A Century of Grim Urban Futures

Americans like to imagine their cities as places doomed to disaster. For the webmag History News Network I recently traced “The Grim, Awful Vision of the City of the Future.” Drawing on my book Imagining Urban Futures, the article finds that the imagination of urban disaster over the 20th century has moved through rough stages of “fire,” “famine,” and “flood.” In early decades the fear was social upheaval and chaotic revolution (fire). In the decades after World War II, the fear was overpopulation and overcrowding and food scarcity (as depicted in this food riot from the movie Soylent Green). More recently, the fear has been cities as generators and victims of environmental disaster (flood).

Behind the Urbanism in Science Fiction

Behind the Urbanism in Science Fiction,” in Atlantic CityLab, highlights three key figures whose influence looms large in science fiction film and fiction: the architectural illustrator Hugh Ferriss, and the Greek urban planner Constantinos Doxiadis, and the Italian visionary Paolo Soleri. In their different ways, they all envisioned urban development on a vast scale. Cities of supertowers, world-spanning cities, and cities as megastructures have all become standard parts of the science fiction imagination.

When We Feared Skyscraper Living

Los Angeles Review of Books
October 15, 2016
J. G. Ballard’s “High-Rise”: When We Feared Skyscraper Living

HIGH-RISE, the film version of J. G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, hit British screens in March and American theaters at the end of April. Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, and Luke Evans star as the inhabitants of a new 40-story apartment tower in the London Docklands whose self-contained world turns catastrophically deadly. The residents’ problems start with rudeness and class friction. Small, seemingly logical steps lead to social disorder, gang violence, warfare between floors (folks on upper floors own dogs, lower floors have children), gang violence, and the death of hundreds of the tower’s inhabitants. The building, designed to be substantially self-contained with its own shopping floor and swimming pools, so disorients its residents that they forget their jobs in the outside world, cut contact with friends and relatives, and descend into a war of all against all. We see the mounting disaster through the detached eyes of physiologist Robert Laing (Hiddleston), who relishes the building’s impersonality, enjoys sex with unattached Charlotte Melville (Miller) and married Helen Wilder (Moss), and manages to survive at least three months of social implosion. We see him in the same scene at the start and end of the film, roasting and eating a rather handsome dog and reflecting on the future: “He’d now sit back to wait for failure to reach the second tower of the high rise development, ready to welcome its residents into the new world.”

In 2016, when skyscrapers are in and high-rise living is one of the components of “smart growth,” it takes a bit of imagination to recover the architectural fears of the 1970s that inspired Ballard’s novel. From the 1940s through the 1970s, Western Europeans and white Americans shared fears of two different catastrophes — nuclear bombs and what Paul Ehrlich in 1968 called The Population Bomb. Ehrlich was updating earlier work by Henry Fairfield Osborn Jr. in Our Plundered Planet (1948) and William Vogt in Road to Survival (1948). As Miles Powell has shown, both had sounded a common theme. World population was spiraling unsustainably out of control, and the problem lay in the prolific darker-skinned peoples of the Global South. Time magazine put “That Population Explosion” on its January 11, 1960, cover with a montage image of dark-skinned mothers, children, and infants.

In the hands of science fiction writers like J. G. Ballard, fears of overpopulation morphed into nightmares of overcrowded living. Probably the best known example is the film Soylent Green (1973), based on Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! Both the book and the movie depicted a New York in which an excess of residents crowd into tiny, claustrophobic rooms. Families hang out at the city morgue to learn when an apartment might become vacant; one such family evicts the main character from his one-room apartment after his flatmate dies because their numbers give them legal claim to the square footage.

Robert Silverberg’s novel The World Inside (1971) posited a world in which 75 billion humans live in megabuilding “urban monads” that are cheerful dystopias a thousand stories high. “Urbmon” society encourages sex for procreation from the early teens, has no nudity taboo, and promotes open promiscuity, with any woman theoretically available to any man. The structures that house the busy billions are exaggerations of urban ideas common in the 1960s. They are grouped in clusters with names like Chipitts, Boshwash, Sansan, and Wienbud: terms coined following publication of Jean Gottmann’s Megalopolis: The Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States in 1961, which described the Boston–Washington corridor as an emerging urban super region. The millions who inhabit the vast structures survive by internalizing the social imperative to be happy. Misfits are put in their place, tossed down mile-high garbage chutes.

