Beyond Cities: A Futurist Manifesto
Are we brainwashed by old-world values and aesthetics?
The great futurist FM-2030 had no time for cities. Where most people see beauty and culture, he saw ugliness and stagnation. While I disagree with this view, I also think he makes a few solid observations that could be useful in helping urbanists think differently about improving and modernizing cities.
FM-2030’s book Upwingers: A Futurist Manifesto has a chapter railing against cities, which is included below in full. In this chapter, he argues we should abandon cities as museums of the past and transition to living in "Instant Communities." These are temporary cities that are “spacious, mobile, instant, cheerful, and global.”
His point about cities as museums seems accurate. I’ve felt this way about San Francisco for a long time. Its most recognizable cultural hubs (Haight-Ashbury and North Beach) are now tourist traps where nothing culturally relevant has happened in a long time. If you want to be among up-and-coming writers and musicians, first thing, you’ve got to get the hell out of San Francisco and go someplace that has a finger on the pulse of what’s happening now.
It may be argued that San Francisco is still a vibrant hub of culture in that it’s where tech innovation happens. It’s not books and music, but tech is still a form of culture. But then again, most of the tech world is really based in Silicon Valley; San Francisco just happens to be nearby, and, as a former cultural hub, it conveniently lets techies pretend to be tapped into more artsy forms of culture, when, in reality, they’re really outsiders in an expensive museum.
FM-2030’s point about building “Instant Communities” also seems relevant today, as pop-up cities are being born through the Seasteading Institute. Meanwhile, the work-from-home boom, paired with Airbnb, has culminated in the “digital nomad” lifestyle. FM-2030 didn’t coin this term, but he might as well have, given how he seems to have predicted it. And of course there’s Burning Man and its iterations, which are explicitly designed as instant communities.
There’s a lot more in FM’s anti-cities rant that’s worth reflecting on. If nothing else, his zippy, unhinged writing is worth reading simply for the fun of it.
Beyond Cities: Instant Communities
What are the most beautiful cities in the world?
Paris — Rome — London — Copenhagen — San Francisco — Rio de Janeiro — these are the cities most often mentioned.
Other favorites: Kyoto — Bangkok — Adelaide — Jerusalem — Cairo — Athens — Leningrad — Budapest — Vienna — Venice — New York City — Mexico City . . .
We are all so thoroughly brainwashed by oldworld values and esthetics that we absolutely cannot see the ungainliness of all these cities. An ungainliness which stares us in the face.
In fact the more dirty old and drab a city the more people seem to admire it.
But what the hell is so beautiful about Paris — London — Vienna? What is so beautiful about tight dingy sunless streets? Austere gloomy cathedrals? Drab old buildings with dark cockroach-infested rooms and halls? Decrepit old shops piled with junk? Bleak factory buildings and decaying industrial neighborhoods?
We have been brainwashed to see beauty in ugliness — modernity in squalor — culture in oldness — esthetic charm in drabness and uniformity.
We fail to see that it is the people of the major cities who are relatively modern — not the cities themselves.
Let us not blame modern technology and progress for the breakdown and drabness of the big cities. These are not modern cities. They are all geriatric.
In fact the ones we consider the most beautiful — Paris — Vienna — San Francisco — are among the ungainliest.
But so long as we go on believing that our cities are beautiful and holding up old rundown cities as models we will continue to fester in archaic lifestyles.
It is absurd to complain of ghettoes when every single city is now little more than a large ghetto.
It is absurd to clamor for a better safer more civilized life as long as we continue to languish contentedly in these cities which are themselves intrinsically dehumanizing.
Governments can go on pouring out millions to renew the cities. They are only frittering away money time energy. These old cities cannot be rehabilitated. They cannot be modernized. Urban renewal is a colossal farce.
All our cities are obsolete. The very concept of city is obsolete.
London — Paris — New York are conceptually medieval cities. Built to accommodate horse carriages — gaslights — small neighborhood stores — family-oriented religion-oriented work-oriented feudal life.
