As the world population grows, cities are getting ever bigger. The number of earth’s megacities—metropolitan areas with 10 million–plus people—stands at more than two dozen and promises to climb swiftly. Unrestricted growth of such conurbations intensifies all manner of urban ills—traffic, pollution, slums. Writers, filmmakers and visual artists have responded with dark speculation about the future of the city, while architects offer utopian promise in plans to fundamentally reshape human habitations.
Dating to at least 2,500 B.C., urban planning is nothing new, and ambitious architects continue to elaborate comprehensive plans for the world’s cities. Kyoto, Japan, was laid out on a strict grid in the eighth century A.D.; its model was Chang’an, China, which had been laid out earlier according to precepts of feng shui—and was, with 2 million inhabitants, a megacity of the Tang dynasty (618–907). More recent designs aim to relieve some of the social and other ills that city living inflicts on humankind. The French modernist Le Corbusier imagined a slum-free Paris in his 1925 Plan Voisin—which would have razed much of the French capital. American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), who loved sprawl and automobiles, envisioned Broadacre City, a vast suburbanesque utopia. Italian-born designer Paolo Soleri (1919–2013) fused architecture and ecology to articulate the concept of the arcology, a densely inhabited, self-sustaining hyperstructure that preserves the natural character of the surrounding land. At its most far-reaching, Soleri’s system of linked, technically advanced, environmentally friendly arcologies overlaps with what visionary Greek architect Konstantinos Doxiadis (1914–1975) imagined as the inevitable result of urbanization and population growth: Ecumenopolis, a single, interconnected, worldwide city.
Satellite views of the nighttime Earth reveal a planet aglow, its urbanized areas well on their way to forming Ecumenopolis, a globe-spanning city. Urban planner Konstantinos Doxiadis, who coined the term by combining the Greek words for “world” and “city,” envisioned Ecumenopolis as a harmonious “web of many communities with human dimensions.”
In today’s largely unplanned megacities, however, that web is rent. Even Islamabad, Pakistan—the “city of the future” meticulously planned by Doxiadis in the 1960s—is ringed by impoverished districts burgeoning uncontrolled. Turkish director Imre Azem examines the discordant effects of untrammeled development in Istanbul in Ecumenopolis: The City Without Limits (2011), using a visual style echoing that of the prophetic 1982 techno-nightmare film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance. Like Azem, the journalist Katherine Boo, in Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, documents conditions of the modern megacity that exacerbate the suffering of the poor and degrade the quality of life for all inhabitants. As luxury high-rises erupting in Mumbai, India, immediately beget squalid slums in their shadows, Boo bears compassionate witness to the dehumanizing conditions that arise in the patchwork patterns of destitution and wealth, a landscape repeated in cities globally.
China has more megacities and developing megacities than any other country, reports Britain’s Economic Intelligence Unit. The exponential increase in urban territory and population started in 1978, when the central government introduced reforms that began transforming China into an economic powerhouse. The country’s capitalist turn dramatically increased income disparity, leading to the growth of slums (Chinese slum dwellers represent 20 percent of the world’s total). The government has been criticized for its slum eradication efforts: It often inadequately compensates residents for the loss of their homes, and the demolition of ancient hutong neighborhoods in Beijing and elsewhere—obliterating irreplaceable vernacular urban architecture—has raised preservationists’ ire internationally.
Katherine Boo’s National Book Award–winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers, set in a rural migrants’ shantytown in booming Mumbai, India, affectingly chronicles the human costs of unchecked global development in the 21st century. When China’s building spree for the 2008 Olympics causes a brief bump in the price of scrap metal worldwide, Abdul Husain, one of the residents Boo follows, enjoys a moment of hope: “It was a fine time to be a Mumbai garbage trader,” Boo writes. As the downtrodden the world over know, hope doesn’t last long in such impoverished precincts.
Urbanization and industrialization result in pollution and other environmental hazards. Problems with London’s air quality, recorded as early as the 1600s, crescendoed in the mid-20th century, when the Great Smog of December 1952 choked the city for days. But the recent chaotic surge in urban populations and heavy industry in China has brought ecological distress to a new level, creating severe challenges on virtually every environmental front. In Beijing, air pollution—caused by manufacturing, coal-burning power plants and automobile emissions—is frequently so bad that some foreign companies doing business there consider the city a hardship posting. Industrial discharge and untreated wastewater continuously contaminate China’s waterways, and shortages of safe drinking water, according to the World Bank, forebode “catastrophic consequences for future generations.”
The environmental impact of China’s urbanization, industrialization and increasing consumption stretches far outside the country’s borders. A booming illegal trade in exotic animals—used for food and traditional medicine—threatens species extinctions throughout Asia and beyond. Meanwhile, China, now the world’s leading emitter of carbon dioxide, has rapidly become a major contributor to global climate change—but (like the U.S.) has thus far hesitated to cooperate in world efforts to slow its inexorable march.
Influenced by French Roman Catholic thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), who developed the concept of the noosphere—a collective human consciousness enveloping the earth—architect Paolo Soleri conceived the arcology as an evolutionarily predestined type of settlement. Unlike current city models, the arcology maximizes human potential while impacting the land only lightly, enhancing nature rather than degrading it.
