Some of the most famous cities in history were never built. These 10 Utopian cities may have been failures, but they expressed our ideas about what the future of human civilization could look like. And many ideas contained in them continue to influence us today.
Illustration from Destiny
In 1856, the Vegetarian Kansas Emigration Company founded Octagon City near Humboldt, Kansas. They intended it to be a settlement made up entirely of vegetarians, but had to open it up to others when interest wasn’t what they hoped. The city’s design was inspired by a “scientific” idea, suggested by famous phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler, that octagons were the most practical design for homes because they permitted the most amount of light to enter. (Above you can see a design of Fowler’s from his magazine about phrenology.) City designer Henry Clubb, a vegetarian activist, imagined that eight roads would lead away from a central octagonal town square. From there, the city would be made up of four octagon villages, complete with octagon farmhouses, town squares, and public buildings.
Ultimately about sixty families came from all over the country to live in Octagon City, but were sorely disappointed when they found that the only building was a 16 x 16 windowless log cabin. The settlers who stayed faced a multitude of problems, including lack of water when the local spring dried up, mosquitoes and disease. Nothing remains of the town today, but Clubb’s legacy lives on in the handful of octagon houses that remain in the US and Canada.
French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier had big plans for the ideal city. In the early twentieth century, he hit upon an idea he called “Purism.” Architecture, he believed, should be as efficient and simple as the industrial machines that had ushered in the modern age. Inspired by this notion, he planned two modern utopias modeled on this idea of the city as machine: the Ville Radieuse and the Ville Contemporaine. Both would have massive skyscrapers housing millions of people — rich and poor. Parks and green areas would divide these massive cities into zones of productivity and leisure.
The Ville Radieuse, dubbed the “vertical garden city,” also included a social plan. His buildings, like Fowler’s octagons, would let in lots of natural sunlight and air. The buildings would also be the center of social life, with rooftop gardens and beaches, as well as catering in the basement and professional childcare for each family. He imagined that each building would contain 2,700 people, all working 5-hour days, using public transit that delivered them right to their homes.
Neither city was ever built, but his Ville Radieuse did inspire one building.
Le Corbusier used the principles behind his machine cities when designing Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles. The building still stands today, and some residents even open their apartments up for tours of the uniquely designed living space.
“A group of smokeless, slumless cities!” What could be better? In 1902, social reformer Ebenezer Howard published his treatise Garden Cities of To-morrow, where he outlined his idea of a planned Social City where people would live in harmony with nature. He describes a city that occupies of 6,000 acres of land, with buildings for 32,000 people taking up only 1000 acres. The rest would be public parks, farms, and green spaces with very wide roads.
As you can see in this drawing from his book, Howard envisioned many satellite garden cities around a central city, like London. They would all be linked by roads and railways. Howard did manage to get two garden cities built: Welwyn Garden City and Letchworth Garden City, both in Hertfordshire England. His ideas also inspired the garden city movement — which laid the foundation for the idea of suburbs, or low-density satellite cities like Howard’s garden cities might have been.
In 1932 Frank Lloyd Wright saw plans for Ville Radieuse. He hated it, and quickly began developing his own ideal city based on his love of the open, rural prairies of the midwest. Broadacre City became his obsession for the rest of his life. Wright wanted to get rid of industrial cities entirely, replacing them with urban spaces that were a mix of developed and rural areas. In Broadacre City, each family would be given an acre of land, and the largest “villages” would have no more than 10,000 people. Public needs like water and power would never be privately owned.
Imagine spacious landscaped highways …giant roads, themselves great architecture, pass public service stations, no longer eyesores, expanded to include all kinds of service and comfort. They unite and separate — separate and unite the series of diversified units, the farm units, the factory units, the roadside markets, the garden schools, the dwelling places (each on its acre of individually adorned and cultivated ground), the places for pleasure and leisure. All of these units so arranged and so integrated that each citizen of the future will have all forms of production, distribution, self improvement, enjoyment, within a radius of a hundred and fifty miles of his home now easily and speedily available by means of his car or plane. This integral whole composes the great city that I see embracing all of this country—the Broadacre City of tomorrow.
Broadacre City was never built, but the idea of a city with locally-produced food, power and other goods continues to inspire land use planners to this day.
Architect Albert Speer was put in charge of Hitler’s plan to transform Berlin into a futuristic capital of the Nazis. Clearly influenced by Le Corbusier’s idea of skyscraper homes, Speer wanted to build massive buildings, turning Berlin into a “world capital.” Among the plans were a huge stadium that could hold 400,000 people, and a Chancellery that would be twice as long as the Hall of Mirrors in France. All the buildings would be arranged along the Prachtallee (“Avenue of Splendors”). The war halted many of the plans, but so did geology. Berlin is built on marshy land, so Speer built a test building, the Schwerbelastungskorper, to see how far it would sink into the ground. Within three years it had sunk 18 cm, an unacceptable amount. The building remains a crumbling mess, behind chain link fences, in Berlin. The failed monumental city of Germania may have been the final death knell for Le Corbusier’s dream.
