Last week, Google’s parent company announced plans for an experimental “city within city” in Toronto. For years, Sidewalk Labs had designed a futuristic renovation of the Quayside neighborhood that included modular buildings, self-driving cars, and streets that could quickly be adapted to the changing needs of the district.
While Sidewalk’s plan emerged from Silicon Valley’s “Moonshot” ethos, it actually fits into a much longer tradition of utopian planned communities. This includes one of the strangest but surprisingly little-known infrastructure projects of the 1
Spilhaus imagined a 250,000-person metropolis in rural Minnesota, whose buildings (in one design) were shielded by a massive geodesic dome. Like the Quayside project, the MXC was an ambitious government partnership designed to pioneer the city of the future. But citizens who weren’t interested in replacing their small town with Spilhaus’s vision started a protest campaign that helped sink the project.
Filmmaker Chad Freidrichs, director of the documentary The experimental cityexplained The edge that the MXC had a lot in common with Sidewalk’s Toronto area. The two projects also show how our view of science fiction cities – and why they are built – has changed.
The interview has been compressed and edited for clarity.
How viable were the Sidewalk Labs Quayside project and the Minnesota Experimental City?
Chad Freidrichs, director of The experimental city:: The experimental city was definitely a project of its time. The idea was to dream big and create a project that would fit the scale of the problem. At that time, cities in America and elsewhere in the world were in big trouble. In a way, MXC was less likely than a mere neighborhood in Toronto, and I think it always had to fight it.
The fact that Quayside was endorsed by Google speaks for its promise. I mean, Google knows how to do big things. At the same time, Google tends to abandon projects quite often, making them willing or able to drop a project if it doesn’t work the way they hoped it would. In that sense, Google was probably far more likely to have built its neighborhood than MXC as a full-fledged city with 250,000 residents. But maybe that’s just a lack of imagination on my part.
What are the great practical and philosophical contrasts?
I think I became interested in urban experiments when I first heard about Quayside. It’s an old idea, it certainly goes back to the experimental city, at least, but when I made it The experimental cityI kind of thought that mentality was dead. That nobody in my life would really try something like that. Shortly afterwards I noticed that all sorts of people were trying to implement projects like this, with Quayside being one of the best known.
I think the idea that we can do better with big data analysis is a really fascinating idea. This was not necessarily part of the MXC project. When they talked about experiments and how they collected their data, they looked at them through some kind of expert-expert analysis, where people saw and saw what was going on in the city at the highest level, or a retrieval process.
How different do you feel about the underlying motives? Many people have pointed out that Google is a profit-making company that lives from data.
I am pretty clear that data was the motivating factor for Google. The heart of the city appears to be cameras and sensors that collect all of this data to learn more about how the city works. It’s no surprise, I think, that they invented a city that was founded around this idea, and then incorporated all of these other elements that are a kind of urbanistic dream – like the idea of building green parts of the city and restrict normal car traffic, make the city more accessible and flexible.
MXC was slightly different in its approach. The basic idea was initially environmentally harmful. They wanted to build an environmentally friendly city and everything else fell out of it. To have an environmentally friendly city, you have to have a different transit system. If you want an environmentally friendly city, you cannot build buildings that are constantly being used and destroyed because the noise pollution has really disturbed Spilhaus.
I think at some point the city grew and everyone added what they were interested in. What happened to Google again – where they got together with people who said, “Well, I really want to have more parks in the city, and I would like to have a better approach to building where we build things more modularly. “But I think they were very different in terms of the original origins of the two projects.
I have the feeling that there was this great optimism and idealism in the 1960s, where people like Spilhaus had these purely scientific motives. Is that a simplification?
I’m not really sure. I’ve listened to enough recordings that make me think they’re deeply interested in some kind of public good, a form of public good. I think Spilhaus was really interested in science, but science for the benefit of people, not science in a vacuum. So I tried not to read the MXC project cynically.
But you’re also talking about the 1960s. It’s also not that this was just a bastion of people queuing up. It is very well known for its protests and suspicions of companies and governments and all the things that were related to the experimental city.
One of the film’s theses is that there was a kind of change in American society in the experimental city years. That the view of a vaguely benevolent government and a vaguely benevolent scientific community and technology has become somewhat suspicious for many people. And so maybe we are children of the mentality of this shift that took place during the MXC period.
Both projects seemed to be perceived as being a kind of paternalism, fair or not sabotaged – that they came in and did things without people’s input, and there was a grassroots opposition to them.
I think the idea of input from local citizens is now just the norm. They just don’t do such a project without paying lip service to the input from the community around them. This was not necessarily the case at the time of the test city. Many big projects were elite at the time, they weren’t from scratch. But you had this shift towards more appreciation of the basic effort. I think MXC’s planners were certainly aware that there would be resistance. But the effectiveness of this resistance, because of the major changes in society, was something they couldn’t really fight and that they didn’t fully predict.
Do you have the feeling that we as a society learn from these similar cycles that happen again and again?
It’s so interesting. I’ve heard of several of these types of projects, and all of them almost always use technologies that are refinements of things that were discussed 50 or 60 years ago. I can give you explicit examples from the experimental city. For example Utilidors – the idea of having a utility channel into which you can insert modules and change the wiring without having to dig out the street. Google has included this idea – this is a really, really old idea – in its proposal.
And that’s a really good idea! The only downside is the cost, and I assume this is a compelling reason. However, if you feel that the city is going to change quite a bit, this is an absolutely rational thing.
Or the idea of modularity, after which people went crazy with megastructures in the 1960s. At some point, MXC should have a mega structure in which you only have one frame for your main structure and can connect the units as needed so that they are constantly changing. I’ve seen similar languages in Google’s proposal too. So these are relatively old ideas. We have not yet found a way to actually implement it.
It’s kind of daunting that we don’t have big users, modular structures, or autonomous vehicles – I think we haven’t quite got the technology there yet. 60 years later we are still dealing with the automobile and it is certainly a slight improvement in terms of gasoline consumption, pollution and safety. But how many tens of thousands of people die in car accidents every year? How many thousands of tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere by combustion engines? Why haven’t we solved this yet?
So if you take a look at the history of these ideas and these cities and see a new project being announced, you may feel a bit exhausted – because everything was proposed 60 years ago and we haven’t made much progress.