John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
An architect dreamed up these hulking biostructures that humans exploit for energy.
If you wanted to enjoy the paradoxical lifestyle of always moving in a permanent residence, you could buy a houseboat. Or, if you live in fantasyland, you could hitch a ride aboard one of the hulking, sentient “City Walkers” envisioned by Terrence Hector.
The Chicago architect conceived of these nutso things by “working through a tradition of humanizing massive, aggressive machines,” according to his brief at Fairy Tales 2017, a visionary-architecture competition staged by Blank Space, the American Institute of Architecture Students, and the National Building Museum. (“City Walkers,” whose alternate title is “The Possibility of a Forgotten Domestication and Biological Industry,” won second place behind a civilization built on floating “Saturn” rings.) Among Hector’s inspirations were the USS Monitor—the ironclad, steampunk-looking Civil War battleship—and Hayao Miyazaki, who dreamed up his own lurching settlement in 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle.
Unlike Miyazaki’s shambling, clanking strider, “City Walkers” creep so quietly and sluggishly you can’t tell they’re coming. They’re filter-feeders, sucking microorganisms from the air and expelling windy waste from both ends. The constant air circulation is what made them valuable to humans, who set up internal wind turbines to provide power for building traditional land-based towns. That’s according to the weird, wonderful backstory Hector wrote for these behemoths, part of which is excerpted here:
The Walkers, while they were certainly alive, existed at a tempo so much longer and slower than the human lifespan that they functioned as landscape and urban architecture as well as domesticated animal. It is believed that the first human settlers in what is now the City mistook them for geological features or monstrous abandoned termite nests upon their discovery. They dwarfed even the tallest trees, and as far as the early city-dwellers were concerned, theses creatures might as well have been part of the landscape. They were incomprehensibly slow, taking a step once every lunar cycle. Settlements grew beneath, and then around and behind the paths of individual beings in the herd….
The persistent airflow, both in and out, made the insides of the Walkers habitable to humans, and would lead to the first Walker-mills. The micro-climates and constant, isolated wind flow was at first used to power simple, small machines. Tiny, parasitic Mills were precariously fixed to the bodies and chimneys of the Walkers at the strip of the dorsal holes, and for larger industries windmill sails were placed inside the Dorsal Chimney. As the demand for production continued to grow, the scaffolding and cantilevered mills developed into united factories, encasing the Walker they were mounted on. These traveling Towers of Industry became seats of oligarchical power, surrounded by shifting neighborhoods supporting them. The production from the Towers was enough to supply entire monopolies, with the Walker’s constant wind harnessed for a single purpose.
The idea of people clamoring around inside these gentle land-whales raises the question of whether they’re welcome guests, or whether a “City Walker” would blow them out of its back-hole if it could. Indeed, Hector describes his project as a “parable of overexploitation.” Here are some more scenes of his symbiotic cities: