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Utopian visions of future cities are often bold and exciting, yet for various reasons, these ambitious ...
2021-05-24 09:00:00

Challenging Cities
Visions of Urban Utopia

“Nighthawks”, Edward Hopper, 1942, Art Institute of Chicago
Challenging Cities
Challenging Cities

It doesn’t matter who dreamed them up: a fantasist, thoughtful scientist, idealist or corporation. Nor does it matter whether there was a happy outcome. The boldest visions of future cities – cities that were never built – were driven by desire. And they never became reality because we simply didn’t want it badly enough.

Read in 10 minutes

The ‘city of the future’ is a challenge, not a promise. The creation of tomorrow heralds changes, a reconstructed life – and change is always followed by fear. Because in this new world, we’d have to be different, too. The most famous architects of future urban landscapes all seem to have had the same blind spot – they failed to appreciate the extent of human anxiety and attachment to what’s already there. Futurists believe that change is possible and they want to be the ones setting its course. We know that change is unavoidable, and we often prefer to go with the flow rather than actively participate in designing it.

This is why the future as proposed by visionaries in the form of a reshaped metropolis arrives step by step, through the back door. Every one of those people managed to leave their mark on the universe, slightly altering its course.

Concepts of new cities, even those long-buried, are worth re-examining. Even if just for the magnificent exercise in imagination that they offer. Also because our life today was built on the ideas someone dreamed up yesterday. Whether we want it or not, we are someone else’s future.

Octagon City: An oasis of longevity, providence and vegetarianism

On 26th March 1856, a Daily Missouri Democrat journalist wrote about the peculiar crowd going up the Missouri River towards a new settlement about 40 miles from Fort Scott in Kansas. He noted that the group consisted of thrifty, industrious and intelligent people. The travellers were the first group of settlers in the (yet to be set up) Octagon City. Their job was to build municipal and industrial infrastructure, as well as prepare the area, located almost perfectly in the centre of today’s United States, for welcoming its new inhabitants. The city – designed on an octagonal plan – was supposed to become the birthplace of a new model of living that would later spread across the whole country.

Every one of the pilgrims participated in building the future. Less than a year prior, in May 1855, two companies were set up in New York: Vegetarian Kansas Emigration and Octagon Settlement Company. There, people could buy shares in this revolutionary – and universally beneficial, as many believed – endeavour. One share cost $5 and equalled one acre of land. Every citizen was allowed to buy 20 to 240 shares on the condition of agreeing to the rules of Octagon City: shared income and investments, the transfer of profits to a trade development fund, wages paid in coupons that could be used as currency in shops and parlours. Every citizen would be granted one vote in collectively-made decisions about the city.

Future inhabitants also had to accept the moral code that Octagon City was expected to follow. The pilgrims were going to an oasis of longevity and providence; an oasis of healthy eating and vitality based on guidelines found in the Bible. Among these rules were modesty and abstemiousness, giving up tea and coffee (not to mention alcohol), attending hydrotherapy on a regular basis (the city was to be built near the Neosho River), studies on phrenology (a pseudo-science that attributed irrational importance to differences in the shapes and sizes of human skulls), as well as practising Christianity. Most importantly, however, slavery and eating meat were banned.

“Hasten you lovers of carrots, you eaters of unbolted grain! The rich land of Kansas awaits the seed. Hasten, flee beyond the fumes of nicotine, beyond the stench of Rum, to where the fine barns will stand back to back and the husbandmen look forth to contemplate the ever widening pie-shaped fields until they are lost on the horizon!” exhorted Henry Clubb in newspaper advertisements and during his sermon-like speeches. Clubb, an Englishman, was the deviser of Octagon City – an enthusiast of the vegetarian diet, who strongly opposed slavery and the demoralizing lifestyle prevalent in the ever-swelling 19th-century cities and factory districts. In the new city, life was going to be healthier, fairer and community-based, devoid of the exploitation and self-destruction that devout Americans (often coming to America from European towns and villages) encountered upon their arrival to the East Coast. The vision of this new Canaan – the land of the chosen people – attracted daredevils from all around the continent.

