An artist’s impression of the ‘Green Machine’, a mobile, city-sized structure that would slowly move across the Sahara cultivating the land
An artist’s impression of the ‘Green Machine’ (see below), a mobile, city-sized structure that would slowly move across the Sahara cultivating the land © Malka Architecture/

Cities come and go. The one thing certain in urbanism is that all cities, no matter how great, at some point decline. Quite literally, they sink into the earth or the water as consecutive layers pile up above them. But do cities have to remain static? Could they avoid their destiny if they just moved on?

Not very well-known beyond the hermetic world of architectural theory, the Italian collective Superstudio left us with some of the most brilliant and critical parables in the history of modern urbanism. Perhaps the best is their 1971 idea of the “Continuous Production Conveyor Belt City”. “The city moves,” they wrote, “unrolling like a majestic serpent; over new lands, taking its 8 million inhabitants on a ride through valleys and hills, from the mountains to the seashore, generation after generation. The head of the city is the Grand Factory, 4 miles wide and 100 yards high, like the city it continuously produces . . . The Grand Factory devours shreds of useless nature and unformed minerals at its front end and emits sections of completely formed city, ready for use, from its back end.”

They continued with what can seem a diagnosis of contemporary real estate desire. “The greatest aspiration of every citizen is to move more and more often into a new house because the houses produced are continually modernized and equipped with the yet more perfect commodities . . . The Great Families move monthly into the houses just built, following the rhythm of the Grand Factory. The other citizens do their best and only those with little willpower and the laziest wait for four years before moving house. Luckily, it is not possible to live in the same house for more than four years after its construction; after this period, objects, accessories and the structure of the houses themselves decay, become unusable and soon after collapse.”

Superstudio’s parable, a razor-sharp critique of disposable consumer culture, can seem to have come true, at least in the new megacities of Asia and the endlessly expanding exurbs of the US. But where they nailed a particular mood was in the urge to build anew, to reimagine cities not as permanent but as something mobile, places to be remade. Superstudio’s London contemporaries, Archigram, even went a step further, drawing what they called “Walking Cities”, visions of entire cities moving on sinisterly spindly legs.

‘Continuous Production Conveyor Belt City’, 1971
‘Continuous Production Conveyor Belt City’, 1971

These provocations, arising from an era in which impending environmental and nuclear apocalypse overshadowed everyday existence and in which the car was becoming ever more dominant as a mechanism for controlling how people moved through cities and where they lived, challenged existing ideas of what a city should be.

What makes these visionary cities so fascinating is the way they betray our fears (and, to a lesser extent, our hopes) better than the bland architecture which defines our streets and squares. As planners return to anachronistic models of the picturesque and to simulacra of medieval villages and Victorian suburbs (the prevailing trend for this nostalgia is called New Urbanism), the mad visions begin to appear elegiacally attractive, a riposte to the banality of good intentions and reactionary mediocrity.

The paradox is that architects, engineers and production designers used to have visions which were unrealisable because the technologies they demanded did not exist. Now, those technologies do exist.

The eco-domes of the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK
The eco-domes of the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK

First, there are the huge eco-domes designed by Grimshaw Associates in Cornwall, which finally realise the scale of what visionaries like Buckminster Fuller had envisioned. The great engineer had originally developed geodesic domes for the US military as quick-to-construct shelters (they could be carried by helicopter) but later proposed a giant dome to cover the whole of Manhattan. With the Eden Project, you can begin to imagine how this might feel.

More recently Wilkinson Eyre’s extraordinary greenhouses at Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay show that expressionistic structures can be built at the urban scale. So now when we fear the collapse of the ozone layer, the pollution of the atmosphere and general environmental degradation, we can imagine a life lived between hermetically sealed apartment blocks, shopping malls and parks beneath a glass roof.

At the other end of the climate spectrum, Hugh Broughton Associates’ wonderful Antarctic research station, Halley VI, a kind of convoy-on-ice-on-legs, takes inspiration from Thunderbirds as much as it does from radical 1960s design to create a building resistant to a climate almost as harsh as that found in outer space. The adjustable legs cannot help but recall one of the most memorable schemes to have emerged during Britain’s swinging ‘60s creative architectural outburst.

Halley VI, a mobile Antarctic research station
Halley VI, a mobile Antarctic research station © James Morris

Archigram was a collective of young architects (some of whom worked for the Greater London Council’s architects department in their day jobs) who shook architecture up with a series of radical proposals expressed in various media from comic books to striking pop-art drawings. The Walking City concept involved a series of self-contained towns on hydraulic legs that would stop, plug in and stay for a while, then simply walk off again in search of new landscapes to exploit.

It exemplified everything the contemporary city was not, but also embodied dreams of the car and the aeroplane as mechanisms to free us from our staid rootedness. Archigram’s other ideas included the “Plug-in City”, which was just a huge framework into which other elements could be plugged, and the “Instant City”, a floating arts centre megastructure transported by balloons that would land, introduce and seed new cultural practices and infrastructures and then depart in search of the next cultural desert.

