Icons of the Future City

Way back at the 2010 Mozilla Summit, one of the keynote speakers showed us an amazing demo flythrough of a 3D-rendered futuristic city, with embedded video, tweets, and the like, all running live inside a Firefox 4 beta thanks to awesome new tech like WebGL and JägerMonkey. (Note: in the linked video, the city only appears about a minute in.) That’s not what I want to talk about, though.

It occurred to me while I was watching, that there is a standard futuristic city used in demos like this one. It’s night. You can’t see the ground. Skyscrapers stretch all the way to the horizon. Said skyscrapers are glass oblongs, for the most part; this demo mixed it up quite a bit with interesting cross-sections, but still had hardly any ornamentation, terracing, or what-have-you. All the skyscrapers’ windows are lit up. There may be flying vehicles between or around the towers, but there is no sign of any other type of transportation. It is, in short, the future of the Futurists of the nineteen-teens, the city of Metropolis, Blade Runner, and Neuromancer.

Now the thing is, no city in the real world has ever looked like that. Even in the densest and most skyscraper-ful urban areas—have a look at these aerial videos of Manhattan and Hong Kong, for instance—there are buildings that are less than ten stories tall (these are in fact the majority in Manhattan, although possibly not in Hong Kong); there are parks and other open spaces; and by no means are all of the buildings boring oblongs. Furthermore, people doing actual urban design argue, vehemently, over whether or not dense skyscraper-ful cities are best (e.g.: pro, con) and I think nobody would argue, anymore, that open space is unnecessary.

And yet, when we want an icon of the city of the Future, the Futurists’ vision is what we turn to. Why? Perhaps because it’s instantly recognizable, or because it’s easy to build 3D models for. But I claim this is causing this discredited vision to occupy a share of the casual imagination that it does not deserve anymore. It crowds out other visions with its readiness to hand. Let’s invent some new icons for the future city. Let’s make the next demo flythrough be of something like this or this or this. (But watch out for the just-as-discredited Radiant City vision, please.)