Editor’s note: Arrol Gellner is currently on an extended stay near Shanghai. The following is one of a series of columns comparing the built environments of America and China.
Shanghai is a city of superlatives, and futurist thinkers are now dreaming up yet another: It’s called Extopia, a vast structure that, if realized, would be the world’s tallest and greenest self-sustaining skyscraper — essentially a 300-story city in the sky, complete with farmland.
The problem with such a colossal utopian habitat is that, rather than growing organically over time like real cities do, Extopia is necessarily designed all of a piece. And while concentrating the sheer power of great minds and new ideas on such a project would seem to augur success, the record of such clean-slate planning is, alas, not a good one.
Among the early U.S. examples of ideal cities designed from scratch is George Pullman’s eponymous Illinois factory town, in which his railcar-building workers had every conceivable facet of their lives taken into account — their housing, their commerce and even their morality.
To his genuine surprise, Pullman’s workers did not appreciate the railcar magnate intruding into every aspect of their lives. On balance, as a utopian city, Pullman was widely considered a noble experiment but a practical failure.
Since that time, many more attempts have been made at clean-slate thinking — some of them mercifully ignored. The architect Le Corbusier, for example, famously proposed to raze a good part of central Paris and replace it with a phalanx of what can only be described as high-rise housing projects.
More recently, the Disney organization has actually constructed its own idea of utopia, which, if anything, is even creepier than George Pullman’s. Pullman at least had a central industrial purpose.
Disney’s Florida version, called Celebration, simply whips up squeaky-clean, stage-set renditions of an America that never was. Homes are confined to a handful of approved traditional styles, some of them surrounded by excruciatingly cloying white picket fences.
Given its sanitized take on the American past, though, Celebration’s overall atmosphere seems not so much Twain as it is "Twilight Zone."
Extopia adds one more ingredient to this mix: The aspect of environmental salvation. This is a pretty heavy-duty brief for one project, even one 300 stories tall. Extopia is meant to be largely self-sustaining, with its own internal services, commerce and entertainment, as well as special floors devoted to soil-free hydroponic food crops — literally farms in the sky.
The project’s vast scale is proffered as a means of relieving Shanghai’s notorious congestion, though it’s also clear that a more modest proposal couldn’t garner publicity or fire the imagination as deftly as this one has.
Yet approaching an untested concept of such ambition entirely by "tabula rasa" (Latin for "clean slate") simply risks creating a 300-story Pruitt-Igoe (a failed public housing project in St. Louis that was razed less than 20 years after construction), because no matter how much architects and planners believe they know about humankind, they invariably fall short — sometimes dreadfully so.
The truth is that great cities work, not because they reflect some grand overarching scheme, but precisely because they don’t. Rome, Paris and London, not to speak of New York or San Francisco, are cobbled together in a patchwork of humanity that could never have been created at one stroke.
When we discover a way to let our vertical dream cities grow into the sky as slowly and organically as real cities do, then a concept as ambitious as Extopia could truly succeed.