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Yesterday’s tomorrow today: what we can learn from past urban visions

From modernist machine-built perfection to a nuclear-proof metropolis buried far underground, our predictions for future cities tell us much about the pastFuture Cities: Architecture and the Imagination by Paul Dobraszczyk is published by Reaktion BooksEver since the world’s first recognised skyscrapers were built in Chicago and New York in the 1880s, cities have been in thrall to visions of extraordinary height. Early intimations of the ways in which skyscrapers would transform cities came in the 1910s, with images such as Richard Rummell’s below suggesting a future not only of immensely tall buildings but also of multilayered streets, railways and flying machines. Continue reading...

Ever since the world’s first recognised skyscrapers were built in Chicago and New York in the 1880s, cities have been in thrall to visions of extraordinary height. Early intimations of the ways in which skyscrapers would transform cities came in the 1910s, with images such as Richard Rummell’s below suggesting a future not only of immensely tall buildings but also of multilayered streets, railways and flying machines.

1911: Richard Rummell, illustration from King’s Views of New York

1911 illustration of a future New York

Today, we see the effects of a huge increase in both the numbers and height of skyscrapers – as high as 1km, in the case of the under-construction Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia – but very little attempt to create connections between tall buildings.

1929: Hugh Ferriss, drawing from The Metropolis of Tomorrow

Drawing from The Metropolis of Tomorrow by Hugh Ferris, 1929

The American architect, illustrator and poet Hugh Ferriss was entranced by the skyscrapers of interwar New York, which reached unprecedented heights with the construction of the Chrysler (1928-9) and Empire State Buildings (1930-1).

In his drawings for The Metropolis of Tomorrow, Ferriss imagined skyscrapers of truly mythic proportions that resembled ancient ziggurats, shrouded in a romantic aura of darkness.

Scores of new cities are rising across the world from previously untouched desert and jungle, or on land “reclaimed” from the sea. While the history of cities built from scratch is long, the scale of the current epidemic is beyond anything seen before. 

Another 2.5 billion people are predicted to move to cities over the next 30 years and the trend shows no signs of stopping. New research has identified more than 100 examples, nearly all in Asia and Africa. 

This week Guardian Cities meets the 90-year-olds who built the Bulgarian city of Dimitrovgrad after the second world war (many still live there) and visits the bizarre Bahria Town development promising Karachi residents protection from terror attacks and violent crime.  We look at Hong Kong’s plan to build artificial islands for 1.1 million people and examine Egypt’s dream to conquer the Sahara. We remember past visions of future cities and ask, is there ever a good reason to start a city from scratch?

Nick Van Mead

In some of his drawings, these resolutely artificial edifices morphed into outsized crystals and stone mountains, giving a sense of the skyscrapers as having grown out of the earth itself.

1936: Still from Things to Come

From the 1936 movie Things to Come, directed by William Cameron Menzies and produced by Alexander Korda.

Like its better-known cousin Metropolis (1927), Alexander Korda’s film version of HG Wells’ 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come captured a moment of great optimism over technology’s power to improve the cities of the future.

In this film, scripted by Wells himself, an unplanned 19th-century city (almost certainly London) is destroyed by war, with a new city emerging only after a protracted period of medieval savagery.

A human super-race uses advanced machines to carve the new city into the ground, creating a completely enclosed world of perfect urban order and immaculate surfaces.

With its highly formal avenues of trees and gardens, this city of the future embodies the ideals of a generation of modernist architects, who sought to introduce light, air and nature into the congested and polluted industrial cities of the previous century.

1949: Archibald Montgomery Low, Climate to Order

Climate to Order by Archibald Montgomery Low, from the San Antonio Light newspaper.

The dream of enclosing cities under a protective shell originates in mid-19th century visions of the transformative potential of the then new technologies of iron-and-glass construction. These were attempts to shield citizens from the industrial pollution that plagued Victorian cities but also the result of a utopian desire to create a human-controlled environment free from the vagaries of nature.

Only in the mid-20th century did these visions resurface with any force, as the technologies that drove skyscraper construction also suggested a more thorough control of the air above cities.