In the 1930s, Henry Ford tried to bring a slice of America to the Brazilian jungle, and it didn’t go all that well. Fordlandia was to be a large rubber plantation and city in the middle of the Amazon. Ford relocated American employees there as well as hiring local workers. The city included a power plant, a hospital, a library, a golf course, and housing for employees. Ford insisted on a “healthy” American lifestyle, including hamburgers, and rules against alcohol and premarital sex. Workers complained about having to work “proper 9 to 5 days” in the heat of the sunlight, instead of their local custom of early-morning and late-evening shifts, and eventually conditions got so bad that there were worker riots. Below, you can see a time clock destroyed in the riots.
Adding to the cultural problems of Fordlania was Ford’s utter lack of knowledge about how to farm rubber trees. His engineers guessed at how to do it, and planted the trees too close together. Eventually the land was found “unsuitable” for rubber trees, and in the mid-1930s Ford abandoned the city. The ruins of Fordlandia are still crumbling away in the jungle. Nevertheless, Americans have continued to try to export their ideas about city planning and work shifts throughout the world, often meeting with about as much success as Henry Ford.
Photos via The Henry Ford
Science — and science fiction — often influenced city designers. But nobody took futuristic ideas more seriously than mid-twentieth century inventor Buckminster Fuller, who responded to news about overcrowding in Tokyo by imagining cities in the sky. The Spherical Tensegrity Atmospheric Research Station, called STARS or Cloud 9s, would be composed of giant geodesic spheres. When filled with air, the sphere would weigh one-thousandth of the weight of the air inside it. Fuller planned on heating that air with solar power or human activity, causing the sphere to float. He would anchor his floating cities to mountains, or let them drift around the world. They were never built, but Fuller’s idea for a pre-fab, geodesic dome dwelling called Dymaxion House eventually influenced the pre-fab house movement which is still going strong.
Most of these Utopian cities were designed to respond to the problems of contemporary urban life like overcrowding, unhealthy living conditions, and the need for expensive imports of goods. But during the Cold War, people had other threats in mind. In 1947 LIFE Magazine published an article touting a new urban design idea to save Americans from nuclear attack. The men behind the plan envisioned an America where people were spread out across the country instead of gathered in urban centers. They would redistribute the population, laying out new towns like a chessboard.
The ribbon cities they planned wouldn’t have to be laid along straight lines; some of them would flow with the landscape. In total, they wanted to build 20,000,000 new homes and “recreate the very fabric of social and economic life in America.” All industry would be moved underground, protecting it from the bombs. Though this idea never came to fruition, it certainly presaged the obsession with building underground bomb shelters in cities.
In 1968, oil was found at Prudhoe Bay in Alaska. Naturally, plans to build an insanely complex, futuristic city followed. Tandy Industries of Tulsa planned to build Seward’s Success (a play on Seward’s Folly), the first completely enclosed, climate-controlled city. The 40,000 residents of Seward’s Success would have moved around on monorails, sky trams (pictured above), and moving sidewalks, all at a balmy 68 degrees. Plans also included office space, retail space, and a sports arena. After the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was held up in court, the subcontractor couldn’t pay the lease on the land and plans for the city were halted. Though we have yet to build a completely enclosed city, many parts of downtown Las Vegas might qualify — and of course, the idea of a domed, climate-controlled city is still something that people dream of building on other worlds.
Songdo, in South Korea, has been touted by both Korean city planners and IT corporation Cisco as the perfect example of a “smart city,” where every aspect of life is controlled by networked computers — from climate control, to communications. The city is also designed to have a minimal carbon footprint. Its inspirations come from both Le Corbusier’s Purist machine city and Howard’s Garden City. The Songdo master plan includes everything from schools, shopping and offices, to parks, museums and a hospital — which sounds a lot like what Le Corbusier’s skyscrapers promised. But its commitment to sustainability feels like a Garden City idea, except that this sustainability is all made possible by the machinery in the city’s high tech infrastructure. Also called an instant “city in a box,” we can even see Buckminster Fuller’s ideal of a pre-fab city at work.
The smart city has become an enormously popular idea among city planners today, and many similar kinds of developments are in the works. Songdo is supposed to be complete by 2015, but there have already been problems attracting businesses to the area. It may be destined to meet the fate of other Utopian cities: a failure in reality, but launching an idea that transforms how we think about metropolitan life.
In 1952 Mel Johnson presented investors with his idea of a perfect city—one built on booze. Every street would be a reference to alcohol, and they would even have their own currency called BoozeBucks. There would be a local police system, the Party Police. They wouldn’t arrest people — they would be more like roaming caretakers, giving drunks aspirin and kindly escorting them home when they got lost. Most importantly, no children would be allowed in BoozeTown. Visitors with kids could leave them at the daycare/summer camp area outside the city. When completed, the city would have had moving sidewalks, breweries, distilleries, permanent housing, and even suburbs.
Johnson gave potential investors matchbooks and cocktail napkins, telling them:
Just imagine . . . a resort entirely centered on the culture of alcohol. A boozer’s paradise built expressly to facilitate drinking and the good times that naturally follow. Where the bars, clubs and liquor stores never close. Where the police force is there to help drunks, not hassle them. Where even the street names salute sweet mother booze: Gin Lane, Bourbon Boulevard and Scotch Street. An adult playground like no other. Just imagine.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Johnson could never get funding for BoozeTown and gave up on the idea in 1960. Still, it sounds like BoozeTown may have inadvertently inspired many virtual game worlds that have their own currencies, like WoW Gold, and (let’s face it) exist only to get people wasted.