The Built Environment

Darwin was a poet.  No, not young Charles, but his ingenious grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.

Erasmus was a brilliant mechanic, inventing a speaking machine, a mechanical ferry and a rocket motor long before the dreams of Russian rocket pioneer Tsiolkovsky.  But he was also a celebrated poet.  Indeed, the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described Erasmus as “the first literary character of Europe, and the most original-minded man”.

You can see why.  One of Darwin’s poems, The Temple of Nature, published one year after his death in 1802, enjoyed a supreme science fictional vision.  It foresaw, with unerring accuracy, an overpopulated future of cars, nuclear submarines, and colossal skyscraper cities.

Five years earlier the ‘grandfather of skyscrapers’ had been built.  The oldest iron framed building in the world, The Flaxmill in Shrewsbury, England was built in 1797, with a fireproof combination of cast iron columns and beams, it later led the way for the first modern skyscraper: the ten-story Home Insurance Building in Chicago, built in 1884 -1885.

Their growth during the Industrial Revolution had made cities the focal point of civilisation.  Images of the future city in fiction became iconic.  In writing and in art, the city developed as a recurrent image of our hopes and fears for the future.

Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction film, Metropolis, is a case in point.  The movie highlighted disenchantment with metropolitan life, and was also a seminal influence on design ideas for the modern built environment.

Produced in Germany, during the height of the Weimar Republic, it was the most expensive silent film of the day, costing around 7 million Reichsmark (about $200 million in 2005).  Metropolis is set in a futuristic urban dystopia and examines the perceived social class crisis of capital and labour.

Architects Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright had been struck by the ‘Raygun Gothic’ of Lang’s Metropolis.  Lang’s architecture was based on contemporary Modernism and Art Deco, a brand-new style in Europe at the time, and considered an emblem of the bourgeois class.

Wright’s response was Broadacre City.  Developed in 1935, Broadacre City was the antithesis of a city and the apotheosis of the newly born suburbia, in which each US family would be given a one-acre plot from federal land reserves.

Le Corbusier’s Radiant City (1935) grew out of the Langian concept of capitalist authority and a pseudo-appreciation for workers’ individual freedoms. In the Radiant City, pre-fabricated apartment houses, les unites, were at the centre of urban life.  Les unites were available to everyone, not just the elite, and based upon the needs of each particular family.

In fiction, the dystopian image of the city endured; a place where poverty reigned, vice and crime prospered.  The splendid vision of the supercivilised city, imagined in HG Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) and the artwork of Frank R Paul, gave way to three stereotyped images of the future city.

The image of the first kind exaggerates the contrast between claustrophobic city and open wilderness.  EM Forster’s The Machine Stops (1909) was an early prototype, and Æon Flux (2005) a recent example.  Here, the idea of escape from the city is dominant, one that is linked to survival itself.

The image of the second kind presents the city in decay.  In this version, once-proud near-utopian city-states have fallen into rack, ruin and riot, of which Samuel R Delaney’s Dhalgren (1975) is a legendary and enigmatic example, greatly influential on William Gibson’s urban Sprawl in Neuromancer (1984).

The third future cityscape, exemplified in movies such as Dark City (1998) and The Matrix (1999) is the shadow city.  Here an alienating and shadowy metropolis features a human experience increasingly impersonal and marginalised.

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