Clubb’s promises were hypnotizing, also because the man was a journalist for the New York Tribune – he knew how to spin a story. On top of that, he had a strong ally, namely Orson Fowler, a phrenologist, amateur architect and publishing tycoon. In 1848, Fowler published a book titled The Octagon House: A Home for All or a New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building. In his book, Fowler argued that such homes are cheaper to build and to heat, providing more living space and have fewer dark corners. Thanks to their airiness and superior use of daylight, they were said to be beneficial for one’s health. In the 19th century, when living in dark, stuffy dens led to many diseases and illnesses, such spacious, bright homes inspired the imagination. In Canada alone, over 1000 such homes were built, and to this day, their owners are delighted by the amount of sunlight they get to enjoy at any time of day.

When Henry Clubb first announced his plan to build Octagon City, 47 people signed contracts to buy shares straight away. In 1856, when the first settlers were about to depart, the number of participants was already at 106, with a total of over $33,000 worth of shares sold. The inhabitants’ assets were estimated to amount to over $100,000. Most of the people going with Clubb sold everything they owned, leaving no way back. Everyone was promised a house, as well as permission to use mills, sawmills and other workshops that were supposed to wait in the promised land. However, the perfect plan started cracking almost immediately. Not enough vegetarians agreed to participate in Clubb’s health crusade, and so he had to start accepting carnivores to collect enough money for building the city.

The average distance people had to cross in order to reach the city of the future was 1000 miles. Measuring the level of their disappointment upon arrival would be much harder. All they saw was swathes of prairie and muddy ground. Instead of temporary lodgings made of brick – in which they were supposed to stay until building their own homes – they found tents, haphazardly-made shacks and no foundations laid in the industrial part of the city. There was nothing there. No tools for forest clearing or farming. No physician. Families of newcomers had to build their first shelters out of bark and cloth.

The industrious and diligent pilgrims felt they had been deceived – many of them considered the move a way of investing in a better model of living, seeing themselves as the avant-garde that would be soon at the top of society. Some of them turned back straight away. Others decided to give it a try, just like the thousands of persistent settlers in many other parts of the US – they cleared woodland, built sturdier houses, began farming. Still, they had all the odds stacked against them. The spring was rainy and cold, mosquitoes thrived in the muddy puddles. The settlers were consumed by fevers, diarrhoea, dehydration. Many of them died. The weather devastated their crops, and whatever yield they managed to salvage they lost to the local tribes of Indigenous Americans, who took it by force. Soon enough, those who survived starvation and diseases decided to leave.

In April 1856, the man responsible for the catastrophe and the advertiser for empty dreams arrived at the scene. Together with his wife, Clubb moved into a wigwam and after just a few weeks, he realized the scope of his failure. He was one of the first to leave. The ones to stay the longest – until 1857 – were the Steward family. Eventually, they also gave up and moved up north to Cottage Grove, leaving Octagon City empty. No trace of the utopia was left, except for the nearby brook, known to this day as Vegetarian Stream.

In 2007, the Kansas-based historian Bill Slane also gave up. For years, Slane had looked after the small memorial of Octagon City, replacing the flags that kept getting stolen or destroyed. Eventually, having replaced the flag 21 times – which cost him $415 – he gave up at the age of 85. He took down the sign commemorating the efforts to create a vegetarian paradise and brought it to the Neosho County Museum. A handful of photographs and documents about the unfortunate pioneers can be found at the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka.

The memory of the unbuilt city lives on in the design of octagonal houses scattered around North America. There are 72 such houses in Canada, and several hundred in the US. As for Henry Clubb, he never abandoned his missionary aspirations. He founded the Vegetarian Society of America and became the editor-in-chief of the Food, Home and Garden magazine. But he never tried to bring his ideas to life again.

Among the numerous reasons for Clubb’s failure, his rushed attitiude seems to be crucial. Clubb never managed to build the structures nor set up an organization that could support the people of Octagon City when they struggled.

