Better Off Dead: A Collection of Really Embarrassing Buildings


We all have our dark shameful pasts, secrets we’d rather let lie in the closet of our yearbook photos, haircuts that need never see the light of even dusk. The great thing about being completely un-famous, though, is that our pasts, while they may

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aunt us on Facebook, aren’t physically built. No one has to live in our embarrassing high-school mistakes, and no one has to work in them. The ten architects behind the projects that follow, however, don’t have such a luxury of anonymity. Herewith we present ten projects either explicitly rejected by their designers or so tremendously equivalent to a killer side-scrunchie with Keds, that they probably should have been. Take a spin through the glory that is our Schadenfreude, and let us know about any metalmouths we’ve overlooked.

Frank Gehry, Experience Music Project

We were, at first, insanely thrilled to get to visit the Experience Music Project and science Fiction Museum last summer in Seattle, 99% for the Battlestar Galactica exhibit and 1% for the chance to roll around a Gehry building. We’d heard murmurs that the architect had formally distanced himself from the Paul Allen-funded project, and as we loitered around the Sky Church (technical name) and tried to find our way through the labyrinthine building we realized why. The EMP is just bad. Bad circulatory spaces, bad sense of scale, bad use of materials, bad architecture. Seven minutes in heaven? Point five, maybe — and that’s just for the Cylon Raider.

Greg Lynn, New York Presbyterian Church

You knew you were almost to the airport when you passed this stage-wings-like house of worship on your left (on your right if you were, finally, heading home), and while Lynn has continued to keep it on his Wikipedia page as well as listed it as a “prominent project” on his European Graduate School faculty site — which, side note, describes him as a “professor of Conceptual Architecture” (do what?!), this building kinda puts the brutal in brutalist.

Ryugyong Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea

First begun in 1987, this Xerxes-in-300-worthy pyramid of a structure was left for dead in 1992 due to political and economic difficulties. The crazy thing is how close-to-done the building stood for sixteen years: completely topped out, structurally sound, way taller than I.M. Pei’s Louvre pyramids. The other crazy thing is how excised it was from official North Korean maps, and how difficult it was to get any real sense of whether the building truly existed anymore or whether it had just become a simulacrum (somebody call Baudrillard!) Now we know that the building exists, that an Egyptian firm has taken over construction completion, and that some things are best left in the realm of the highdea.

Alexander Hall, Princeton University

What follows is legend, not truth, but see above re: Baudrillard, and let’s just go with it. An architecture student at Princeton University submitted the design for Alexander Hall — a Romanesque floozy of a flurry of decoration and High Victorian Gothic — as his senior thesis project. His professors failed him, publicly, and excoriatingly. He left architecture school, became a banker/stockbroker/financial analyst, became extraordinarily rich, and approached the university. He offered to build them an auditorium. They thanked him, said “yes please.” He said, you’re welcome, only catch, they had to build his failed senior thesis project. They did. And this is the story you will hear from a backwards-walking tour guide, should you choose to accept it. This is the truth, should you choose to see it as such.

A Bunch of 9th-Century Monks, The Plan of St. Gall

Drawings for an unbuilt Benedectine monastic compound, the Plan of St. Gall is the equivalent of coming up with a crazy theoretical math answer, and then never showing your work. Pedantic, maybe, but also super-problematic for legions of architectural historians who’ve dedicated much of their scholarship to figuring out just how big everything’s supposed to be and what to do with the more-than-three hundred rhyming appendices. The dedication explaining the unsolicited gift reads: “For thee, my sweetest son Gozbertus, have I drawn this briefly annotated copy of the layout of the monastic buildings, with which you may exercise your ingenuity and recognize my devotion.” Translated: “Heart U, Made This 4 U, call me tonite?! xo!”

Steven Holl, Simmons Hall, MIT

Opened in 2003, Simmons Hall is based on, as brilliantly elucidated by critic Philip Nobel in Metropolis, the word “porosity.” Not that there’s anything wrong with basing a building on a word, except there is, especially if that word is “porosity,” i.e. to do with holes and lacuna and elisions, i.e. things you don’t really want in a built structure. Kinda like when we got real excited about the word “misled,” and didn’t realize it was pronounced “miss-led.”

McGaw Chapel, College of Wooster, Ohio

We visited a friend once in his downtown apartment and saw his insanely bitchin’ roofdeck. Turned out the contractors had mixed up the drawings for an Upper East Side apartment and this downtown hole-in-the-wall, landing him with a 1% deck for his 99% apartment. That’s an example of mistakes gone well. At the College of Wooster in Ohio, however, the McGaw Chapel looks kinda like an above-ground bunker. Which is, allegedly, because it was designed as a basement and just — accidentally — built above ground.

Thom Mayne, Contempo Casuals Store, LA

Just as repeat offender Frank Gehry paid his early bills by designing a bunch of mall-ready Kay Jewelers, West Coast maverick and hole-of-darkness Thom Mayne of Morphosis once designed a, get this, Contempo Casuals store. To be fair, it was the eighties, things were different, he hadn’t yet introduced his epic — and epically brilliant — Cooper Union building to downtown New York, but still. Thom Mayne on Contempo Casuals is like bringing Steve Jobs in to help visually edit your oatmeal.

Eric Owen Moss, Aronoff Guest House

The third Californian on the list — must be something in the budget water! — is Eric Owen Moss, now known as the designer of fairly bitchin’ renewals in LA’s Culver City but once-upon-a-time, say circa the 1970s, designer of this proposed guest house in Tarzana. Never built, it would look more at home on Tatooine than the Santa Monica Mountains.

Richard Meier, Courthouse, Phoenix

Full disclosure: we have loved Richard Meier ever since first seeing the Smith and Douglas Houses when we were eleven-year-old architecture nerds. Fuller disclosure: it is with a heavy — but necessary — heart that we nominate his Phoenix Courthouse to round out our list of embarrassing teenage projects. Word is the architect kind of forgot about how hot it gets in Phoenix, built an enormous glass wall as per usual for his modernist style and, well, the judges needed an on-site laundry. To quote the dearly departed, smells like Teen Spirit.

And now, on with the roasts! Nominations in the comments, please.