Historical photos of famous monuments under construction
Whether completed in record time or stretching out for more than a century, the world’s most famous structures are today so integral to the landscape that it can be difficult to conceive of the often herculean efforts required to bring them into being. Here are historical photos documenting some of the most well-known monuments before they became landmarks.
Completed in 1883, New York’s Brooklyn Bridge used sealed and pressurized caissons to allow workers to dig the foundations beneath sea level. The bridge’s designer, John Augustus Roebling, reputedly drew his inspiration for the innovative steel cable design from the Hegelian philosophy of opposites in tension. Sadly, Roebling died of tetanus early in the process; his son Washington, who took over the project, eventually became paralyzed from decompression sickness, and at least 20 more workers died over the course of construction.
Started in 1882, the Sagrada Família Basilica in Barcelona was quickly taken over by Antoni Gaudí—described as a “genius or a madman” by architects of the day—with an ambitious design for the church of the future. He would work on it until his death in 1926, but the project would not be completed for at least another century, with construction continuing to this day. A mass of spires and organic forms, it is one of Europe’s most popular tourist attractions, and Gaudí’s work is today recognized as a World Heritage cultural site.
Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty was the brainchild of two Frenchmen, pro-abolitionist Édouard Lefebvre de Laboulaye and sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, and intended as a tribute to the end of slavery in the United States. Construction began in France in 1876, where the “two pennies thick” copper figure was fully assembled and then disassembled and shipped to the United States. The reassembly on Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor was completed in 1886 by a crew of new immigrants, using cranes and derricks rather than scaffolding.
The Eiffel Tower—a technical triumph of its time—was completed just two years after the first shovel hit dirt in 1887. The 300-metre (1,000-foot) edifice included 2.5 million rivets, 7,300 tonnes of iron and 60 tonnes of paint; each of its parts were traced out at the nearby factory to exacting accuracy. While not universally acclaimed—a group of French literati decried the tower as “a tragic street lamp” and “hole-riddled suppository”—the tower commanded more than 2 million visitors during the 1889 World’s Fair.
Before the arrival of the transcontinental railway in Utah, work on the Salt Lake Temple (of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) in 1853 was painstaking, depending on oxen to haul monstrous blocks of granite for the five-metre-thick (16-foot) foundation walls. Completed in 1893, the neo-gothic structure is now undergoing extensive seismic upgrades after an earthquake damaged the gold-leaf statue of the Angel Moroni perched atop its tallest spire.
The original Wembley Stadium was built on the site of Watkin’s Tower, an erstwhile competitor to the Eiffel Tower that remained incomplete and was eventually buried in the stadium’s foundations. Built to house the British Empire Exhibition of 1924–25, Wembley Stadium went on to become the official home of the British football team until the turn of the century, when it too was demolished to make way for a new Wembley Stadium. Made up of more than 25,000 tonnes of concrete, the original Wembley featured its own distinctive twin towers at the entrance.
The Panama Canal was a feat of civil, social and political engineering that took three decades, three countries, a revolution, an estimated 27,000 lives lost, untold injuries, a medical breakthrough, entire forests flooded and a million cubic metres of dirt moved to complete. By the time it was operational in 1914 it had become the single most expensive U.S. construction project of its day (US$375 million), equivalent to US$9.7 billion today. It is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
Empire State Building
New York City’s Empire State Building was constructed in just one year at a rate of 4.5 storeys per week, by a 3,400-strong workforce in the midst of the Great Depression. Standing 381 metres (1,250 feet) tall, the Art Deco skyscraper was the tallest building in the world at the time of its completion in 1931, made of tens of thousands of tonnes of steel, aluminum, limestone, granite and brick, and a final rivet of solid gold.
Golden Gate Bridge
In 1933, the engineer of San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge, Joseph Strauss—intent on putting an end to the high mortality rate taken for granted among “bridgemen”—mandated full safety gear for his crew. A field hospital was set up on site and his workers were outfitted with hardhats, respirators, goggles, safety lines, netting, and even anti-chafing cream. Nevertheless, 11 workers died over the course of the bridge’s construction, 10 of them when the safety net failed.