EPCOT: The prototypical society according to Walt Disney

Optimism and happiness were never in short supply at Disneyland, created in California by Walt – known as the father of Mickey Mouse, but later also appreciated as an innovator and constructor. Deyan Sudjic, the former director of the Design Museum in London, praised Disneyland for being one of the best-designed urban areas in the world, comparing it to the space-conquering successes of NASA. Of course, this fairy-tale retro-illusion that never lets anyone get lost (all paths meet in the central square, and wherever you are, your legs will carry you to Main Street), and where nothing bad ever happens (one time, Secret Service agents even allowed President Nixon to go on a ride without security) also has its stark opponents. One of them being Umberto Eco, who criticized Disneyization, describing it as a process that reduces people to robotic behaviours and makes them addicted to consumption. Others agreed that Disney did create a new category: city-less urbanism. His amusement parks are the backdrop to memories of a childhood we never had. Everything there is thought-out down to the tiniest detail.

Disney’s biographers suggest that such a high degree of environmental control and perfectionism (Walt was known for his diligent supervision of people and machines alike) are a telltale sign of authoritarian tendencies. Disney himself would have probably replied that when thinking of the recipients of all his inventions (he was already coming up with breakthrough solutions as an animator, later hiring armies of engineers, scientists and designers he called Imagineers), his main concern was always to bring people joy. Disney didn’t believe in limitations, he believed in the power of imagination, and he brought it to life.

By the end of his life, he began wishing for the future, and he went at it with the verve and bravado of a young man. First, he bought huge stretches of land in Florida. People expected him to build yet another park, larger this time – Disney World. But instead, he was designing EPCOT: Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. The cumbersome name never gained a lighter, less unwieldy alternative, just like Disney’s grandiose idea never took flight.

Here’s how it went. In the early 1960s, Walt Disney – together with a group of scientists and designers – drew a circle. In its centre, he located a pedestrian-only common area, full of shops, parlours and company offices. The whole area was covered with a climate-controlling dome. The weather was to be sunny, rainless, warm, perfect for walks and outdoor activities. Under the walking area, there was to be a buzzing transfer hub. All traffic would happen underground (or under a walking platform, but one way or another, it would be fully separated from the pedestrian area), taking people to the further zones or other cities. A train station would be connected to the logistic centre and routes leading to residential areas on the outskirts. In EPCOT, there would also be mixed zones, green zones and recreational zones. The blueprints and drawings that survived to this day look like idyllic suburbs, only designed on a circular plane. The key idea seemed to be fast and convenient transport. Walt Disney predicted that in the future, mobility was going to become crucial.

His breakthrough ideas were hidden in small details. Disney envisioned EPCOT as a city of creative business, whose inhabitants would spend their days testing the latest products made by American corporations. Even before EPCOT, he presented prototypes of futuristic homes at World Fairs – apartments made of plastic, with microwave cookers and a range of appliances that (as he correctly predicted) would be subject to constant improvement and innovation. The people of EPCOT would be the first users of those frequently changed and improved machines.

Two aspects of Disney’s urban fantasy deserve special attention. First, he appreciated the future importance of car-free zones and of places that facilitate friendly interactions. Second, he was right to imagine that in the future, we would be subject to constant change, education and updating of our state of knowledge. Disney kept on working on EPCOT’s layout from his hospital bed, tormented by incurable illness and horrible back pains. He was coming up with new details until his very last day in 1966.

The task of filling his futuristic set design with a convincing social concept proved to be more challenging. It was unclear how EPCOT was going to be governed, how much autonomy would be offered to its citizens, and whether it would be part of a different prototypical organization – autarkic, perhaps? What role would be given to the corporations that were expected to be the driving force behind the forever-evolving city-laboratory? Would they cover the construction costs, would they provide employment opportunities for the people of EPCOT? What would they want in exchange? All these crucial parts of Disney’s plans remained just a blank colouring page. None of his partners or co-workers felt competent enough to fill the rest of his vision with solutions.

All that remained of EPCOT was a partially-finished model. The future was concluded with an exhibition in Disney World, which soon became the best-earning amusement park in the world. Still, Disney’s fantasies, without a doubt, did make a strong impact on humanity – they turned out to be both contagious and effective. There are few places in the world where children have never heard of Mickey Mouse, never dreamed of owning something pink, and never experienced an uncanny longing for the perfect past. Disney’s achievements contradict the belief that one man with a big imagination is not enough to change the world.

Seward’s Folly: Madness under the dome

Disney’s vision inspired another utopian idea: the 1968 plan of building a city known as Seward’s Success in Alaska. The name was a homage to the former Secretary of State William H. Seward, who, in 1867, bought Alaska from Russia for over $7 million.

