“Utopia”: the word was coined by Sir Thomas More in 1516 when he started questioning the possibility of a perfect world where society would suffer no wars or insecurities, a place where everyone would prosper and fulfill both individual and collective ambitions. Yet such a perfect society can only exist with the creation of perfect built infrastructure, which possibly explains why architects have often fantasized on megastructures and how to “order” this dreamed society.
Megastructures, as imagined after World War 2 by the CIAM international congress and Team 10, are now regularly revived with the intent to solve social issues on a mass scale. Notably, architecture students have shown a renewed interest for walking cities as first conceived by Ron Herron of Archigram in the 1960s, assuming that megastructures could solve major crises in remote areas. Just as ETSA Madrid student Manuel Dominguez developed a nomadic city to encourage reforestation in Spain for his 2013 thesis project, Woodbury University graduate Rana Ahmadi has recently designed a walking city that would destroy land mines on its way. But these utopian projects also involve a considerable amount of technology, raising the question of how megastructures and technology can work together to give societies a new beginning.
With her “Metabolic Machine,” Ahmadi aims to revitalize the scarred terrain at the border of Iran and Afghanistan. The land-scraping megastructure is made of repurposed and fragmented military relics and lies atop an array of minesweepers. Conforming to our era’s energy saving demands, Ahmadi explains in a poetic project description that the structure “feeds on diesel, sunlight, and exploded land mines.” The structure also fulfills many other functions to promote economic revival. It improves access to water and food, boosts jobs and business, and helps to build roads. As Ahmadi imagines, “Local populations are drawn into [the Metabolic Machine’s] wake, craving the safety of its shadow. They share a symbiotic relationship with their new host. Micro-economies, informal shelters and spontaneous agricultural pursuits emerge at the prospect of purified land in these new technologic wilds.” As Ahmadi states it – “A utopia is born.”
Manuel Dominguez proposes a similar land remediation to address the environmental dangers of deforestation. His “Very Large Structure” moves on caterpillar tracks, and its inhabitants manage the redevelopment of the surrounding natural environment, bringing a sustainable solution to the need for jobs and economic recovery – a particularly intense subject during the Spanish financial crisis that provided the backdrop for Dominguez’s work. Dominguez also recognizes the importance of Utopia in the conception of his design: “knowing that all final thesis are 'Utopical,' I decided to do a self-consciously utopical one, utopic for real,” he says.
When Archigram designed the first walking city in the 1960s, it was also a pure utopia. The architectural group dreamed of a technologically-advanced society, where buildings would walk on steel legs like animals. With their cartoon-like architectural representations, they depict a nomadic lifestyle in a future where borders and countries disappear. Archigram’s buildings travel on land and sea, and can be plugged to various amenities in different locations to provide inhabitants with what they need for work or leisure purposes.
Whereas Archigram’s project was not technically feasible, the design is conceptually engaging. People can move freely from one location to another, which in effect anticipated the global exchanges of knowledge and information from different cultures which is becoming increasingly crucial to our modern society. Likewise, cities and agglomerations of building units are in permanent change, pointing to the endless diversity that cities could potentially have. Certainly Archigram’s conceptual design could not have been thought through completely – in his drawings, Herron appears not to have taken into account the reality of physical and material constraints. But the project opened a new avenue of thought that added value to architectural theory and discourse.
On the other hand, Ahmadi and Dominguez use utopia not to conceptualize new architectural or cultural theories, but to solve existing problems. For the purpose of their projects, the two graduates – unlike Archigram – need to embrace either existing or new technologies. Ahmadi relies on the use of minesweepers: the best demilitarizing technology up to now, both to destroy land mines and avoid deminers from being killed. In theory, people are kept away from exploding land mines, as they live behind the megastructure. Dominguez also makes efforts to find a realistic technological solution for his project, conceiving large steel frames and stable tracked vehicles to support his megastructure.
While the two projects show some technological strategies, both graduates forget to assess their designs’ technological efficiency. Ahmadi’s proposal consists of an existing technology incorporated into a megastructure. Whereas combining minesweepers should help cover more land faster, the architecture’s added value remains uncertain, as the design seems to represent significant investment for little or no improvement. The relationship between the megastructure and the informal shelters that follow it isn’t clarified either. In turn, Dominguez doesn’t detail how his design helps reforestation and glosses over the damage that enormous tracked vehicles do to the environment they pass over. This leads to broader questions: Are these utopian megastructures helping the conception of a new design or are they simply getting in the way of existing technology? Are we mixing up a desire for architects to meet social and humanitarian needs with their ability to conceive technologies that are complementary but unrelated to the architectural field?
Building is not the only design solution for such problem-solving. This is best exemplified by industrial designer Massoud Hassani and his firm Mine Kafon that developed alternatives to minesweepers. For the real problem is that minesweepers are far from being fully effective: they generate high military costs (today it costs $1,200 USD to destroy one land mine with such technology), are heavy and energy-consuming and cover a limited amount of land. In 2012, for his first Kickstarter campaign, Massani introduced a wind-powered design made of cheap materials that applies enough pressure on the ground to destroy a land-mine. Now, Massani is raising funds on Kickstarter for a drone to map sites, detect land-mines, and detonate them. The technology operates 20 times faster than other existing techniques, is safer, and up to 200 times cheaper.
With this in mind, it is interesting to consider the relationship between architecture and technology, and perhaps differentiate the utopian endeavor from the process of solving problems based on concrete facts. Architects might feel overwhelmed as their field of intervention has widened over time. The potential disasters of global warming and rising geopolitical tensions, as well as problems related to overpopulation and lack of housing are alarming. Nevertheless, as WikiHouse co-founder Alastair Parvin highlighted in his 2013 TED talk with a now-famous story of a school whose multi-million-dollar redesign was avoided with a new timetable, architecture is not the only tool available. Design is more about analyzing an existing problem to derive innovative solutions. Getting “fixated on the idea of providing a particular kind of consumer product” will not necessarily provide adequate solutions to these new challenges, meaning architects might need to embrace critical reasoning about their own field of work. As demonstrated by Parvin's example, critical thinking is indeed one of architects’ main abilities and should stay at the heart of the design process.