Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, starry-eyed architects set their minds to megastructures — massive, multi-purpose designs that could house communities or even entire cities.
Complex and expensive to build, megastructures were often inspired by utopian ideals. With standardized, modular living spaces set amid giant frameworks of communal areas and interconnected transportation, megastructures weren’t just buildings, but blueprints for reorganizing society in a more equitable and pliant manner.
In the 1970s, illustrator Rick Guidice conceptualized this megastructure for NASA showing how humans might live in a colony in Earth’s orbit. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center
“Many megastructuralists saw their task as being the proposal of ‘urban structures for the future’ — as the Swiss architect Justus Dahinden named them — in which a modern, high-technology society could construct its own equivalent of spontaneous group form,” the late critic Reyner Banham wrote in his 1976 survey “Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past,” which has recently been reissued by the Monacelli Press.
As architectural concepts, megastructures were popular across the world, from Tokyo to London to Tucumán, Argentina, but few were actually completed or even broke ground. They were never based around a unified movement; with many schools of thought and interpretations, defining a megastructure could be nebulous.
Kiyonoru Kikutake’s Marine City project, like many Metabolist concepts, hoped to solve Japan’s limited space on land by moving part of the population out to sea. Credit: The Monacelli Press
Hallmark examples include Moshe Safdie’s stacked-block Habitat 67 housing complex in Montreal, which was built in 1967 at a vastly reduced scale, and Kiyonori Kikutake’s unrealized “Marine City” project from 1958. Kikutake’s vision imagined tree-like towers with pod dwellings that rose from floating concrete islands that would be built off the coast of Japan.
Though the enthusiasm for megastructures fizzled out, science fiction has given them more space to flourish, from the Death Star in “Star Wars” to the futuristic reimagining of New York City in “The Fifth Element,” with its network of retrofitted, vertiginous buildings and vertical traffic patterns.
The rise of megastructures
Megastructures were not simply ideas of fantasy. Addressing issues like affordable housing and diminishing open urban space, their proponents believed they were critical to future urban planning.
One of the movement’s most influential designs was Le Corbusier’s Fort l’Empereur concept from 1931. It’s a drawing that, Banham writes, is “like a giant bookcase of reinforced concrete on the shelves of which the inhabitants have built two-story houses to suit their own tastes.”
Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie designed Habitat 67 for Montreal’s 1967 Expo, where megastructure concepts were prominently featured. Though Habitat is widely known and was one of the few megastructure complexes to be completed, it did not spur the housing revolution Safdie hoped for. Credit: Arcaid/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
But even before Le Corbusier, megastructure ideals could be seen in the works of Futurist architect Antonio Sant’Elia, who died in 1916 and inspired the cinematic worlds of “Blade Runner” and Fritz Lang’s 1927 epic “Metropolis.” Banham also points to Florence’s Ponte Vecchio bridge and New York City’s Grand Central Station as unintentional predecessors, with their adaptable, multi-purpose layouts.
In 1959, architect Kenzo Tange, then a professor at MIT, and a group of his students kickstarted the Japanese Metabolism movement — the first formal group dedicated to megastructures — with their plan for an A-frame residential and transportation structure, complete with roads and monorail, called the Boston Bay Project.
Over the next few years, following their introduction at Tokyo’s World Design Conference in 1960, the Metabolists unveiled proposals that sought to extend housing into the water or use land in a more dynamic way, including the Tokyo Bay Project — a gigantic sprawl of homes organized around a chain of circular freeways that traversed the water.
Kenzo Tange’s Tokyo Bay Project from 1960 was never realized, but Benham noted that it gave more credibility to new ideas for sprawling and complex urban planning projects, and would have been a “masterpiece.” Credit: The Monacelli Press
They were followed by British group Archigram’s ambitious Plug-In-City. Designed in 1964 by founding member Peter Cook, it visualized a vast metropolis of homes, businesses, and transportation that could all be moved and “plugged into” its infrastructural base by giant cranes. The city would be ever-changing to suit society’s needs.
Prescient ideas or follies?
“Looking back over the first half of the sixties and the characteristic megastructures of the period, it is noticeable — alarming even — how few of them actually offer any nut-and-bolt proposals as to how the transient elements should be secured to the megaform,” Banham writes.
Some of the more modest proposals were built, including the Cumbernauld Town Centre in Scotland by Geoffrey Cocutt, and Tange’s Yamanashi Broadcasting and Press Centre in Kofu, Japan. But not all were warmly received.
The Cumbernauld Town Centre in Scotland features apartments, shops, a hotel, and other services. It has not been well received, with a Channel 4 poll in 2005 deeming it “Britain’s most-hated building.” Credit: The Monacelli Press
“The megastructures which were actually completed were more or less guaranteed a bad press and a hostile reception,” Banham writes. “They had taken so long to build because of their great size, that the intellectual fashion that had given them birth had passed away before their completion.”
Though megastructures failed to change society the way their visionaries intended, their zealous proposals inspire how we picture the future, both on Earth and beyond. Along with sci-fi writers and filmmakers, NASA has looked to megastructures to construct new visions of how humanity might live among the stars.
Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” used the intimidating size of megastructures and their implicit social hierarchies to create a dystopian future Los Angeles. Credit: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images
As Banham points out, megastructures have been called “monumental follies.” (Mike Mitchell and Alan Boutwell’s 1969 proposal to build an enclosed 1-billion-person city in the United States that stretched from coast to coast would certainly fit that bill.) But they were hinged on the belief that humans could reflect lofty ideals through vast public works.
Paolo Soleri’s 1960s “Veladiga Arcology” design, which imagined a giant dam filled with human habitats. Credit: The Monacelli Press
“Many megastructuralists did, indeed, make much of the ‘urban crisis’ of pollution, crime, congestion (and) dysfunctions of municipal services, ” Banham writes, “yet their projects paradoxically present a physiognomy of manic optimism — everything for the best in the best of all possible megastructures.”