The city was initially planned to be built in Port McKenzie, and the frosty investment was brought about by Tandy Industries from Tulsa. The idea was neither about passion nor beliefs. It was about money, squirting out of the recently-discovered oil deposits in Prudhoe Bay. Expecting an endless stream of profits and crowds of settlers, the corporation decided to hire a group of designers from Adrian Wilson Associates in Los Angeles to create a domed city with a mild climate, right next to the freezing city Anchorage. The glass dome, like an aquarium, was going to provide a constant 20°C temperature for homes, with shared public squares alongside restaurants, playing fields, shops and companies. All of it was designed exclusively for pedestrians, as there would be no cars allowed under the dome. There would be moving pavements on the ground, and train stations underneath. In the pictures, the project resembled a huge shopping mall, just with permanent residents and the headquarters of an oil behemoth: Alaskan Petroleum Center. The city was going to be heated using the deposits of natural gas found nearby. Anchorage was going to be connected to the rest of the world by cable railway cars and – in the long run – by a magnetic railway. The company spent $170 million as an initial investment. It expected the city to welcome its 5000 inhabitants very soon.

The plan went downhill already in 1970, when it was decided to build an oil pipeline across Alaska. Land prices went up, and plot owners were no longer interested in selling them to make space for a fantasy project. They preferred to wait until the land became even more expensive. Officially, the plans to build Seward’s Success lasted for two more years. The investment was called off in 1972.

Similar follies – supported by neither a genuine social need nor economic sensibility – still crop up from time to time. Some of them are being slowly developed, such as the smart city of Songdo in Korea, growing on artificial land and expected to attract businessmen from North Asia. Others, like the Bride in Basra Province in Iraq, are just spectres on the horizon for now. The oil-rich Iraqi province wants to build the first functioning Vertical City: a cluster of skyscrapers going 1.5 kilometres upwards, connected by horizontal platforms with parks and squares. Public transport would travel vertically, everyone would get a flat with a view, and there would be a glass veil protecting inhabitants from the hot desert sand and scorching air.

Pedestrian-only zones were first introduced by Copenhagen, almost at the same time that Disney came up with the idea. Today, the capital of Denmark is considered a pioneer in pro-social solutions, adapting space for people’s needs, and running on clean energy. Its inhabitants are among the happiest on the planet, and despite gruesome weather, they need no protective dome to help them go about their lives. Although some do say they live in a hygge bubble.

Richard Buckminster Fuller seriously considered domes as a solution for the future. Fuller, an American engineer and architect, was a pioneer in designing ecological structures. Half a century ago, he came up with the idea of cities lighter than air, hovering among the clouds. These flying metropolises would sometimes moor by mountain peaks in the Himalayas or the Andes. Fuller borrowed the idea of geodesic domes from Walther Bauersfeld, a German who was already describing them in 1926. But it was Fuller who patented his concept of spherical structures made of triangular cantilevers – structures so light that all it took for them to fly up and drift among the clouds was to fill them with air and heat up to 1°F above the surrounding temperature. Their construction was not unlike a spider’s net, making them durable. The larger they were, the stronger their construction grew. Upon reaching a diameter of 0.8 kilometres, the dome would weigh one-thousandth of the gasses inside it. And the gasses would be heated up by solar energy or by the movement of the people living inside the dome.

This concept allowed Fuller to imagine thousands of people living inside his domes, which he called Spherical Tensegrity Atmospheric Research Stations (STARs), although another name proved to be more popular: Cloud Nine. His fantastic idea had only one question weighing it down: why would we need the drifting bubble cities? Fuller had an answer to that. The domes, just like his other concepts and inventions, were an exercise in imagination. We don’t know whether he ever considered bringing them to life. He surely believed it worth his time to run tests and calculations, for it is the boldness of thought that pushes the world forward.

Some of Fuller’s ideas were more pragmatic. His floating city called Triton – designed together with Shoji Sadao – was commissioned in the 1960s by a certain developer who wanted to build real estate on the water as Tokyo was bursting at seams. Triton would be a triangular city, drifting on the waves of Tokyo Bay. The trapezoid-walled buildings would fit 100,000 people inside. The city’s slanting structures were supposed to look like cliffs, withstanding the crashing waves and making it possible for the structure to float. Triton was supposed to be an environmentally-friendly project. The water city would have a constant recycling programme in place, along with water desalinization.

