The Minnesota Experimental City (MXC)—a utopian plan for the city of the future that was decades ahead of its time, and yet is surprisingly little-known—was the brainchild of the urban planner and technocrat Athelstan Spilhaus. Spilhaus was a man who saw science as the solution to the problems of the world, and became a public figure presenting his ideas of utopia in everyday life through his comic strip "Our New Age." During the mid-1960s, he conceived an ambitious plan to condense his ideas into a prototype for future cities that would be both noiseless and fumeless, accommodating America's growing population and their by-products.
A new documentary, The Experimental City, explores the development, and ultimately, failure of the MXC's vision for future settlements. Using retro film clips, it takes us back in time to a period where Spilhaus' predictions of computers that can fit into your home and remote banking appeared more of a fantasy than reality. The film is directed by Chad Freidrichs (known also for his 2011 film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth) and was premiered at the Chicago Film Festival, in conjunction with the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Several further screenings will be taking place across the country, including at DOC NYC on November 16th.
In proposing the MXC, Spilhaus identified America's consumption problem and extrapolated the country's rising population, issues that are still relevant today, and proposed a world that relied on technological solutions as a vision of the 21st century. A rural site was selected in Swatara, Minnesota, and planning began. In the MXC, a new waste management system would reprocess any waste as useable elements within the city, with buildings constructed from reusable components that made them quick and easy to assemble and disassemble for the ever-changing needs of the city.
A mass transit system was to be implemented within the center of the MXC, prohibiting internal combustion engines and reducing emissions. Cars would be attached to a rail that would take control of the driving and maintain a constant speed, with the driver only regaining steering of the car when they needed to turn off the road.
Due to the cacophony of futuristic ideas proposed by Spilhaus and his collaborators, and because the project never advanced far enough for any single vision to emerge as a concrete proposal, the surviving visuals of the city show little agreement on what the city would look like. One image that stood out, particularly within the first few years of the project, was the dome that the city was planned to be encased in. Owing largely to Buckminster Fuller's involvement, it promised climate control and a balanced energy system—possibly it was a step too far, being dropped later on, but the image stuck.
In another image, underneath the surface of the city was shown a subterranean world filled with what were known as "Utilidors." Their purpose was to hide all the services and pipes before the city was built, eradicating the need to dig up the roads. Sewage systems, delivery routes, and waste management would all be hidden away from the public eye to allow for efficient zoning of the city. Other images show tensile megastructures, solar panels, and complex zoning systems that would enable personal short-range flight.
In the end, the ambitious project stood little chance of becoming more than just good intentions. The MXC faced opposition from many environmental groups, despite sharing their concerns, as the city's planners and the opposing activists held completely different philosophies on the correct approach to these problems. The hefty price tag of $10 billion also damaged people's attitude towards the project.
Although now the Minnesota Experimental City may appear out of date in creating a brand new conceptual city from the top-down—see Le Corbusier's Ville Radieuse or Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City for other examples in which this approach didn't work—the documentary's director Freidrichs thinks that the MXC shares a surprising amount in common with today's large-scale master-planned cities:
I've begun more deeply researching other similar schemes that are going up today. The similarities are eerie. Songdo, South Korea is great example: if you look at the problems it's trying to address, and the infrastructure it's putting up, it's really kind of shocking how similar this is to MXC. A lot of these techno/green/smart cities and neighbourhoods that are popping up around the world sound like an echo from a half-century ago, and they're even proudly using the words 'laboratory' and 'experiment' again.
Today it is almost completely forgotten, but the Minnesota Experimental City was, in many ways, emblematic of the end of society's reliance on individuals designing our futures and the beginning of the anti-establishment cultural phenomenon. Had it been developed a decade earlier, the MXC may have had better luck in the political climate, but the underlying morals of the project are as relevant now as they were back then. Spilhaus never made it to the 21st century he always dreamed about, sadly passing away just 2 years before the millennium.
To find a screening of the documentary The Experimental City, visit the website here.