When Ballard followed with High-Rise, he had already written two stories that highlighted the sheer scale of future cities in an overpopulated world and the potentially appalling consequences for daily life. “The Concentration City,” an early work from 1957, described a future American city of nearly infinite size. This megacity of unspecified billions is subject to periodic structural collapses that can squash “half a million people like flies in a concertina” and undergoes constant redevelopment, carving miles-square gaps in the urban fabric. “Billennium” (1961) took the fear of density to the opposite extreme. Within it, the Malthusian pressure of population on food requires the British government to halt the outward growth of London in order to preserve every scrap of farmland, forcing the “internal colonization of the city.” Londoners literally live in closets, on stairway landings, and in partitioned cubicles where five square meters is enough floor space for a double. The streets are so thronged that pedestrians can compact into a “lock” that holds everyone immobile, in one case trapping the protagonist Ward with 70,000 others into a jam that did not clear for two days (Google Ngrams suggests that the word “gridlock” also dates to around 1962).

John B. Calhoun’s notorious experiments with overcrowded rats, which he popularized in Scientific American, also in 1962, under the title “Population Density and Social Pathology,” put too many rats into too small a box and watched them turn nasty. Social critics immediately projected the findings from rodents to people, forgetting that rats lack governments, laws, religious codes, and other cultural paraphernalia that reduce the pathologies of human societies.

The problems created by high-rise warehouses for the poor, such as the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis, were common fodder for social theorists in the 1970s. Because these projects were heavily populated by African Americans, the critique of such projects often drew on Calhoun’s dubious science to reinforce the racism of “population bomb” rhetoric.
Ballard grabbed on to these indictments, transposed them to middle-class Britain, and narrated apocalypse in a high-rise test tube. Ballard’s takeaway for High-Rise was the inevitability of a downward spiral, a sort of “broken windows” theory of crime taken to extremes. Richard Wilder (Evans), a hotheaded documentary filmmaker from the lower floors who turns thuggish agitator and then bestial avenger, draws the connection directly, referencing “the psychological pressures of high-rise life” as a reason for social chaos and his own descent toward madness.

The film carefully sticks to the 1975 setting of the novel. The building reflects the period’s fascination with the raw concrete masses of brutalist architecture. The decade’s ubiquitous Che Guevara poster appears on an apartment wall, partygoers snort cocaine, and the soundtrack includes a cover by Portishead of ABBA’s 1975 hit “SOS.” It ends with the voice of Margaret Thatcher — just elected leader of the Conservatives in 1975 but still four years from 10 Downing Street — defining the difference between free-market capitalism and socialism.

The Iron Lady’s words evoke the deep divide between capital and labor, but the class divisions in High-Rise are less economic than social. Every apartment dweller belongs to the new class of information workers: barrister, physician, architect, television executive. In early scenes, they bustle out of the building swinging attaché cases in lockstep. The distinctions between floors revolve around subtle social markers and behaviors (Laing makes the mistake of bringing an inadequately pricey bottle of wine to an upper-floor party and is quickly shoved back into the elevator). As the tensions build to disaster, fops on the upper floors dream of replacing lower residents with a driving range and cricket nets, not about sweating more production from factory workers.

The homogeneity of residents makes it difficult to tell second-tier characters apart. One upper-middle-class twit (either male or female) seems much like the next. The action doesn’t help, alternating between parties where nearly everyone acts the same (smug cocktail swigging in the early going, naked orgies later on) and quick cutting scenes of mounting chaos with blackouts, accumulating piles of garbage, and fights over the last of the food in the 15th-floor market. Viewers know that the building is going to hell, but the sequential stages of ruin that Ballard clearly outlines in the novel are collapsed into a narrative muddle.

