Thoughts & Insights

City of the Future

More than two thirds of all people on this planet live in cities today – and the tendency is rising. Cities made of stone, concrete and asphalt. Cities in which the air is difficult to breath and where the chirping of a bird is drowned out by the noise of traffic.  Cities in which streets and parking places take up many times the amount of space available for parks, playgrounds and sports fields. This brings up the question of whether the city of the future will, and should, look like this.

Right at the start of his architectural studies at the University of Karlsruhe OUBEY got to know somebody who impressed him deeply, more than anyone else in the university establishment – Professor Fritz Haller.  “He’s like an obelisk“ OUBEY once said about him in a 1992 conversation, adding “You walk around him and look at him in wonder from all sides.” As a trained carpenter, autodidact and visionary, Haller at all didn’t fit into the caste thinking of this academic system.  That alone would have been reason enough for OUBEY to find Haller interesting. Yet it was above all else two futuristic projects initiated by this professor and carried out together with his students that made OUBEY so enthusiastic: Integral Urban was one, Prototypical Space Colonies the other.

Both these issues are topical today in a way that could have been seen at the time if you didn’t hold the future to be a mere continuation of the past. Yet decades, sometimes even centuries, pass before the necessity and possibility for change reach a public interest large and strong enough to give them the driving force they need to rise above the status of fiction or utopia.

Haller’s concept for a city of the future, first published in 1968, was revolutionary for its time and remains so today, and precisely for this reason is both fascinating and alienating. Fascinating because here in metropolitan centres people retreat to a high quality minimum of space in which they have limited individual spaces of retreat and a variety of social, cultural, sporting and medical functional spaces at their disposal.  Add to this a mobility concept that completely abandons the car as the preferred means of individual transport and instead designs a transport infrastructure that would certainly have delighted an Elon Musk. And nothing but primeval forest around these urban population centres. Nature freed from humans, and allowed to be nature.

So much for the fascinating, which immediately excited me when OUBEY talked to me about it, through to dawn on the first night of our life together. So what’s alienating about it? It’s the categorical, the self-repeating uniformity and standardisation of this otherwise highly intelligent concept. It leaves very little room for individuality. Everybody is equal – perhaps the one or the other has a little more personal space to retreat to in this city of the future. Yet there’s something communist about this utopia which is probably why it wasn’t terribly well received at the time and still is not. And as such it leaves out a central theme that inherently arises when people live together in cities and societies: the economy. What do people live on? What kind of work do people do in this city, and where and how do they work? Are there factories? How and where are people built into this concept? Is there high-tech industry? Is there agriculture?

In defence one could argue that it is just an architectural concept and therefore limited, without inclusion of overall social issues. That’s true. It was a concept from the ivory tower of advanced architectural thought. As such, however, it is still inspiring and valuable from my point of view.

Since Fritz Haller‘s Integral Urban was published, we have wasted many decades without taking a critical and serious look at this or that interesting future concept for people living together in harmony with nature. In terms of urban development, we have gone forward as wildly and unconceptually as ever instead of investing in really new, sustainable and ecological concepts. Nature would have thanked us. And the lives of people in urban centres would be substantially different and more pleasant than they now are.

Yet there is no improvement in sight. Day after day, we continue to concrete and cement incredibly large areas of the earth of this planet as though earth were something that didn’t need air to breath. And as though we weren’t dependent on the earth for giving us everything we need for life.  We haven’t just lost respect for nature, as a species we have apparently still not understood what created us in the first place and what keeps us alive.

The question of a concept for the city of the future is a question of survival – in one way or another. After all the social utopias of the 18th and 19th centuries failed grandly in the attempt to realise them in the 20th century, social dystopias are now coming into fashion and they are no better. They are the expression of a zeitgeist that seems to have lost faith in its own ability to change and therefore conjures up its own demise.  Warning, but not really helpful. Can mankind make amends and restore as the very basis of its existence what we have destroyed for one hundred and fifty years in a frenzy compounded by technical feasibility and financial greed? There can only be one answer to this question in the year 2021 for a species that calls itself Homo sapiens and that answer is “yes”.  The species is being put to the test. It has to show that it is intelligent enough to ensure its own survival.  Because there is no question that the planet will survive us. We are not the masters, only a part of this wonderful cosmos in which we live. The antidote to dystopian conditions is not some new utopias. What is missing is thinking in contexts, the interdisciplinary thinking and cooperation of those who would then really earn themselves the name of “elite” which they like to ascribe to themselves today.

To avoid any misunderstandings, let me say that when science fiction creates dystopias, it’s another matter. Blade Runner by Ridley Scott from 1982 based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick from 1968 shows the dystopia of the city of Los Angeles in 2019. Even if it is not always dark and raining in Los Angeles today as it was in the film Blade Runner, the description of what everyday life is in the city today for a growing number of people as “dark reality” really is the core of what the film cinematically captured at the time. People who can only secure a livelihood by working several jobs and still can’t afford an apartment. They live in tents on the pavements of busy streets. They aren’t outlaws but people who go to work every day. A great documentary on Ridley Scott´s Blade Runner, which is definitely worth seeing, aired on Arte TV  a few months ago and showed that present day reality based on life in Los Angeles in 2019 has long since caught up with the fiction of a city of the future. Whether this dystopia will be repeated by the equally marvellous Blade Runner 2049 by Denis Villeneuve from 2017 is something I probably won’t be around to see.

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