To some critics, however, the crowded, self-sufficient habitats Soleri envisions seem more like beehives than truly human communities. In the realm of science fiction, arcology-like habitations often take a dystopian turn, as in Logan’s Run (1976), directed by Michael Anderson (based on William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s 1967 novel). In the film’s 23rd-century setting, earth’s human population is concentrated in a single, multidomed, computer-controlled supercity. The exterior environment is sealed off, and the city’s inhabitants, who lead pleasurable if regimented lives, believe the outside world to be poisonous and barren. The society’s survival, it turns out, is ensured by strict population control measures: Every person must die at age 30. Cheesy 1970s production values aside, Logan’s Run raises real questions about the limits of environmental sustainability. Its imagined future city is the dark shadow of Soleri’s bright tomorrowland.
Rampant consumerism thrives in the teeming streets of Blade Runner’s future Los Angeles, whose outlandishly outfitted inhabitants are constantly bombarded with the hard sell. Live animals have nearly disappeared from earth, but ultra-lifelike simulacra are available for purchase at streetside bazaars. Immense corporations, which churn out the fake animals as well as replicated humans, have inordinate power.
In opposition to this capitalistic end-of-days scenario stands Paolo Soleri’s concept of an anticonsumerist, communitarian arcology—a self-sustaining city habitat where, in the architect’s words, residents will live together in “elegant frugality.” At the only existing arcology, the Arcosanti development begun by Soleri’s Cosanti Foundation in the Arizona desert in 1970, that frugality is much in evidence; the elegance, somewhat less so. Envisioned to house 5,000 residents, it is a work in progress—without, after 40-plus years, much progress—maintained and (gradually) constructed by a small, committed band of Soleri disciples, students and volunteers. Combining grandeur with dishevelment, Arcosanti falls short of its ideals. Neither self-sufficient nor free of consumerism, the community flogs bronze wind-bells (cast at an on-site foundry) to tourists. It’s not exactly Blade Runner’s bazaars, but as one underwhelmed visitor said of his tour, “It was all a commercial transaction.”
Actor Harrison Ford, at the apogee of movie stardom, had top billing in Ridley Scott’s cult film Blade Runner, but the sci-fi classic’s real attraction is its mise-en-scène. In adapting Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), the director and his design team took cues from Fritz Lang’s expressionist dystopian film Metropolis (1927) to conceive a futuristic Los Angeles that makes the present-day megalopolis look like Smallville, USA. The cityscape is breathtaking: As viewed from flying cars, the movie’s L.A. of 2019 stretches past every horizon, an endless aggregate of high-rise structures (some spewing towering plumes of fire) dominated by the massive edifice of the Tyrell Corporation, which looks like a Mayan pyramid (or an arcology) on anabolic steroids.
At ground level, this supersized city presents a different aspect: grimy, impossibly crowded, perpetually rainy, its semidarkness relieved only by the floating electronic billboards—advertising career opportunities in “off-world colonies”—that meander through the city’s canyons. It’s a hell one might well want to escape, yet this future L.A. must retain some appeal—why else would the fugitive off-world androids (“Replicants”) risk being hunted down and killed by Ford’s character in order to remain there?
Los Angeles is America’s West Coast megacity. Its metropolitan-area population, now approaching 18 million, is second in the U.S. only to that of New York (approximately 21.5 million). Boston-born Chris Burden, a Southern California resident since the late 1960s, has created two permanent installations for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that pay homage, in very different ways, to his adopted megalopolis. Urban Light (2005), a grovelike arrangement of 202 restored vintage streetlamps on LACMA’s grounds, evokes the simpler, elegant city of the past, whereas Metropolis II (2011) reflects the dynamism—and aggravation—of life in the present and future megacity.
A gallery-size kinetic sculpture, Metropolis II is a scale-model cityscape absolutely dominated, like contemporary L.A., by the roadways threading through it. More than a thousand toy cars circulate incessantly and noisily, while a few rail lines intensify the sense of frenetic movement. Unlike the freeways of present-day L.A., however, those of Metropolis II are low-walled channels that prevent vehicles from switching lanes; these may be Burden’s nod to the channeled motorways Norman Bel Geddes designed for General Motors’ Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair—billed as a “glimpse into the future” of our cities.
California artist Chris Burden commenced his career with a series of conceptual pieces that were shockingly corporeal. In Shoot (1971) Burden conscripted a friend to shoot him in the shoulder with a .22-caliber rifle; in Trans-fixed (1974) he had himself crucified, nails through the hands and all, onto a Volkswagen Beetle. But Burden soon put aside the role of art-world enfant terrible to become, of all things, a kind of model maker. Since 1981, with A Tale of Two Cities—an assemblage of 5,000 war toys engaging in battle, as a big city-state invades a smaller one, across an 1,100-square-foot landscape—he has constructed complex large-scale works evincing an imagination that is both boyish and apocalyptic.
Burden’s vision of the world-engulfed-by-city is closer to the harrowing L.A. in Blade Runner than to the utopian ideal of Ecumenopolis predicted by Greek architect Konstantinos Doxiadis. Burden’s Medusa’s Head (1990) is a 14-foot-diameter, suspended, planet-shaped blob—constructed from plywood, steel, cement and rock—overrun by model trains, which snake across and tunnel through its blasted surface. Gazing upon this enormous portrayal of Ecumenopolis-as-industrial-wasteland won’t turn you to stone, but it may give you nightmares about the earth’s urban destiny.