High-Rise was and is a barbed satire on urban planning. When the novel appeared in 1975, it skewered Britain on the verge of the Margaret Thatcher years when the gospel of free markets impoverished the public sphere, and when the Docklands district would go through cycles of real estate boom and bust. Ballard undercut the pretensions of star architects and top-down planners, anticipating Michel de Certeau’s commentary, in The Practice of Everyday Life, on the limitations of panoptic views of cities compared to the actual experience of walking the streets. The building’s architect Anthony Royal (Irons) lives on the top floor and views his creation as a “crucible for change,” but it is the middling folks lower down whose anger fuels spatialized class warfare and turns his social experiment to disaster.

The film gives women contradictory roles true to the ambiguous 1970s. For most of the way they are second-class citizens: trophy wife, washed-up actress, desperate housewife, rape victim. Rumor has it that men are bartering their wives for food on some floors. But as the men destroy each other in power games and open battles, the women gather and protect the building’s children and slowly band together. As the film nears its end, Wilder manages to make his way up blocked stairways to the penthouse and shoot Anthony Royal. Moments later he is stabbed to death by respectable British ladies transformed into maenads. The implication at the end is that a handful of men survive in scattered apartments while women and children now occupy the top floors.

In one context, High-Rise is an updated entry into the venerable genre in which journalists have explored and reported on the mysteries of downtrodden East London. Victorian reformers and sensationalists compared East London slums to the unknown interior of Africa, and Jack London wrote of his months among “The People of the Abyss.” The jam-packed tenements and rookeries of 1875 are now substituted in 1975 by vast empty fields of rubble, concrete, and weeds, interspersed with high-rise apartment towers and construction cranes on the horizon. The East London jungle has turned to desert, and the pathologies of the abjectly poor are reimagined as the pathologies of the middle class (women as maenads fit the venerable urban jungle metaphor). Producer Jeremy Thomas and actor Tom Hiddleston seem to have an affinity not only for science fiction and fantasy but also for urban dereliction — East London here, abandoned Detroit in their previous film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013).

The film is closer to surrealism than to science fiction, resonating with the psychologically trapped dinner guests in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. The spookiest feature in High-Rise may be the withdrawal of its residents into the miniature world of the building. Early on, its parking lot is filled with shiny late-model cars; by the end, it is virtually empty except for piles of garbage. One by one, residents start calling in sick, then take extended leaves from the jobs that financed their tony apartments. Even the strongest personalities find that they can’t leave, even when they claim that is what they want. The police and other public authorities, oddly enough, ignore the building even as its parking lot fills with smashed and abandoned cars. Ballard explains the reclusion of residents with the psychological justification that the building infantilizes residents by providing all their wants, allowing them to revert to uncontrolled two-year-olds. The movie recycles this dubious idea when Laing’s voice-over describes the chaos as “a huge children’s party gone bad.”

However, the film also suggests a stronger science fiction connection when Anthony Royal says that he wants to “colonize the sky.” Ballard made more of this, describing the tower as both “a small vertical city, its two thousand inhabitants boxed up into the sky” and as a spaceship. It is an earthbound analogue of a generation starship, a science fiction standby utilized by science fiction writers from Robert Heinlein (“Universe” in 1941) to Kim Stanley Robinson (Aurora in 2015). A generation ship is another miniature world, a self-contained spacecraft that takes hundreds of years to voyage between solar systems, with the middle generations knowing only the interior of the ship. In Heinlein’s seminal version and in Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop (1958), the command deck ceased to function, life-support systems deteriorated, and colonists devolved to tribal warfare within confined spaces. Substitute the architect for the ship’s officers, building maintenance for life support, and the separate floors of the high-rise for the decks and compartments inside the generation ship, and the analogy is complete. Generation ship mysteries usually end with the hero rediscovering the lost purpose of the vessel. Ballard has no such hope, giving us, perhaps, Non-Stop meets Lord of the Flies.

Robert Laing is unlikely to have read William Vogt or Henry Fairfield Osborn Jr., with their fears of overpopulation and their implicit call for a reduced planetary population of (mostly) white Americans and Northern Europeans. At the film’s end, however, he is enjoying the elbow room of a thoroughly depopulated high-rise and blithely contemplating the similar culling of the unfit from tower number two.

