Utopian ideas and impulses have driven architects, civic engineers, and city planners for quite some time – since Industrialization’s push for rapid city growth, these professions have made it their mission to discover and design new and improved urban environments. At the same time, another discipline deals with our future and novel forms of living: visual, literary, and theoretical science fiction fiends explore the present to extrapolate and conjure up alternative scenarios that might include radically different urban living arrangements: think megaplex cities, sentient buildings, or near-instantaneous transportation.

Ever since the 1960s, with its massive population shift towards urban city centers and increasing demand for more compact living, science fiction has explored the idea of urban life in large habitats; self-sustained and ecologically self-contained. Back then, architect Paolo Soleri came up with the word arcology (“architecture” meets “ecology”) to describe his projects, thus coining a blanket term for vast habitats that provide all of life’s necessities without the need for supportive infrastructure supplied by the surrounding environment.

Many authors of the 1980s cyberpunk movement went on to sprinkle their dystopian cityscapes with corporate arcologies: gigantic superstructures designed to meet all of the company’s employees’ needs to secure life-long loyalty and subservience. William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy (starting with his famous and award-winning debut Neuromancer, 1984), for example, describes these buildings as secure pyramids and fortresses of steel, glass, and concrete not unlike the dazzling design of Ridley Scott’s Tyrell Corporation in the movie Blade Runner (1982). Naturally, these corporate arcologies served as an analogy for the turbo-capitalism exposed in the novels and the ongoing privatization of urban space.

The Tyrell Corporation pyramid of Blade Runner-fame is the best visualization of cyberpunk-inspired arcologies in sf.Blade Runner - © Warner Bros
The Tyrell Corporation pyramid of Blade Runner – fame is the best visualization of cyberpunk – inspired arcologies in sf. Blade Runner – © Warner Bros

Similar, but more benign structures emerged in proposals for large housing projects during the 2000s. The Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid in Tokyo, for example, was designed to house up to one million residents in Japan’s overcrowded capital. Around the same time, world-renowned architects Foster + Partners also designed their Crystal Island pyramid structure, scheduled for construction in Moscow and destined to become the largest structure of its time, but the project was cancelled in 2009. Eager to explore new ground, F+P’s latest project abandons dizzying heights for the spread-out arcology of the UAE’s Masdar City – a grand and completely self-sustained venture located in the Arabian Desert.

The city of Masdar is a spread-out arcology project in the sense that it needs no external power or water supply but is self-sustained. © Foster + Partners
The city of Masdar is a spread-out arcology project in the sense that it needs no external power or water supply but is self-sustained. © Foster + Partners

Meanwhile, science fiction’s arcologies promise far more than secure and hassle-free corporate operations. Instead, many science fiction authors and film-makers have come to consider mega cities and self-sustained structures a necessity in an increasingly hostile environment. Films like Judge Dredd (1995), its remake Dredd (2012), or Total Recall (2012) depict urban life as masses struggling to survive in a dense, self-contained metropolis, surrounded by a largely uninhabitable world.

The 2012 remake of Total Recall envisions urban environments based on arcology concepts popularized by the 1980s cyberpunk movement. Total Recall – © Columbia Pictures

Natural disasters can also spark the imagination of urban planners: Vincent Callebaut, for example, designs arcology-inspired dwellings like his floating housing project for flood-ridden Haiti or a skyscraper version of ecologically sound farming in the middle of New York’s Hudson River. Along similar lines, Kevin Schopfer proposed the aptly titled NOAH arcology for more than 40,000 New Orleans residents displaced by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Yet whatever the ultimate inspiration or reason: Arcologies, i. e. self-sustained mega structures, may turn out to be one of the key ways that urban life takes inspiration from science fiction.

Text: Lars Schmeink
Header Image: The “Asian Cairns” arcology project, a combination of farming and housing for the Shenzhen region in China. © Vincent Callebaut Architectures