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No. 585:
City of the Future

Today, we struggle to create a modern concept of a city. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Before the 1890s, few buildings rose over 7 stories. Then electric elevators changed everything. With efficient means for moving people up and down, buildings sprouted upward. In the blink of an eye, cities changed utterly.

As cities raced skyward, our vision of what the modern city should be raced even faster. Just thirty years after the electric elevator, those rising buildings had given birth to a radical new concept of human dwelling.

That concept came full flower in the 1920s. Maybe you've seen Fritz Lang's movie Metropolis. It captured the new vision in 1926. Modern movies have rediscovered it, but they add sinister overtones. You've seen caricatures of the 1920s city in Blade Runner and Batman. They show the vision gone mad.

Yet the vision was powerful. Huge buildings rise, layer upon layer. Bright lights. Multi-tiered highways flow among the buildings on many levels. Higher up are airways. Airplanes and helicopters move through the upper levels of skyscrapers.

And it all goes up, up, up. Is there a bottom to the picture? Who knows! The bottom is out of sight. All we see is up. The vision is Gothic -- right down to the Gargoyles and ornate towers of the old cathedrals. Only the flying buttresses are replaced by upper ribbons of highways.

Wanamaker's Department Store made a formal assembly of this vision in October, 1925. They put on an art exhibition. They called it, "The Titan City, A Pictorial Prophesy of New York, 1926-2026." And there was that Gothic reach of the city into the sky. Up, up, up -- in painting after painting.

Rockefeller Center was a direct outgrowth of the vision. The architect was one of its theorists.

Yet that vision was not to be. Oh, you catch a sense of it today in, say, lower Wall Street. You see a little of it when the evening sun flares on the steel and glass of downtown Houston.

But in the end, we chose not to centralize and build upward. We chose instead to build outward. After WW-II, America moved to the suburbs. A city will have several scattered office concentrations. And most of us live in gentler outlying neighborhoods, if we can. We flee the sterile technocracy of high concentration.

Now and then we grasp at a Faustian vision of technology for technology's sake. Now and then, we let ourselves be carried away by a Tower-of-Babel impulse. But, in the end, the things we build are creatures of our hearts as well as our heads. In the end, we build closer to our own human nature.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Willis, C., The Titan City. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Vol. 2, No. 2, Fall 1986, pp. 44-49.

For some images of the 1920s modern city, as it was first conceived, and as it appeared, in the movie Metropolis, click on: Google image search for Metropolis

For more on the role of Lang's Metropolis, see Episode 1605.