Behind the Urbanism in Science Fiction

The Atlantic Citylab, Oct. 21, 2016

Behind the Urbanism in Science Fiction


When science fiction writers envision the future, few of their ideas spring fully formed from individual imaginations. They look to the latest reports in the columns of Science and Nature, to cultural trends, and to the ideas of social prophets and creative designers. As I’ve explored science fiction cities, a handful of architectural visionaries of the mid-20th century stand out for the breadth of their impact in shaping our vision of the urban future: Hugh Ferriss, Constantinos Doxiadis, and Paolo Soleri.

The iconic science fiction film Blade Runner (1982) opens with a nightmare scene of future Los Angeles. Aircars maneuver through darkness lit by fire and explosion among monolithic office towers. These commercial ziggurats house and embody the corporate powers that dominate the city. They rise like vast pyramids over the shadowed streets, with the bulking pyramid of the Tyrell Corporation looming like an immense jukebox.

Blade Runner’s visual imagery has inarguable power, but its vision of the urban future was already a half-century old. The grandfather of the film’s design choices is architectural illustrator Hugh Ferriss. His Metropolis of Tomorrow (1929) collected depictions of an extraordinarily exaggerated New York. His unrestrained imagination created a city of the future in which step-pyramid towers rise from vaguely glimpsed streets, shimmering in artificial light against or evening skies. To illustrate “projected trends” and “an imaginary metropolis,” he drew dozens of fantastic views, filling them with hypertrophied Chrysler Buildings and superscaled Rockefeller Centers.

Ferriss followed a host of other observers who had tried to come to terms with New York’s new architecture—including a highly impressed Leon Trotsky who called the city “a triumph of cubism”—but his drawings have had a staying power far greater than verbal descriptions. The closest contemporary vision was the science fiction classic Metropolis, made after director Fritz Lang had visited New York City. Metropolis of Tomorrow has continued to shape the look of future cities—Batman’s Gotham City, 23rd century New York in The Fifth Element, and Neo-Tokyo in the Japanese anime thriller Akira.

It’s an easy move from picturing vertical cities of towering skyscrapers to envisioning horizontal cities that cover entire continents, or even entire planets. The architectural visionary here is the Greek planner Constantinos Doxiadis, who combined practical work in developing regional plans for places like Detroit and a visionary career as the proponent of Ekistics, the comprehensive study of human settlements from the dwelling through neighborhood and city to the ultimate world city. As global population would grow to the tens of billions, he saw world urbanization linking megalopolis to megalopolis in a single globe-spanning city. Urban tentacles would interlock across every continent like a rhizomatic root system to create Ecumenopolis, a term that he coined in the 1940s and popularized in the 1960s. Describing “Ecumenopolis: Tomorrow’s City” in 1968, he wrote:
All cities will be interconnected in major urban complexes where no distinction between large and small will be possible; they will all have become one… Such cities, growing dynamically over the next two or three generations, will finally be interconnected, in one continuous network, into one universal city which we can call the ecumenic city, the city of the whole inhabited earth, or Ecumenopolis.”

Coruscant is an ultimate ecumenpolis. Appearing in glimpses in Star Wars I, II, and III, it has a population somewhere around one trillion. The Phantom Menace gives us endless towers marching to the horizon. Revenge of the Sith shows an entire planet-city as backdrop to a space battle. Fans and spinoff novels have filled in the details of the endless city at the heart of the Galactic Republic and Galactic Empire.

It’s hard to be more spectacular than a world-girdling city, but Paolo Soleri tried to meet the challenge. An Italian-born architect who settled in Arizona in the 1950s, Soleri coined the term arcology to emphasize the potential marriage of architectural design with ecological goals. He took this seemingly reasonable idea and drew pictures of vast, self-contained cities. Arcology: The City in the Image of Man (1969) is a compendium of drawings of Babeldiga, Novanoah, Babelnoah, and a couple dozen other fanciful cities accompanied by realistic-looking invented data on surface area, density, and total population (6 million for Babelnoah).

