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

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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 Mitchell Joachim envisages houses grown in a laboratory from pig cells. 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. 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. 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. 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. Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to join the discussion, catch up on our best stories or sign up for our weekly newsletter

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