We’ve been suffering futuristic city withdrawal since returning from the Shanghai World Expo 2010 last week, where we covered many exciting (and, alas, not-so-exciting) examples of progressive urban development.
Naturally, we turned to the archives for our fix of visionary city designs, and as you would expect, they are abundant with beautifully-illustrated imaginings of future metropolises since the 19th century.
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Like contemporary architects, city planners from past generations were concerned with functionality as well as with aesthetics. At the rate cities were growing by the 1920s, people couldn’t help but worry that traffic congestion and overpopulation would create an unsuitable environment for children and businesspeople alike.
At the same time, city-dwellers were eager to see skyscrapers tower over the horizon and airships dotting the skies. Then there was the problem (or perhaps prospect) of limited land space and the subsequent necessity of migrating off-planet. Could we build a metropolis on Mars? It shouldn’t be impossible, we thought, given how we redesigned city streets to accommodate cars instead of carriages. And after cave cities and skyscraper landing fields, why not? People moved to cities in pursuit of a dream, and with that same spirit, urban planners envisioned novel solutions for the cities of tomorrow.
Check through our gallery to see 10 imaginings of a better city throughout the ages.
Henry Ford’s Farm City: July 1922
In an interview with us, Henry Ford suggested that instead of migrating to cities, people should industrialize the farm communities they already lived in. Although Ford admired the intellect and technological superiority of urban communities, he lamented their overcrowding and ugliness. His ideal semi-rural city, pictured left, would link neighborhoods around power-supplying dams. Traffic would run underground and city-dwellers would divide their time between farming and industry, depending on the season. Read the full story in “How Power Will Set Men Free”
The City of Wonder: August 1925
Celebrated American architect Harvey Wiley Corbett, who designed the George Washington Masonic National Memorial building, predicted that by 1950, cities would use multi-level streets to deal with overcrowding. One level would be for pedestrians, two would be for traffic, and the bottom one would be for electric trains. The roofs of skyscrapers, which would themselves house playgrounds and schools, would serve as aircraft landing fields. Read the full story in “The Wonder City You May Live to See”
Multi-Level Superhighways: October 1927
In 1927, we imagined that cities would make ease of transportation its main priority. Trolley cars, telegraph poles, sidewalks, lamp-posts, and any other structures capable of blocking traffic would become obsolete. Pedestrians would meander through underground stores and moving streets between elevated highways. “At night the sky will be brilliant with the reflected glare from below, as well as the lights of airships and dirigibles, and the route markings and traffic signs of airways and landing stages,” we said of New York. Not so shabby a prediction. Read the full story in “Babies Born Today May See….”
The Underground City: June 1934
Professor Philip B. Bucky, of Columbia University, proposed adapting the design of mine shafts for creating an underground city capable of withstanding “the crushing load of thousands of feet of earth and rock.” While we’re skeptical of life without sunlight and Vitamin D, people back then anticipated year-round climates made possible by airconditioning and artifical light. Read the full story in “Cave Cities of Tomorrow”
Elevated Express Highways: November 1939
Again with the elevated express highways! At the time, engineers were concerned about road congestion, but we can’t imagine that traffic running between office buildings would make for a pleasant work environment. Read the full story in “Will the City of the Future Look Like This?”
Spoke City: June 1944
Dr. Martin Wagner, a former city planner for Berlin and a professor at Harvard, described slum-ridden cities as “mammoth monsters of ugliness, inefficiency, and distortion.” He suggested that cities completely rebuild themselves from the ground up instead of attempting to modernize neighborhoods designed for horse-drawn traffic and wooden buildings. Wagner’s city of the future would eliminate housing altogether so it could function efficiently as a center for business and pleasure. Government buildings, situated in the middle of cities, would be surrounded by “spokes” of museums, offices, and hotels. Spaces between buildings would be dedicated to parking lots and landing fields. Read the full story in “Are Big Cities ‘Ugly Monsters?'”
Cities in Space: May 1956
Darrell C. Romick, a scientist in the Goodyeaer Aircraft Company’s aerophysics department, presented us with his blueprint for rotating, wheel-shaped city in space. The structure would not only house thousands of families, but its movements would simulate Earth’s gravity. Pictured left is an artist’s conception of Space City’s construction. Crewmen wearing pressurized suits assemble cables to rockets, which serve as building units for an inhabitable space station. Read the full story in “Now They’re Planning a City in Space”
Alaska’s Glass Metropolis: March 1970
Seward’s Success, while never built, was designed to enclose a community of 40,000 Alaskan residents beneath a climate-controlled glass dome. Since the proposed city didn’t allow for cars, pedestrians would get around on moving sidewalks, bikes, and escalators. Read the full story in “An Entire City Under Glass'”
Metropolis on Mars: March 1953
Sure, a Martian base housing 33 men isn’t quite a metropolis, but it’s a step in the right direction. A ring around plastic pod houses would capture solar heat, while wind generators would help power an artificial atmosphere. Read the full story in “How We’ll Live on Mars”
Green Megalopolis: July 2008
While the growth of “megacities” may threaten to ruin our already-damaged environment, visionary scientists and engineers have come up with solutions that will allow cities to boom without endangering their residents’ well-being. Features for the future’s eco-friendly cities include electric pod cars, robot-controlled farms, and building facades that transport rainwater into purification centers. Read the full story in “Green Megalopolis”