The extra large, self-contained city has been immensely appealing to sci-fi writers already accustomed to thinking about the challenges of balancing the ecology of spaceships and space stations. “Arcology” is now fully at home in science fiction, as much an sci-fi term as an architectural term. Rising 1,000 stories and housing 800,000 contented residents, the self-contained Urban Monads in Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside (1971) are arcologies. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle set Oath of Fealty (1981) an arcology covering two square miles of Southern California. In the story, its population stands at 247,453, close to the design goal of 275,000. The arcology functions under the jurisdiction of Los Angeles, but just barely, using its huge economic clout to fend off the city’s rules and regulations.

In the current era of New Urbanism, arcologies may have lost some appeal as practical options, but they remain front and center in science fiction. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015) imagines a drought-devastated Southwest where the elite have taken refuge in arcologies that rise above the tattered, desperate suburbs of Phoenix and Las Vegas. The “water winners” in the arcologies enjoy abundant, recycled water while drought refugees scramble for survival on the parched streets outside. In a recent interview, Bacigalupi commented: “[T]hese are highly engineered systems and they’re built for the people who can afford to buy-in. So if you can buy your condo inside one of the arcologies up in Las Vegas or whatever, or in the Taiyang arcology down in Phoenix, you’re kind of sitting pretty… You’ve got good air filters, so of course forest fires, smoke and the dust storms outside don’t bother you. You’ve got wonderful organic food grown in your aquaponic vertical farms. You’ve got all of these things and then right outside there’s people like the Texans [displaced refugees] or other less fortunate people from Phoenix who can’t afford to get in.

Bacigalupi’s take highlights science fiction’s addition to the urban imagination. Narratives add action to static images. Writers and filmmakers create thought experiments that test and enliven architectural ideas by putting them into dramatic motion and turning scenarios into compelling stories. If they are skilled at their craft, they populate the stories with believable characters who navigate the possibilities of new worlds, surfacing contradictions and problems that don’t show in a drawing.

Niven and Pournelle don’t share many political values with Bacigalupi, but they are equally aware that building an arcological world will take time. Soleri’s images have no history; they’re simply there on the page. The settings of novels require backstories and attention to economic and political process. When and if we start to build arcologies, privileged people will move in first, giving physical shape to class distinctions. In Niven and Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty, the arcologists are libertarians who turn their back on the less fortunate. In Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, they are the exploiters at the top of the political and economic hierarchies.

Let’s return to Hugh Ferriss and Blade Runner. Ferriss drew cities as viewed from high above or as seen by someone looking upward to a dizzying height. There are no streets—at least no streets filled with people. Blade Runner gave life to the same sort of city, sending Rick Deckard through vibrant, teeming, multi-ethnic streets in his search for rogue replicants. The towers set the stage, but the film reminds us of the inequalities that we’re likely to find in even the most antiseptically abstracted city. In director Ridley Scott’s backstory, Tyrell is one of four super-corporations that bestride the future worlds “where the poor get poorer and the wealthy get wealthier.” Even so, the streets teem with vitality, the mostly Asian faces and food stalls suggesting the city’s attractions for entrepreneurial immigrants. Given the choice, I’d rather live in Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles than Hugh Ferriss’s abstract metropolis.

Science fiction cities

I’ve recently finished a book about science fiction cities–the urban types that appear and reappear in science fiction novels, films and television. It’s in the hands of Wesleyan University Press for publication in a year or so (academic publishing is not quick). In the meanwhile, you can find a preview of my ideas in an article on “Science Fiction Cities” in Deletion: The Open Access Online Forum in Science Fiction, Episode 2. Deletion is a fascinating online journal out of Australia. My piece is here: http://www.deletionscifi.org/episodes/episode-2/science-fiction-cities/

Distributed Cities

We are accustomed to thinking of cities as occupying a single contiguous stretch of landscape. But what if future cities might consist of separate pieces, separated by distance but functioning as a whole. In an article on the online magazine Clarkesworld, I explore a few examples from the world of science fiction novels and television (think Battlestar Galactica). The article is at www.clarkesworldmagazine.com/abbott_01_14.

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