Similar environmental ideals accompanied the two engineers when they were designing a dome to cover the middle of Manhattan. The dome was supposed to mark the borders of a regulated ecosystem, reduce maintenance costs (such as snow removal), and redefine private and public zones, affecting human behaviours. How was it going to happen? They never provided any details and the New York bubble was never created – apart from some practical assets, such as energy savings, it was not considered very exciting. Instead, it brought up concerns about dividing the people of New York, segregating them into better and worse citizens. A smaller version of the dome was created for the 1964 World Fair to serve as the US pavilion. Nowadays, the structure is inhabited by birds at a zoo in Queens.

Green technologies, originated by Fuller, are now in vogue. Or, to be precise, nowadays, there are no visions of tomorrow devoid of – in theory at least – the concerns of our energetic balance and relationship with nature. Still, this concern is often dictated by the effort of saving money, also referred to as ‘sustainability’. This name, very sophisticated indeed, reflects the real intentions of inventors. It is about building cities that would be affordable, not consuming too many resources, not polluting and not poisonous, inhabited by people ready to cut down on their needs. This is where dreams of the future have taken us – straight to calls for moderation, as promoted by a certain enthusiast of vegetarianism from Kansas.

The Fresco Project: I’m not a utopist, I’m a humanist

In all of the 20th century, there was one exception to the otherwise fragmentary and unfinished attempts at creating futuristic projects. The exception’s name was Jacque Fresco and he lived 101 years – long enough to recognize what conditions have to be met for a real transformation to happen, not just for cities, but for civilization as a whole. We cannot create better cities without reorganizing all of society, argued Fresco – a futurologist, researcher and innovator, who devoted 86 years of his life to the future. He passed away in May 2017.

Fresco lived through the Great Depression of 1929 in New York. That was when he realized something was wrong. The market collapsed, but all the resources, all the products of human innovativeness and talent, could keep functioning. Only one factor was blocked: money. It was a lack of money that paralysed human society. Later, war broke out – a great business turbine that drove the production of weaponry. These two experiences inspired Fresco and helped him shape his proposal.

His thinking was astute, yet simple: it’s the finiteness of resources, such as gold or fuel, that makes people fight over them. And since this finiteness is expressed through money – which stopped reflecting the state of natural deposits long ago – then money should be removed from the equation. A world without money is possible. More than that, it is necessary to avoid another great depression – day by day, we are running out of resources while economic inequalities are deepening. At the same time, technology is advancing. Soon, machines will take over all the boring, thoughtless tasks. Instead of waiting for them to rob us of purpose, we should let the machines liberate us, Fresco insisted.

He imagined (and then developed his concept together with Roxanne Meadows at The Venus Project research centre in Florida) a resource-based economy. Fresco strived for a reality in which ‘growth’ would be replaced by ‘abundance’. As for today, we are already producing more than we need. For example, we make enough food to feed over 11 billion people. Fresco suggested a more radical solution: building intelligent mega-machines that would produce and install large objects, such as ready-made houses, bridges and overpasses. But above all, he preached about leaving the consumerist economy model behind. He did not believe that humanity has achieved a high civilizational level. We’ve had one Newton, one Einstein and one Skłodowska-Curie – in Fresco’s eyes, that wasn’t something to be proud of; it was shameful. We should have thousands of such people. Just like we should have come up with a better solution for wiping our shoes than a slippery rubber doormat; just like we should have come up with a better form of protection in car accidents than air cushions. We can do better. Fresco considered consumerist society the lowest point in the history of Homo sapiens.

The modern economy, he said, worked thanks to the trick he called planned obsolescence, known to anyone who has ever had their washing machine or smartphone stop working after just two years of use. If half a century ago we knew how to produce durable and long-lasting machines, nowadays we can make them infinitely better. But it wouldn’t be good business for companies, advertisers, marketeers and other participants in the system of profits, which – and Fresco was ready to repeat it forever – mocks humanity.

