealized) was astonishing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    A brilliant series and Dr Olivia's voice is a model of clarity. I hope she is allowed to do more programmes for the BBC.


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