City in space

Sensemaking / City in space

11 Jan 2011

“Artist plans city in air, without traffic jams, noise or discomfort.” So runs a story in the New York Herald. The proposed design leaves the ground free for farmed land, parks, canals, roads, trains and highways, by creating a whole new plane for houses and offices on bridge-like platforms. “The traffic problems of New York, Chicago and other American cities will be solved”, claims blue-sky thinker Frederick Kiesler, the Austrian architect behind the design. But the ability to “move in a straight line” on the ground isn’t the only advantage, he insists. The houses will respond “like a nervous system” to temperature and humidity, adjusting the permeability of their walls to minimise the need for heating or cooling.

It’s an ambitious idea, but by no means a new one. The article was published over 80 years ago, in July 1925. I came across it last weekend at an exhibition of Piet Mondrian and the Dutch artistic movement De Stijl, running until March at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Kiesler’s ‘City in Space’ was hugely influenced by this movement, whose members strove for simplicity, harmony and order through “perfect geometric forms”, like straight lines and right angles, and the use of primary colours.

It’s striking how relevant this search for simplicity is today. Our cities are ever more crowded and complex, and our lives are too. More of us need to travel to a variety of places in any given day, and in that day we consume more energy, more water, and a much greater variety of food and goods. Our transport may be much faster than a century ago, but our journey times are longer and our congestion is worse. And the logistics of getting people where they need to be and enabling them to access what they need are more and more difficult.

Building cities in the sky may not be the answer. And it’s certainly too late to transform our larger metropolises along those lines. But within the hazy confines of financial centres and residential sprawl, we have to find ways to simplify things: ways to move in a straight line instead of going round in circles; ways to make a journey only once instead of several times a day; ways not to make that journey at all…

How to do this is at the heart of Forum for the Future’s project Megacities on the Move – and you can read all about the solutions in the January issue of Green Futures…

Image credits: espion / istock

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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