Even our few twentieth century cities like Los Angeles and Brasilia are conceptually archaic because they too were built on premises of older technologies.
All existing cities must go. They are all too backward and deficient. Too rooted in oldworld values technologies and institutions: churches — temples — mosques — castles — streets and alleys — schools — factories — prisons — slaughterhouses — cemeteries . . .
It is too costly and disruptive to tear down the cities and start off on the same sites with new concepts of community.
We must begin by closing down whole areas of our cities (as the Chinese are now doing in Peking). Then within specified times close down the cities altogether.
We need not tear them down. Leave them intact as Museum Cities for tourists to visit and historians to study.
We speak of preserving historical landmarks in the cities. The cities themselves are now historical landmarks. We should leave them as they are — and get out.
Jerusalem — Damascus — Athens — Paris — London — New York — Tokyo and other old cities are historically too valuable to tear down. We need to preserve at least some of the cities. At present in the name of modernization we are tearing down the cities bit by bit. The result is that we neither have 21st century settings nor are we preserving the pristine characters of the cities.
Our cities are all too old to tear down too old to live in. They are now valuable only as museums.
Museums can be interesting to visit but not to live in.
We live in a new age and need new concepts of community: spacious — mobile — instant — cheerful — global.
— Every country or regional bloc must right away set up at least one Instant Community. This can act as a catalyst to start a trend away from cities to new concepts of community.
— No attempts should be made to transform an existing city to an Instant Community. New Communities must be planned and set up along new concepts and on new sites.
— The Instant Community must above all reflect and accommodate the new mobility. An entire community of over 100,000 people can now be created in less than six months. It can stand for a few months or years, then the whole community may be dismantled or moved. A trend has started toward mobile homes and communities. For example over fifty percent of new housing in the United States comprises mobile homes. Tent cities — mobile cities — Disneylands — world fairs and festivals — these are forerunners of Instant Communities. Rapidly assembled, their emphasis is on movement and fun. Most blueprints of new communities are based on oldworld premises of permanence and rootedness. This is the central error in these plans. They do not take into account the exploding mobility of people and social systems.
— The Instant Community must therefore incorporate only the newest concepts of construction. This means no stones — bricks — steel or concrete. No foundations. Nothing static — permanent or rooted. Nothing that will stay long enough to decay corrode or degenerate into ghettoes and tenements.
— The Instant Community must have only Instant Habitations. Light sturdy colorful habitations made of aluminum — fiberglass — plexiglas — plastic and other modern synthetics. These Instant Homes are highly flexible and maneuverable. Press a button and you rotate the entire house — tilt it to different angles to catch sunlight or moonlight — make it crawl float or fly. These Instant Habitations have great variety in design color and shape. They can be flown ready-made or packaged by helicopter to desired sites. Easily assembled easily enlarged and just as quickly dismantled or transplanted. Bubble houses can also be instantly packed unpacked inflated.
— The Instant Community must combine the most beautiful aspects of nature with the new teletechnology and liberated life styles.
— The Instant Community can be set up in a green valley a desert near a mountain on a lake or sea — whatever topography is desired. Even outer space.
— Many of our new communities will actually be in Space. Our present space stations will soon evolve to huge Astrocolonies. Within a few years thousands of men and women will occupy Space Communities. Some of the concepts designs and materials could be used in our Instant Communities here on Earth.
— The Instant Community must enjoy the freedom of controlled weather. Bubble domes can be floated around to protect parts of the community from rain snow or scorching sun. For instance if people are at the beach why allow a sudden downpour to sabotage the fun? If the clouds cannot be conveniently dispersed float the transparent bubble dome overhead. At a later stage communities will also benefit from solar satellites to turn on instant sunlight any time night or day. We will regulate the weather in our communities as easily as we now regulate the temperature in our homes.
— The Instant Community will be extensively automated and therefore dependent on abundant energy. Solar complexes and Nuplexes (nuclear energy complex) situated outside the community or on floating platforms can provide abundant cheap energy. They will also provide power for the cybernated agriculture and industry — help recycle wastes — desalinate water.
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