Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The 1970s saw a fascination with building utopias that could endure extreme climates. Thanks to global climate change, we need exactly that type of design thinking today.
Nothing that Frei Otto ever built looked crazier on paper than it did in real life. That may be one small reason why the late architect, who died earlier this month, won this year's Pritzker Architecture Prize: He made the fantastical tangible. Otto made visionary work seem doable.
Look at Otto's unbuilt 1971 vision for housing an Arctic town alongside the vast tent-like roofing structures he designed and completed for the Munich 1972 Summer Olympics. The utopian dome city looks downright humble in comparison.
The Arctic project was never a modest proposal, of course, or a realistic one. Designed with Kenzō Tange, Arctic City envisioned a climate-controlled community living under a 1.2-mile-diameter inflatable dome rising nearly 800 feet in the air. The architects devised a sophisticated skin for the dome to admit light and preserve heat over a vast area (more than 10 million square feet). As for heating such an enormous facility in such an extreme environment, the early-1970s designers gave a hand-waving answer: Atomic energy would take care of it.
Arctic City was at best a speculative proposal borne out of the enthusiasm for utopian planning, and at worst an example of the manifest destiny with which planners of that time saw even extreme frontiers. The most space-operatic architecture today can't compete with designs such as Cesar Pelli's Urban Nucleus at Sunset Mountain Park for sheer scale.
"Knowing what we now know, it’s tempting to laugh at the naivety of that generation. Nobody lives on the moon, we’ve never been to Mars and hundreds of thousands of people do not live in orbital space colonies," writes Douglas Murphy in an April 2014 essay for Icon on Arctic City. "To a large extent, the future of that period wasn’t mistaken, but defeated. Since the energy crisis, and the end of the Cold War, the notion of large-scale planning for specific outcomes has become quaint."
With respect to Arctic City, the dome may have been defeated twice: once by society, once by nature. Whereas it made sense in the 1970s to anticipate the Arctic as an inflexible extreme, today, thanks to global climate change, the Arctic is more of a moving target.
Assuming things like atomic power made allowed architects to dream beyond their stations. It enabled them to think about problems that were too far out to address.
Now that climate change threatens to turn the familiar into the frontier, there's a welcome place for impossible thinking.
For years now, the pavilion has dominated the design sphere as a place for exercising the imagination. As a typology, it's personal, consumption-oriented, and capitalist to the utmost. That was lots of fun, but it's about time architects got back to scheming about the weird future for the collective. Should we live under vast domes? Undersea cubes? Floating pyramids? The weird future is no longer a thing that's out there, in space or under the sea. For a lot of climates, it's on the horizon.