Utopian cities of the world

A look into Disney EPCOT, Arcosanti, and Brasilia

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Hi everyone,

Hello from Tulum 🌴

I've been reading a lot about utopian cities lately. Many thinkers and designers from around the world had tinkered with the visions for cities of the future, many of which were built with varying degrees of success.

I would love to share a few stories on ideal city planning. If you think of other cities (imaginary or realized), let me know via @cocobliu 🙂

Hope you learn a thing or two from this issue.

Enjoy!


01 Disney EPCOT

What would Walt say? Disney's employees would often ask each other.

If it were up to Walt, if he had been alive, he would be building a city of the future.

Just a few months before he passed away, Walt Disney envisioned an experimental utopian city. His vision was never realized because Disney Productions was not confident to build and operate a city without Walt. If he had a chance to execute his vision, perhaps Disney World as we know today will not be just a theme park, but a fully functional city; a city that embodies the American Dream and promise of the future.

The greatest piece of urban design in the US is arguably Disneyland. It is built with dedication for the happiness of people, embodying the dreams and ideals that created America in the first place. EPCOT, known as Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, was an even larger project than the theme parks. It is a planned community that would serve as a model for urban living. It adapts a radial plan, inspired by traditional garden cities; it has a central business district at the core, a cosmopolitan hotel as its centerpiece, high density apartment building surrounding the core, a greenbelt with schools and parks for recreation, and radiating out with lower density suburban neighborhoods.[1]

The shape of a wheel with climate controlled city center, greenbelt, and an intricate transportation system (illustration by Herbert Ryman)

What is the most impressive about EPCOT is the intricate and well thought-out mass transportation system. Below the pedestrian centric ground level, there would be three levels of transportation that connect the city. The lowest dedicated to trucks for transporting commercial goods, the mid level reserved for automobile and parking (with the goal of connecting EPCOT to larger Florida), and the upper level, anticipated with the highest usage, a monorail with electric powered people movers. This monorail would then travel above the ground across the city, as seen in Magic Kingdom today.

It is questionable whether such extensive car infrastructure will be relevant for the future and the viability of the people mover on a city scale. However, perhaps the dedicated transportation station is a precursor to the bullet design of the Hyperloop. After all, transit-oriented development is important in ensuring urban mobility, an important indicator for the success of a city.

According to Disney, EPCOT will "always be in the state of becoming. It will never cease to be a living blueprint of the future where people live a life they can't find anywhere else in the world." It would constantly adopt new technology, testing new systems, and continue to iterate and imagineer the future.

02 Arcosanti

Arcosanti is an experimental town in the high desert of Arizona, about 70 miles north of Phoenix. The vision of this utopian town was conceived by Paolo Soleri, who was mentored by the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Paolo envisioned a town with dense development that leaves limited environmental footprint as well as multi-use spaces where work, entertainment, and living are highly integrated; a counter movement to urban sprawl.[2]

The concept of living in harmony with the natural world is known as arcology, combining architecture and ecology. It is the idea of shelter and habitat belonging to a landscape, applying organic architecture not just to a single building but to a whole city. Built in the 1970s, and to this day only 5% completed, the town is a living experiment of an ideal community. People that live there believe in the vision of Paolo; they prefer the sharing of resources in a dense community and value the necessary social interactions with others as well as the connection to nature.[3]

Ceramics Apse that is fills with shade in summer and light in winter (@arcosanti_arizona)

An architectural element that exemplifies environmental consciousness is the ceramics apse of the bronze foundry. The semicircular recess orients to the south. In the winter when the sun is lower in the sky, sunlight shines directly into the apse, heating up the concrete and trapping the heat to create a micro-environment. While in the hot summer months when the sun is high up in the sky, the apse creates shading for cooling effects. Thus, the design utilizes passive solar energy, leaving minimal impact on the environment.

Sometimes I wonder if this experimental town will survive the test of time; will its small population of 80 continue to stay and protect the dream, or will they eventually seek out a more urban way of life? Nevertheless, we know that the community there is content, and has perhaps served as inspirations for projects like Culdesac and beyond.

