Struggling in the city? Things could have been different if these tech-obsessed architects had gotten their way
What will our future cities look like? To wonder this is at a certain disconnect with the question of what they will be like to live in. SimCity – the PC simulation game released an alarming 25 years ago this week – taught an entire generation to dream big when it came to cities of tomorrow. Fast forward to 2014, and London’s calling – with nothing but spiralling rent costs and dwindling living space to offer. But, to listen to architects and policy-makers, urban utopia is closer than we think: smart, sustainable, and, at times, entirely built from scratch. With technology at the forefront of city planning, a number of competitions have emerged to help design these hometowns of the future, such as the recent Shenzen Super City prize, taken home by CR Architecture+Design’s winning Cloud Citizen, which projected a sci-fi city in the skies. And while architectural visions of utopia have often remained just that – fantasies of urban idealism that could never quite cut it in the real world – the blueprints are still fun to look at. Here, we chart the best of the future cities that never quite made it, or, just haven’t made it yet…
Boozetown might sound like the kind of business proposal arrived at after one too many Caipirinhas, but one mid-century Ohio man had a deadly serious plan. Mel Johnson, a Harvard drop out and global drinker, furiously sketched out plans for his dream city during the 50s. Proving that tech and tipple go hand in hand, BoozeTown would boast moving sidewalks and an electric trolley system to help its inhabitants move from bar to bar. An adults-only city, the Party Police would keep order day-to-day. Fundraisers tended to convince investors under a haze of liquor, only for them to forgo their promises once sober; by 1960, the dream was over. Mel was diagnosed a schizophrenic and died a few years later.
“Man continuously strives to replace the old with the new,” says the narrator of To New Horizons (1940) – a film documenting Norman Bel Gedde’s Futurama exhibit at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Characterised by automated highways and advanced technology, the designer’s vision of the future – that is to say, “the wonder world of 1960” – became the definitive document of utopian city planning. Before the information superhighway was the Geddes superhighway – a time when the free-flowing movement of people and goods was all we had to worry about.
Epcot’s that theme park topped with a giant golf ball that your mate in year four went to one summer, right? Well, yes, but it also stands for Walt’s ‘Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow’. In the 60s, Disney spent years buying up nearly 27,000 acres of land around Florida with the aim of creating his own city – one which would have total autonomy within its borders, where residents would work for Disney, and technology would be innovative and community-focussed. The ultimate Mickey Mouse Club wasn’t to be, however – Walt died in 1966, leaving only futuristic sketches and a small community (the Stepford Wives-esque town of Celebration).
BUCKMINSTER FULLER’S CLOUD NINE
Buckminster Fuller had a fun name and an even more fun knack for drawing up futuristic city plans. Famous for his dome-dwelling designs, he envisaged truly floating cities in the sky – The Spherical Atmospheric Research Station, or Cloud 9s, would consist of extremely lightweight, geodesic spheres, covered in a polyethylene skin and anchored to mountains. Very few of Fuller’s dream-like designs, including these floating communities, ever saw the light of day.
Innopolis, located in the federal subject of Tatarstan, is Russia’s tech-focussed supercity in the making. But it’s early days yet. Currently home to an IT University, the future Innopolis (funding permitting) promises to be a ‘self-contained ecosystem’ with a ‘high standard of living’.
The image of a doomed city enclosed by a colossal, glass dome is a familiar sight in movies and TV – from The Simpsons Movie (2007) to the recent Spielberg-produced TV series, Under the Dome (2013). But there’s truth in that trope – just look at the proposals for Seward’s Success in 1968. Planned as the world’s first completely enclosed, climate-controlled city, the city would have included monorails (cue Simpsons, again), moving sidewalks and a balmy 20 degrees Celsius climate. Plans for the city were halted after court proceedings went awry – the next time we might see such environs becoming a success is potentially on other planets altogether…
Cruises – sorry, Mobile Ocean Colonies – are cool ‘cos there are no rules (i.e. taxes). The Freedom Ship is the natural successor to hundreds of years of philosophising as to the benefits of manufactured ‘Island’ living. The proposed ship would be a floating city, three times the length of the current record holder for the largest ship, that would continually sail around the world year after year. Turns out no man is an island – with an original start date set for 2001, the project is seriously floundering.
THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998)
Okay, so not exactly a ‘city’ by any stretch of the imagination – but, did you know you could feasibly live in the town from The Truman Show (1998)? Seaside, Florida was one of the first cities in America built on the principles of New Urbanism in the early 80s. Pretty as a picture, albeit slightly unnerving.
MINNESOTA EXPERIMENTAL CITY
Partially covered by a giant dome, with ‘people movers’ instead of cars and zero pollution, the proposed Minnesota Experimental City (MXC) of 1973 aligned itself with the great tradition of utopian visions in the 60s and 70s. But something was markedly different about this particular proposition: no schools. Instead, the inhabitants would practice ‘lifelong learning’ through their social interactions. Weirdly, local children didn’t actually like this idea.
SONGDO – THE SMART CITY BUILT FROM SCRATCH
Which city combines NYC’s Central Park, Venice’s waterways and the “historical” vibes of downtown Savannah? Songdo is the built-from-scratch smart city located just outside Seoul, South Korea. Just think of it as a 21st century frontier town – except here, the settlement is due to an international airport. Built from the bottom up with land reclaimed from the sea, the city boasts clean streets but no rubbish trucks – instead, waste is sucked from individual kitchens through futuristic tubes. Shame, then, that most of the smart gizmos of Songdo aren’t fully operational yet – the city is still half empty. Severely lacking the urban buzz of Seoul, the western developers of this aerotropolis are only just realising that it’s the people that make the city.