Jacque Fresco was unafraid of radical claims. He hated democracy, considering it harmful – in his opinion, all it does is produce opinions and cause fights over beliefs. Fresco wanted knowledge. He wanted change to begin with measuring the extent of resources available to humanity and establishing our actual (rather than market-induced) needs. Afterwards, a great rebuilding could begin. He expected it to last only a decade. It would wipe out huge corporations, wars, hunger and unemployment. And cities, except for just a handful that would be preserved as historical relics.

Fresco wanted to rebuild everything. He gave his cities no names, perhaps because their concept summarized the most brilliant ideas of the innovators who came before him. The resource-based city would exist on land and water alike. It would be circular, because that would be most efficient and economically sensible. All we would need is to design one-eighth of the area, replicate it and have mega-machines construct it. There would be a transportation system on the ground level, connecting parts of the city with fast trains (there were no cars in his vision), travelling vertically, horizontally and sideways. In the round city, one is never stuck in traffic and never has to turn around. A spectacular symbol of living in the future – you always go forward.

Fresco placed educational and healthcare institutions in the city centre, which he envisioned as a hub of knowledge and development. He dismissed his critics, who accused him of promoting a handout economy model in which jobless societies would turn people into passive zombies. A person whose basic needs have been met can focus on higher purposes, argued Franco. He used the example of millionaires, who – despite having no financial concerns – still work 18 hours a day, wanting to be active and engaged in endeavours they find interesting and enjoyable. And so would everyone else, claimed Franco, if not for the repetitive everyday tasks we’re forced to do.

Cities can be improved only when we view them as integrated systems and living organisms. A bit like in Walt Disney’s vision, they would be planned from the underground up, divided into sections (each with its own, clearly-stated purpose), green. Fresco wanted to delegate management to intelligent automated systems. His cities would operate on natural energy – photovoltaic film would cover single-family and shared homes, soaking up sunlight, and water cities would use current-powered turbines. Factories could be kept on ships, producing and transporting objects we would no longer call commodities.

In a way, Fresco’s way of thinking was close to Disney’s: he imagined a total city. But just like Disney, Fresco also never saw his ideas brought to life. The Venus Project remains ‘unstarted’, and it seems impossible to come true as a holistic vision. Who and where would decide on the global abandonment of the current economy, powered by the myths of shortage and profit? Who would be in charge of the resource economy? Would we still need nations and borders? We know that Fresco didn’t want any borders in his new world; instead, he offered ideas of peaceful societies and young men who, instead of killing people, would make armies of peaceful negotiators.

Not many people criticized Fresco’s optimistic vision, if just for its appeal and ‘harmlessness’. It was easier to just overlook it. But Jacque Fresco refused to be labelled naive. “I’m not a utopist, I am a humanist,” he insisted, reminding us that humans have plenty of unused and poorly directed potential at their disposal. When asked about the darker side of human nature, he fought back using logic. Is the human brain genetically capable of hatred? Are competitiveness and greed imprinted in our DNA? They are not. We are conditioned by our cultures to be that way. This is why culture must be radically reformed. The other challenges – being simply of a technical nature – have been solvable for a long time now.

The Venus Project team in Florida keeps on working. It keeps promoting the idea of moral renewal that could launch a civilizational revolution. But for the past 50 years, nobody has managed to find sponsors to fund a prototype of such a world, even on a miniature scale. Perhaps the problem lies in a paradox: why would the rich support the end of money? And perhaps the Venus team is looking for help in the wrong place. The people most willing to take risks are those who have nothing to lose. They’re also the ones most desperate for a different future.

Over half of the world’s population is living in cities already; it’s where our tomorrow is bound to happen. How is it going to look? Futurists are here to remind us that we don’t have to sit and wait; we can also have a say in it.


Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano

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Paulina Wilk

Paulina Wilk

is Editor of the Culture & Society section, as well as a writer and journalist focusing on global development. Among others, she has published the non-fiction books “Lalki w ogniu” (Dolls on Fire: Stories from Modern India) and “Pojutrze. O miastach przyszłości (After Tomorrow: On Future Cities). She has also written a series of fairy-tales about a teddy bear called Kazimierz. She is the co-creator of the “Kultura nie boli” foundation, the bookshop, café and literary space Big Book Café, and the Big Book Festival.