Archigram’s Ron Herron at work in 1972
Archigram’s Ron Herron at work in 1972 © Kathy deWitt/Alamy

The ability of these cities to embrace movement was pivotal because these were cities that needed to escape something. This was the confluence of cold war and anti-war protest, of the existentialism and situationism which culminated in the student unrest of 1968.

It might be nuclear apocalypse, it might be climatic catastrophe, it might be rising water levels or tidal waves, earthquakes, volcanoes, or a war over resources. Or it might just be escaping from bourgeois moral codes. Whatever the reason, these would be cities on the move. The two key thinkers in the field of these new mobile megastructures were curious figures, neither of whom built much, yet both of whom have remained lodestones of architectural ideas, rediscovered by each successive generation. They are Yona Friedman and Constant Nieuwenhuys.

Friedman (born 1923), a Hungarian-born, Paris-dwelling Israeli, meditated on megastructural frameworks which would supply the urban infrastructure without dictating form, and which could sit on any landscape, be it desert or war-torn territory. His influence was most heavily felt in projects for informal settlements in developing countries where his ideas about creating the materials and mindset for self-reliance and self-building represented a radical break with previous, more paternalistic responses.

Nieuwenhuys (1920-2005) suggested a similar urban frame which he dubbed “New Babylon”. Conceived as a post-wage-economy environment, this was a plug-in city devoted to leisure, a self-determined landscape of communal fun characterised by an endless space-frame (the Centre Pompidou in Paris is arguably its closest living relative).

Both these proposals effectively limited the architect’s input to the infrastructure, leaving the form of the architecture to its residents – in tune with the free-spirited, self-build aspirations of the 1960s. These were structures which barely touched the ground, in which communities existed romantically and in freedom halfway between land and sky.

Recent tragic events in Japan and the Philippines as well as seemingly endless floods in the UK have also exposed the vulnerabilities of living on land at the water’s edge. Venice is slowly sinking, rising water levels threaten most of the world’s great cities and that fear has led to an increase in thinking about waterborne cities. It is curious that even with the extraordinary technologies developed for offshore engineering and with the pressure on land values, the sea remains somehow beyond the realms of architecture.

Ocean-bottom schemes may be fanciful but floating cities are beginning to attract attention. The Netherlands is so far ahead of the game here it is hardly worth looking anywhere else – the wonderfully seductive floating settlement of Ijburg is characteristically open, accessible and sensible. It makes sense then that architect Alex de Rijke, of Dutch origin but based in London, should have proposed “Floatopolis”, a dockland scheme using prefabricated floating housing units. It is both feasible and sensible, unlike the proposed Freedom Ship, a city for 50,000 tax exiles and their staff with an airport on the roof, an idea which seems to have foundered.

The modern city dweller is characterised by a paradoxical attachment to place and a desire for mobility. The laptop and mobile phone have allowed us to take our offices and social lives with us wherever we go, yet our homes remain firmly fixed to the ground. Of course, we are not thinking of the millions of refugees wandering the world, burdened less by their few possessions than by memories of what they have lost. We are not thinking of favela-dwellers ingeniously improvising ad hoc cities from the detritus of contemporary consumption. And we are not thinking of the hours we spend on planes and trains, in cars, or the time at festivals and in marquees where the infrastructure appears and then is gone with little fuss. We are often told that moving house is, along with divorce, the most stressful thing that can happen to us. Perhaps, if we were to build entire cities capable of moving, it might get a little easier.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic


Fantasy idea for greening the world’s deserts

Balloons above the visionary ‘Green Machine’
Balloons above the visionary ‘Green Machine’

It is a nod to both Archigram’s proto-high-tech Walking City and Superstudio’s dystopian parables. Stéphane Malka and Yachar Bouhaya’s “Green Machine” is half-Mad Max, half-fun palace; a vision of a huge, city-scaled machine that traverses desert landscapes making the ground beneath it fertile and feeding starving sub-Saharan populations.

Balloons float above it to produce water from condensation, while schools, houses and factories sit atop the platform. The entire structure acts as a power station, generating electricity from hot desert air and solar panels. The platform trundles along on the same huge caterpillar tracks that Nasa uses to transport rockets to launch sites, and ploughs the land beneath, which is also watered, fertilised and planted.

It is, of course, completely nuts. But the function of these proposals, just as it was of those in the 1960s and 1970s, is to act as provocations, to raise issues about what our cities are doing to the world and how we might be able to squeeze resources from an increasingly depleted planet. They do this through the now familiar language of dystopian sci-fi, the rusty frame, the greasy tubes and massive engines, the unspecified, military-industrial hardware. It unsettles us because we have seen it on oil rigs and deserted power stations and we feel it might not be confined to fantasy.

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article