When my colleague put an article on my desk today with the subtitle, “Climate change will drive people to urban areas. How will urban planners accommodate them all?” it caught my attention, not because of the topic, but because of the double spread striking image of the “flat tower” proposed by architect Schirr-Bonnan. With an opening line of “The world’s population will top nine billion by 2060,” I read on.
These huge nebulous buildings house 40,000 people, as well as offices, recreational areas, and transportation hubs. They spread across acres of the city, hovering over green spaces like a web. My first reaction to this piece of architecture was fear. This “flat tower” concept reminded me of Le Corbusier’s City of Tomorrow and more terrifyingly (since they were actually built), American public housing failures like Cabrini Green in Chicago and Pruitt Igoe in St. Louis. This is all very ironic because the architect defends his design by saying, “the conventional skyscraper model- a tower surrounded by green space- leads to the isolation of communities from one another. A greenbelt area under the building would encourage communities to interact.” Even more ironic, is that “interacting community” is the exact same argument architects used to promote the green space that surrounded towers. As I sat pondering the article, it baffled me how organizing people in massive structures that covered green space was any different from towers sitting in it. My conclusion: they are the exact same.
Public housing towers have gone down in history as one of the largest architectural failures in America for many reasons. One of the largest, I believe, is mostly because the architectural design of the building separated people from public space. By only providing shared public space, it meant that no one supervised it, took care of it, or cared one bit about it. It also disconnected people from the human scale. Quite simply, when you do this, it makes people feel less human. The architect of Pruitt Igoe, Minoru Yamasaki, simply stated about its failure: “I wish I had never built it.” That kind of sums up what a massive failure the last City of Tomorrow vision was.
Visions are great, don’t get me wrong. They are better than great, they are necessary. Without vision, change is not possible and it is very clear to accommodate the enormous growth of cities into the year 2060 we will certainly need it. However, sometimes visions go bad – like Le Corbusier’s and the modernism movement that followed. But this is where John Powell’s famous quote, “the only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing” pops into my head. And then the fear sets in. This “visionary” idea by Schirr-Bonnan, will no doubt have the same segregation and community-killing effects that modernist architecture did. These mixed-use webs separate people from their built environment at an inhumane scale and create public spaces that are unclaimed and unsupervised.
I have said it before, but it bears repeating: the real vision in urban planning lies not in revolutionary reorganization of how people live or interact, but using traditional design principles to address the most challenging issues of our day, like climate change, obesity, and social exclusion. Just as every “vision” into the future, whether its Orwell’s 1984, 2001 Space Odyssey, or The Jettson’s, has not come to fruition, neither will a world where we have to abandon our most human need: sense of community. So lets stick to our dense residential townhouses and live/work units and mixed-use mid-rises. We know they work; they have for centuries. The proof is in the pudding. No “vision” required.
As this article is in Popular Science, I shouldn’t be surprised by its futuristic, or should I say, far fetching ideas. However, most in this article weren’t. MIT professor Dennis Frenchman, says the most important factor is accommodating a huge influx of population into cities is efficiency. Transportation networks, city locations for manufacturing firms, power generation, and food production, and mixed-use buildings are solutions to cut down on commuting and pollution. Now these are ideas I can get on board with.
We have our work cut out with these issues that are relevant to today. These are not challenges of 2060, but challenges of 2012. While a summary of solutions, which include “community-shared electric cars, neighborhood nukes, hyper-efficient housing, really local eats, all-in-one recycling, and multifunctional buildings” have varying degrees of reality, they all require a massive cultural shift in people’s behavior.
While most of this article creates an enormous level of fear that comes from reorganizing human nature, one idea is an exciting indulgence in the visionary future: the LO2P Recycling Center, envisioned by Gael Brule and Julien Combes. A turbine harnesses wind power to run a recycling plant in the building, while carbon dioxide from the plant reacts with calcium to become lime in mineralization baths. Pipe dream? The process is already being used to make the lime in cement.
Certainly is food for thought. Take-away: revolutionize technology, not human nature.