Above: Buckminster Fuller’s Dome over Manhattan concept as interpreted in the 1980s by photographer Santi Visalli.
French novelist and serial provocateur Michel Houellebecq told a radio audience in May what he believed the world would be like in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. “It will be the same,” the writer declared. “Just a bit worse.”
While Houellebecq’s pessimism shouldn’t be taken as gospel, it does serve as a useful tonic to some of the wilder-eyed prognostications about the post-COVID future that have emerged over the last few months. From houses to cities to workplaces, big changes are said to be afoot; repeatedly, critics and designers have drawn comparisons to the 1920s, when the devastating Spanish flu helped give rise to the modernist revolution in architecture, its spare, sunlit aesthetic promising a built environment for a healthier tomorrow. Especially paired with the other simultaneous crises of our moment (economic, social, climatological), there’s a strong case to be made that we could be on track for an urban transformation every bit as sweeping as that which happened a century ago.
Of course, we always could be. The past is littered with unrealized visions for the modern metropolis, from Norman Bel Geddes’s gee-whiz “Futurama” exhibition for the 1939 World’s Fair to the trippy dome-shielded Manhattan imagined by midcentury polymath Buckminster Fuller. It isn’t that such high-concept proposals don’t yield any results; in fact, bits and pieces of them frequently hide in plain sight—the megastructure fantasias of the 1960s live on in projects like River Park Towers in New York City, a housing and recreational complex straddling a highway and railroad, and every visitor to Los Angeles International Airport gets a fleeting glimpse of the late-’50s space-age dream, courtesy of the celebrated Theme Building. But these are only fragments, intimations of the city as it might have been: not “constituent facts” (to recall 20th-century theorist Sigfried Giedion) but transitory gestures en route to the city’s true form.
So what might be some real “constituent facts” in evidence today? “The first thing to recognize is that cities are going to be going broke,” says Greg Lindsay, a fellow at the urban think tank NewCities.
Forget about bold infrastructural masterstrokes, like Elon Musk’s much-touted Hyperloop transit system: The financial fallout from the pandemic-induced recession will lead to less new construction overall and more “living with what’s already built,” as Lindsay puts it. For many cities and their citizens, that means small-ball strategic responses to anticipate future disease outbreaks, whether that’s people moving out of the center of town to more spacious work-from-home digs, or more warehouse- and delivery-based stores and restaurants instead of crowded commercial spaces on Main Street. The city might work a bit differently after COVID-19, but it won’t necessarily look that different.
As to what does get built, the solutions likeliest to catch on aren’t all that dramatic in themselves. For transportation, look at what’s working elsewhere—dedicated bus-only lanes, rolling out now on an expanded scale in Boston, are economical and eco-friendly, and in the best cases (see Mexico City) they can be genuine visual enhancements to the streetscape. To address inequality, there’s still plenty of room for new affordable housing, but look also to conversions of existing building stock, like Chicago’s ongoing adaptive reuse of the gorgeous Lawson House YMCA. Climate change is already in train; to combat the rising waters, London-based Baca Architects have set an upcoming U.K. housing development on piles above the ground, surrounded by floodable gardens.
Low on spectacle, high on ingenuity, the emerging urban prospect may not always set the imagination aflame, though—and there will always still be room for grander schemes, projects like China’s Xiong’an New Area, with its automated traffic-controlling “city brain,” or Japan’s Woven City, a hydrogen-powered community. Yet as often as not, such techno utopias not only fail to reckon squarely with the nitty-gritty problems facing the world, they also become dated fast: No doubt Osaka’s Expo ’70 seemed forward-looking at the time, but would anyone really want to live inside a giant molded-plastic dystopia today?
In any case, more modest interventions can have pleasures all their own. As in Los Angeles, which is moving forward with the rehabilitation of its eponymous river, rewilding projects are poised to supplant the concrete jungle with actual jungle. In St. Louis, an ambitious plan from Stoss Landscape Urbanism, called the Loop + the Stitch, is set to revitalize the city not with elaborate new development but with pedestrian-friendly armatures connecting rich and poor neighborhoods, an attempt at physical rehabilitation for the country’s fractured body politic. With no grand programs in the offing and no bracing agendas on the horizon, the future might very well be a lot like the present. Except maybe, if we’re lucky, a bit better.
Produced by Charles Curkin
This story originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of ELLE Decor. SUBSCRIBE
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