We’re all familiar with vintage cartoons like The Jetsons (Orbit City) and Batman (Gotham City) that depict an urban futurism that seems, now, all too unlikely — at least in the way they were originally conceived. But recently, a classic magazine clip depicting urban futurism hit my desk. It caught my attention with both unexpected accuracy and complete misses.
In a two-page spread from the August 1925 issue of Popular Science Monthly, an extraordinary future for the American city was foretold. Conceived from the mind of American architect Harvey W. Corbett, “May Live to See, May Solve Congestion Problems” illustrated vertical cities in the sky that would forever change the way Americans experience urban living and space. Corbett disagreed with the contemporaries of his day on many trends like rapid decentralization, arrangements of living, and transportation forms. He remained faithful in the strength of the city; he believed that the American city would be revolutionized through expansive districts of skyscraping towers, which had only began in earnest the decade before. According to Corbett, these vertical cities would not only house people, but contain all of the necessities to take up leisure, learn, and work within.
From the article’s full page illustration, a small caption describes the modern American city:
How You May Live and Travel in the City of 1950
Future city streets, says Mr. Corbett, will be in four levels: The top level for pedestrians; the next lower level for slow motor traffic; the next for fast motor traffic; and the lowest for electric trains. Great blocks of terraced skyscrapers half a mile high will house offices, schools, homes, and playgrounds in successive levels, while the roofs will be aircraft landing-fields, according to the architect’s plan.
Born out of Corbett’s vision of the future city, the artistry of the magazine clip depicts commanding and ominous tower blocks. The structures appear as massive monoliths that tend toward linearity and considerable scale in height, width, and presumably depth. The central point of the illustration terminates on a prominent tower flanked by two lesser towers partially in view. Together, the structures project an aesthetic of modernity and institutional power. Relief in the architecture is largely found through modest step-backs well beyond the realm of human-scale and airy cylindrical motifs. Perhaps the most redeeming aspect are the twin turrets. But this isn’t so much a critique on the design of the buildings, but rather a look into the philosophy behind it.
Peeling back the layers, the Corbettian modern city is deeply complex and varied. On the ground, restaurants and retail would prevail as the active, engaging uses that city dwellers would be accustomed to. Upper floors, meanwhile, would also contain the necessities for living, professional services, education and child-rearing, and leisure. Strikingly, Corbett believed that people would put rooftops and terraces to use as gardens and parks. Just imagine!
A core aspect in the illustration is the connection of buildings to their transportation sources, whether to serve people on foot or in vehicles. The Corbettian city would give day-lit streets to the pedestrian with regal boulevards, allowing them to freely pass from one block to another. Three successive levels of vehicular transportation would pass below the boulevards to neatly web together motorized access to the adjacent buildings. The slowest vehicles would travel closest to the surface while the fastest would occupy the bottom two levels. Underground parking garages would be devised to connect roads to ramps, offering people who drive seamless transitions from one to another. High-speed electric rail would be relegated to the lowest level and pedestrians would be funneled to central spiraling escalators ascending to the ground above — not that different from today’s modern subways.
As fantastic as this illustration may seem, most of the ideas presented in it never truly materialized in our modern cities. Or at least not on the scale that imagined by Corbett. But beyond the illustration, the two-page spread also focused in on Corbett’s larger predictions:
Unlike many other experts, Mr. Corbett does not believe that the future will bring the “decentralization” of our big cities. On the contrary, long study of modern trends in architecture, city planning, and business and social life has convinced him that our cities will become more crowded. And, facing this contingency, he believes we of this generation should begin now to plan buildings and highways with an eye on the problem of handling people and traffic of the future.
The streetcar and elevated railway, Mr. Corbett says, will disappear. Streets will consist of four or more levels, respectively for pedestrians, slow motor traffic, fast motor traffic, and electric trains, the uppermost level being raised above the present street level.
Buildings will be half a mile high or more, containing offices and commercial establishments on the lower floors, and dwellings and amusements places on the upper. These latter will be reached by spiral escalators and will be supplied with pure air piped from the country.
These were bold predictions by Corbett, but the densification — “crowding” as he called it — of major American cities was only temporary. 1950s America would be, for most central cities, the pinnacle of their prominence and population. A decade later, metropolitan regions across the country would see the beginnings of a long but dramatic hollowing out of their urban centers.
Suburbanization of the 1950s and 1960s led to decentralization everywhere, the very thing Corbett balked at. This was enabled, in part, by the death of streetcars, but also from the advent of the Interstate Highway System in 1956. Corbett was, himself, a champion of an elaborate highway network, largely because of the modern promise of accessibility to the far beyond that they embodied. Of course, none of this stopped major cities from pursuing the construction of big buildings. The era of the 1950s was indeed heralded by a great number of skyscraper projects throughout the nation like 525 William Penn Place (520 feet) of Pittsburgh, 621 17th Street (385 feet) of Denver, and One Prudential Plaza (912 feet) of Chicago.
But Corbett’s prediction of half-mile sky-high towers would not be realized until 2009, at least globally. With the completion of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in October 2009, the tower coolly surpassed the half-mile mark with 2,717 feet in height (0.51 miles). The closest contender in the United States today is now One World Trade Center in Manhattan, standing at a mere 1,776 feet tall (0.34 miles).
Corbett was a visionary of his time, yet his hits and misses on the modern city vary wildly. Predictions of the future aren’t everything. But it’s still interesting to make guesses about what’s next. So what will we get right and wrong about our urban future?