We'll Die The Way We Lived: The Arcology Dream Is Over

Conservative millionaire entertainer and peddler of conspiracy theories Glenn Beck is building a city-state, “an entirely self-sustaining community called Independence Park.” I can’t wait to visit, it sounds like it will be very welcoming to all kinds of Americans.

He’s on the right track, though. So are the seasteaders. And the gun-hoarding survivalists of all stripes. And those of us who are interested in reviving the New York City Secession Movement. (Our plan is to secede and then, uh, magically raise the city by 30 feet. Still working on details there, do check back.) But yes. The coasts will drown, or the United States will disband, or World War III will come, or the currency will go belly-up, or the NATO black helicopters will take us out, or the squirrels will take over, or some combination thereof will occur in the not terribly distant future.

These concerns inspired the dream of the arcology, which gripped SF writers for decades. A self-sustaining city-state is the simplest way to deal with generation ships, post-apocalyptic societies, climate change and the future of overpopulation, after all. And Mussolini even kind of tried it, with the planned city EUR, so it must be a good idea.

Paolo Soleri gets credit for the term. Since 1970, the architect has been building Arcosanti, which is really more an “experimental town” (an “urban laboratory” in their words) than an arcology. If you’re ever driving from Flagstaff to Phoenix, then 1. definitely stab yourself for doing that and 2. check it out!

Magazines like Wired love to identify COMING-SOON arcologies that are under construction. Or “under construction.” These are all Very Shareable Photogenic Things that the Internet loves. How are all these projects doing? Turns out: not very well. LET’S LOOK TOGETHER.

Arcologies are the province of design competitions. What’s better than a design competition? You get to make some crazy plan, and then, if you’re Zaha Hadid or Norman Foster, you maybe get to build a cool museum or a mildly green train station now and then. But for everything else, everyone on the Internet passes around your renderings, presenting them as news. The problem being: renderings are never news, because they almost never get built. Anyone who’s looked at New York City’s building process in the last 12 years should know that at a fundamental level.

But some arcologies came close. A few even exist! And a few others probably should.

The Shimizu TRY 2004 Mega-City Pyramid

This is “a proposed project for construction of a massive pyramid over Tokyo Bay in Japan. The structure would be about 14 times higher than the Great Pyramid at Giza, and would house 750,000 people.”

Why it doesn’t work: “The proposed structure is so large that it cannot be built with currently available materials, due to their weight.” (Good news: they have lunar base plans too though.)

Masdar City

Masdar City, nestled uncomfortably next to the Abu Dhabi airport, is really more of a business demonstration project for renewable energy and for making lots of money. Masdar is a company that is a subsidiary of Mubadala, which is a “wholly owned investment vehicle” of the government of Abu Dhabi. So Mubadala is an amazing thing: a financial firm, an aerospace research and production firm, a healthcare firm, and basically everything else you would shove into one company if you were super-smart and had all of the money and were also THE GOVERNMENT. Mindblowing, right?

So “Masdar City” is actually a special economic zone — while being half-residential at the same time. Why would you put your company there? “The benefits of setting up in Masdar City include 100% foreign ownership with no restrictions on capital movements, profits or quotas, strong IP protection framework, zero per cent import tariffs, zero per cent corporate or individual tax and zero currency restrictions.” Ah.

Even in a country of wild resources, Masdar City has been scaled back: “the final population will probably not exceed 40,000 and the completion date has been put at 2021 or 2025. The idea of a second Masdar City has been dropped; a $2.2bn hydrogen power project has been called off, as has a ‘thin film’ solar manufacturing plant, intended for Abu Dhabi.”

Still, be right back, opening up The Awl Masdar City offices.

Why it doesn’t work: You can’t export the bizarre economy of Abu Dhabi to the rest of the world. Hmm. At least… not yet.

The New Orleans Arcology Habitat

Aww, someone does care about New Orleans. Yes, meet me there for lunch, surely this already exists, right? (Kidding! It doesn’t and it never will.)

Why it doesn’t work: Capitalism. Also probably racism.

Crystal Island

Oh the ballyhooed Crystal Island. The world’s biggest building, everyone exclaimed, back in 2007: “Sir Norman Foster’s mountainous 27 million square feet spiraling ‘city within a building.’” Will this building ever happen? Hmm: “The proposed site for the Crystal Island is a peninsula located five miles from the city centre. Flights into Moscow’s Domodedovo airport bank sharply over the proposed site shortly before landing. “ Oh and: “However construction has not yet begun, and has been postponed due to the economic crisis — whether it’ll start up again remains to be seen.” Spoiler: unlikely. (Not to be confused with Shenzen’s Crystal Island! Which won a design competition in 2009 and also will never exist.)

Also: it seems to no longer appear on Foster + Partners’ website. So there’s that then. (Though they still list Russia Tower! Which was canceled in 2009. And was a very good building.)

Why it doesn’t work: Because nobody wants a giant Christmas wart exploding near the airport. Also, capitalism.


“The eco-city of Dongtan, construction of which is planned for the island of Chongming off Shanghai, is an ambitious vision of sustainable design and urban planning, including an entirely self-sufficient energy system,” sounds great. Current status: disaster. “The island’s western end, where Dongtan was planned, will soon be taken over by high-rise, high-footprint apartments. The first are already under construction.”

Why it doesn’t work: Capitalism, but in the opposite way.

The Lady Landfill Skyscraper

Haha, yes, a floating magical city that cleans the oceans. See you there soon, really soon.

Why it doesn’t work: Seasickness.

Foxconn City

“Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight. A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.”

Why it doesn’t work: Oh, it does.