Although Archibald Montgomery Low’s proposal above offers a crude technological solution – a literal roof over the city supported on skyscrapers of the future – it nevertheless anticipates a wave of speculative projects in the 1950s and 60s by maverick engineer Buckminster Fuller, in which cities such as New York were imagined to be enclosed by vast geodesic domes.

1969: Oscar Newman, Nuclear-Proof Manhattan

Design by Oscar Newman for a nuclear-proof Manhattan.

Underground cities might well be some of the oldest in existence. In eighth-century Cappadocia, in what is now Turkey, Christians were forced underground by persecution.

Threats don’t come any larger than nuclear warfare, even if its potential destructive power has somewhat faded in the cultural imagination. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the prospect of nuclear war was felt viscerally by many, entire populations were drilled in the art of preparing for an apocalypse that might come at any moment.

Architect Oscar Newman’s proposal for a replica of Manhattan to be built deep underground may seem like a nightmare application of his theory of “defensible” space; yet it reflects the hubris of those who believed a nuclear conflict could be survived if we burrowed deep enough into the earth.

1970: Paul Cureton (after Newton Fallis), Autopia Ampere

Paul Cureton (after Newton Fallis, c 1970), perspective view of Autopia Ampere, 2013, pencil and ink on paper.

Wolf Hilbertz, who developed this extraordinary proposal with artist Newton Fallis in 1970, saw the potential of materials grown in the sea to build entire cities.

Fantastic though this may seem, Hilbertz was later instrumental in developing the material commonly known as Biorock, a substance formed by the electro-accumulation of materials dissolved in seawater.

Now used to restore damaged coral reefs, Biorock has yet to be grown into a habitable building, let alone an entire city. In recent years, synthetic biologist Rachel Armstrong has proposed growing an artificial reef below Venice to stop the city sinking into the sea. Meanwhile, American architect Joachim Mitchell envisages houses grown in a laboratory from pig cells.

1982: Still from Blade Runner

Still from Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott.

Blade Runner, which is still the most iconic cinematic realisation of the cyberpunk ethic of bleak but beautiful dystopian future cities, presents a vision of a future post-nuclear Los Angeles shrouded in permanent rain-sodden darkness – but also full of vibrant life, whether human or artificial.

1995: Lebbeus Woods, Quake City

Lebbeus Woods, Quake City, from San Francisco: Inhabiting the Quake, graphite and pastel on paper.
  • Image: estate of Lebbeus Woods, Aleksandra Wagner, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and David Rozelle

Although the American architect Lebbeus Woods built almost nothing in his lifetime, his prolific output of exquisitely drawn speculative projects has made him highly influential.

Radical in both their forms and their underlying politics, many of Woods’ projects are built on anarchist principles of self-organisation and the dissolution of hierarchical power structures.

In this proposal for a new kind of future city after San Francisco is destroyed by the coming “big one”, Woods envisions a vast structure built by residents entirely out of salvaged materials. The project asks us to think radically about architecture’s relationship with the world and whether we’re prepared to accept and work with the destructive forces of nature and ourselves, rather than fight against them.

2004: Alexis Rockman, Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny painting by Alexis Rockman.

The likely effects of the climate emergency force us to consider the prospect of cities being submerged as a result of rising sea levels. Alexis Rockman’s painting takes that idea to a new level, showing a submerged and ruined Brooklyn in the year 5,000, after centuries of global heating have transformed the urban landscape.

Although the new tropical climate supports an abundance of life, humans are absent. The city remains only as a vestige of its former self – its drowned subterranean infrastructures now part of the strange ecosystem of the far future.

2013: Still from Elysium

Still from Elysium, directed by Neill Blomkamp.

More than a billion people live in informal settlements, which are characterised by rapidly constructed self-built housing. They often lack basic infrastructure such as water supply and waste disposal. There are more than 200,000 such slums around the world and their number is expected to rise sharply in the coming decades.

Elysium imagines the downtown skyscrapers of a future Los Angeles overtaken by the poorest of society, creating a vertical shanty town that sprouts from concrete and steel-framed buildings, which were once the working places of the wealthy.

As in many dystopian images of future cities, poverty spreads inexorably and the wealthy few escape to fortified enclaves, in this case a luxury space station.

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