The 18-metre-tall (60-foot) faces of U.S. presidents Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson and Roosevelt on a mountaintop in South Dakota were the work of Gutzon Borglum—the son of Mormon polygamists, and a Ku Klux Klan associate—who dynamited more than 400,000 tonnes of rock to create the memorial, completed in 1941. Carved into the sacred Black Hills of Lakota Sioux territory, the likenesses of four American presidents on what is now known as Mount Rushmore stoked controversy that continues to this day—and that’s without mentioning the possibility of adding a fifth president’s face.
Crazy Horse Memorial
The world’s largest monument—in theory—stands unfinished more than 70 years since it was begun, a carved visage in a mountaintop just 27 kilometres (17 miles) from Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski conceived the controversial project as a tribute to Oglala Lakota leader Tasunke Witko, also known as Crazy Horse: “I want to right a little bit of the wrong that they did to these people,” Ziolkowski said. He is buried there today and his family continues the effort with only donations and admission fees, refusing government funding.
When the wall dividing East and West Berlin went up overnight—without warning—in 1961, it became a sombre symbol of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S., and their respective allies. It began as two adjacent cinder-block walls topped with barbed wire and watchtowers, heavily guarded with guns, guard dogs and mines to prevent escape from East to West, and would eventually become a concrete barrier enclosing West Berlin entirely, before its fall in 1989.
The BT Tower—variously known as the GPO Tower, Post Office Tower and Museum Tower—was completed in 1964 to become the tallest building in the U.K. at the time, and a landmark of the London cityscape. The tower’s cylindrical shape helps it withstand movement in high winds, essential for the aerials that remain the primary hub for the nation’s TV broadcasts. It was declared a National Monument in 2001.
Cathedral of Brasília
The Cathedral of Brasília, dedicated in 1970, took 12 years to complete. The soaring structure features 16 parabolic concrete columns joined like upstretched hands, and connected by colossal stain glass windows. Considered one of architect Oscar Niemeyer’s finest achievements, the cathedral’s deceptively simple shapes pushed the boundaries of structural engineering of the time, requiring innovative techniques to achieve his vision.
Completed in 1976, the CN tower—standing at an imposing 553 metres (1,815 feet) tall—became a defining element of Toronto’s skyline, and a major tourist attraction as the world’s tallest free-standing structure. Its height gives the telecommunications tower a clear line of sight across the city, giving Toronto some of the clearest reception in North America still today. In 1995 it was designated one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Sydney Opera House
The effortless, uplifted forms of the Sydney Opera House belie the bloat of the project’s execution. The original cost estimate swelled more than tenfold to A$102 million by the time it was completed in 1973 (US$720 million in 2020), a process that took 10,000 workers and 14 years—10 years longer than expected. Today, the Australian landmark is fully redeemed as a World Heritage Site visited by nearly 11 million people annually.
Peter the Great Statue
In Central Moscow, the world’s eighth-largest statue—just edging out the Statue of Liberty at 98 metres (322 feet) high—commemorates Tsar Peter the Great (1682-1725) and the 300th anniversary of the Russian navy he founded. Made of 600 tonnes of stainless steel, bronze and copper, the monument of the Russian leader perched on a ship has proved controversial since it was erected in 1997, not least because Peter the Great was known to hate Moscow.
London’s O2 Arena (formerly the Millennium Dome) is the world’s largest dome. Completed in 2000, the enclosed space is large enough to form its own weather systems, were it not for the Teflon-coated fabric roof; the air within weighs more than the structure itself. Originally conceived by the British government to house an ill-fated exhibition to usher in the new millennium, it was reinvented in 2007 to become the world’s most popular music venue.
Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía
Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the Palau de les Arts serves as the Valencia Opera House, with four separate performance venues. The masterpiece of modern architecture—whose curved, floating shapes evoke a ship clasped by shells—was completed in 2006 after 10 years of construction; Calatrava then described it as “the most intense” project of his career.
Statue of Unity
The world’s tallest statue, erected in 2018 on the banks of the Narmada River in India’s Gujarat state, took more than 2,000 workers and 12,000 bronze panels to complete. At 182 metres (nearly 600 feet) tall, the effigy of Indian independence leader Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel stands twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty. Named the Statue of Unity, the monument is anchored by two massive, concrete cores within its steel framing, allowing it to withstand heavy winds and earthquakes.
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