03 Brasilia

Brasilia is a city built with utopian aspirations and modernist ideals. In the 1950s, Brazil was faced with urban issues including insufficient housing, transportation, and distribution of essential goods. To solve these issues, Brazil turned to constructing a new capital city. While the coastal cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo echo the remnants of the colonial era, Brasilia would symbolize Brazil's coming of age.[4]

The new capital was to be located westward closer to the country's center, known as marcha para oeste (westward march), a step towards fulfilling Brazil's "continental destiny". In a way it reminded us of America's Manifest Destiny in its expansion as a source for growth.

The plan, designed by Lúcio Costa, a student of modernist architect Le Corbusier, aimed to address Brazil's urban problems. Known as Plano Piloto, the city will be made of the Monumental Axis that runs east to west and the Residential Axis from north to south. The Monumental Axis contains government buildings, decorated with modern architecture designed by Oscar Niemeyer along with broad vistas to induce a feeling of grandeur. In contrast, the two "wings" of the Residential Axis are meant to be more peaceful and intimate, containing residential zones, local commerce, school, recreation, and churches, located along 96 superblocks.[5]

Modern architecture as part of Brazil's cultural heritage, designed by Oscar Niemeyer (Left: National Congress, symbolic of Brasilia’s seat in the national government, Right: The Brasília Cathedral)

By intentionally separating these functions, the plan is meant to produce self-sufficient neighborhoods that integrate the upper and middle class as they share the same residential area. Inspired by Le Corbusier's Ville Radieuse, Costa's plan echoes the goal of "reuniting man within a well-ordered environment", utilizing well-planned housing blocks and abundant green spaces.

However, despite these utopian harmonious visions, Brasilia is known for its failure in realizing these ideals. In reality, Brasilia had become two spatially segregated communities, the central planned city with wealthy populating, and sprawling unplanned and overpopulated periphery with little access to adequate infrastructure. To put simply, outside of the original Plano Piloto are poverty and slums. The plan had laid out the outline and shape of the capital perfectly, but did not anticipate the growing population (intended at 500,000, now the population is close to 2.5 million). This orderly and systematic plan could not effectively expand beyond the original plan; it couldn't adapt to changes as the city grew.[6]

It is impossible to anticipate actual state of use simply by perfection of design. As Alain Bertaud put in his Order Without Design, scientific design should not replace markets in allocation of land and floor space consumption. Instead, to ensure relative success to urban planning, it is best to leave the plan flexible and adaptable to the forces of markets and economic conditions.

Conclusion

Humanity has crafted visions for an ideal city in different corners of the world. There are often ideals of community, ample green space, along with various imagined use cases. Planning and design is important; without it we tend to leave out public spaces for civic engagement. However, a key takeaway is to always design for change. We are constantly evolving, constantly dreaming of new worlds we aspire to live in. A design is perhaps the most successful when it has the ability to mold to new circumstances.

What exactly did Walt mean by a constant “state of becoming”; how do one iterate in the physical world without it getting too expensive. When one design failed to realize its democratic goals, can a different design tear down these socio-spatial borders? We witness a blurring sense of nationalities with more globalization and cross-pollination of cultures; can we design cities that not only adapt to these changes, but also facilitate the changes we want to see. Instead of discrediting design in general, perhaps the answer lie in that we simply have not yet had enough iterations towards that ideal city.


That's it for now. I'll share a few other utopian city examples in a future issue.

I'm curious to know what characteristics would you wish to have in your ideal city? What city in the world is your version of ideal?

Always thinking and reading about future of living,

Coco

@cocobliu

Further exploration —

  • I thought this is a great article (with beautiful, sensational photography) covering 60 años de Brasilia and counting.

  • Recently, I read the book Ghost Cities of China. It’s one of the most interesting books I’ve come across in a while; eye-opening in that China is building hundreds of cities as we speak, while America is building none.

Footnote
[1] Walt Disney's original E.P.C.O.T film (1966)
[2] Arcosanti: Paolo Soleri on his futuristic utopian city in AZ desert
[3] Step Inside This City of the Future That Time Forgot
[4] Wikipedia: Brasília
[5] The two axes form the shape of an irregular cross that suggests the shape of an airplane or bird, indicating possession and conquest.
[6] Inside Brazil’s ‘cautionary tale’ for utopian urbanists