Aria Bendix is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab. Her work has appeared on Bustle and The Harvard Crimson.
Modeled after African termite mounds, the Ultima could house around one million inhabitants.
Back in 1991, architect Eugene Tssui designed a tower that would put all other modern skyscrapers to shame. At a mile wide and two miles tall, plans for the Ultima far surpassed the height of any artificial structure the world had ever seen. More importantly, its design promised to solve many of the complicated issues plaguing urban areas.
The concept for the Ultima began as part of a contracted study of the San Francisco Bay area, during which Tssui and his team were struck by how few park-like spaces the city had to offer. In an effort to minimize urban sprawl and preserve what natural spaces were left, Tssui designed a vertical structure modeled after African termite mounds—the tallest structures not made by man—which can reach up to 30 feet in height. The end goal, Tsui says, was an ambitious one: to make San Francisco “a benchmark for ecologic living for the entire planet.”
Building an ecosystem
Throughout his career, Tssui has been known for his unconventional designs, which often highlight nature and its ecological principles. The Ultima tower is just one of Tssui’s many unbuilt proposals. Others include the Strait of Gibraltar Floating Bridge, which sets out to connect Europe and Africa, and an “Eye in the Sky” tower that would equal the height of three Seattle Space Needles.
But the Ultima is unique in that it would essentially function as a microcosm of a sustainable city: The structure is designed to consist of 120 levels, each with its own mini-ecosystem featuring lakes, skies, hills, and rivers. In place of an air conditioning system, aerodynamic windows would help to cool the interior. Just as water from the bottom of an African termite mound cools the rest of the structure, waterfalls on the lower levels—and a giant surrounding lake—would also provide natural air conditioning (cool air rises and is warmed by bodily activity on the upper levels). And a series of mirrors at the building’s core would reflect sunlight throughout.
The building’s technology is also designed to conserve resources. The structure itself would be made of recycled building materials, and each level would feature composting toilets and natural water cleansing systems.
Still, there was the question of how to power a building of this magnitude in a sustainable way. Even 25 years ago, Tssui knew that solar and wind energy would be the answer. Ultima’s entire surface is designed to be clothed in photovoltaic solar cells, and a number of windmills would supply the rest of the power needed to keep the structure running.
Given the size of the Ultima, one can only imagine how difficult it could be to navigate. To address this issue, Tssui’s concept offers residents and visitors easy access: The Ultima’s 12-story high-speed elevators are designed with a complex system of vertically-stacked trains that would theoretically stop at 30 floors simultaneously.
To protect the building in the event of an earthquake, Tssui also devised a system of cables in the shape of double helixes, which form a net around its entire surface. This allows the whole building to absorb stress as opposed to one vulnerable area.
Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the Ultima, however, is its intended ability to house the entire population of San Francisco. Tssui estimates that the structure could accommodate around one million individuals. To this day, this is a particularly crucial feature for a city with a growing concentration of residents and an aversion to new development. Creating a vertical structure that would eliminate sprawl and offer a gargantuan amount of commercial and residential spaces could all but eliminate San Francisco’s issues of housing accessibility.
Issues with the city
Of course, Tssui’s design is more visionary than realistic. To pull it off, the estimated cost was set at $150 billion—far more than the city of San Francisco or its potential residents could afford (though Tssui contends that the structure would be more cost-effective in the long run compared to how much the city spends on real estate and capital). But, money aside, San Francisco has been quite resistant to Tssui’s unorthodox designs.
“San Francisco has this prejudicial view of what architecture ought to be, and it’s a very backward and provincial view,” Tssui says. “There’s a very strange, discriminatory prejudice for retaining that ancient model of San Francisco [at the turn of the century]. It’s been a huge challenge to defy that, and I’ve had nothing but troubles trying to create something innovative and meaningful and purposeful.”
But the city alone isn’t to blame. Steven Schwartz, a former intern at Tssui’s design firm, told SF Gate in 2007 that “design review boards are not that forward-thinking aesthetic-wise. And Eugene won't compromise and make things more boxlike."
Nor should he have to. Even if Tssui’s vision verges on the fantastic, the Ultima could still leave a lasting impact on urban communities. If future architects are able to draw upon even a single aspect of Tssui’s design, our city structures—and the lives of residents in general—could be vastly improved.