Telosa: The next BIG thing

A street in the proposed new city of Telosa, with 1930s-style aeroplane, or, closer up, a drone. (BIG)

Men have sought to establish utopias for centuries in the mind and even on land. Plato posited his “Republic” long before Sir Thomas More coined “utopia,” but More considered his Utopia (1516) a satire. The founders of successive attempts at utopia in New Harmony, Indiana, failed at least three times. Many other attempts before and since have been made in America and elsewhere: the precise alchemy remains elusive. The founders of modern architecture had utopian conceits but these have resulted almost exclusively in the opposite, as James Stevens Curl makes clear in his 2018 history, Making Dystopia).

Downtown Telosa, with sustainable skyscrapers and same aeroplane. (BIG)

Now, it seems, we have Telosa, a planned utopian community of five million on 150,000 acres, conceived by the tech billionaire Marc Lore, lately of Walmart. Lore has hired Bjarke Ingels, of the Danish firm BIG, to design Telosa along the lines of what Rob Steuteville believes fits under the big tent of the new urbanism. Look at the image on top. Do you see? And at left is Telosa’s new urbanist downtown!

My point is not so much to roll eyeballs at the supposed “agnosticism” of the Congress of the New Urbanism as to illustrate how the fields of architecture and urbanism – beyond the slice of them that unfolds in traditional languages – are little more today than a jumble of words.

If what BIG has drawn for Marc Lore is new urbanism, then new urbanism is just a jargon salad with no real meaning. Of course, I believe that the new urbanism is a real thing, and that, properly conceived, it promotes what would otherwise be called the old urbanism. Too many who have attached themselves to CNU are, in fact, NGO wannabes seeking magic bullets to slay the dragon of climate change with technology that 1) increases the energy output of buildings, and 2) diverts architects and urbanists from their true mission of designing beautiful buildings and cities that work.

However, it’s hard to sustain that belief. In a recent CNU Public Square column, Steuteville wrote: “BIG has revealed only a handful of images, but these make clear that the overall design has a lot in common with New Urbanism.” Huh?

Sustainability would be Telosa’s middle name, if it had one. It does not even have a proposed location yet, though most observers think the idea is to build it in the desert Southwest.

Lore conceives of the city’s plan as based on the latest archispeak buzzword – the 15-minute city, in which all residents live within 15 minutes of their workplace, shopping, or whatever else they need. Another example is the name given to the proposed city’s tallest building, dubbed Equitism Tower, a gloss on yet another, more socially resonant buzzword – equity – which means the exact opposite of equality, which was the conceptual basis for most utopias throughout history. Equality of opportunity is no longer good enough: equity now means equality of result – in other words, a blueprint for dystopia.

Successful cities around the world and throughout history evolved not according to a single plan or central concept but according to the whims of social and market forces, aligning growth with the reproductive qualities of nature. Not coincidentally, the growth of cities resembles the growth of architecture writ large – with thousands of builders adapting the latest advances in design and construction technology, and incorporating the knowledge gained in that ad-hoc manner to an expanding collective wisdom in architecture and city building, most of which has been abandoned by modernists. Marc Lore does not seem to have anything like a traditional urbanism in mind.

Someone online reacted to news of the announcement by Lore of Telosa by pointing out that a city of five millions – or of 50,000 in its supposed first phase – would need a huge system of bringing water to the community. He added that desalinizing water from the Pacific and piping it into the desert might cost a huge chunk of his fortune, leaving him unable to finance the cost of finding a way to finance (and then build) his imaginary city. A couple others speculated at new discoveries that might make that more feasible. Keep on dreaming!

Still, that’s a good idea. Dream on! Lore should indeed throw his money down a rabbit hole. He should hire a top-flight modernist civil engineer to handle whatever highfallutin’ goofy “infrastructure” Telosa might need. Why not hire the London firm that plans to goof up downtown Providence? It is called Arup, which is Swedish for “disrupt.” Or at least it could be.

Meanwhile, BIG should hire as subcontractors a host of great modernist architects such as Frank Goofy, the late Zaha “Ha Ha” Hadid’s firm, Dildo Scrofulus + Rent-free (Diller Scofidio + Renfro), SHoP Architects (does the “o” stand for “of”?), which designed the fitness center rejected by Brown in favor of a facility designed by Robert A.M. Stern (the only wise decision made by Brown in half a century), Renzo Pianofortissimo, and any of many other modernists seemingly as conceited as Ingels regarding the names of their firms.

The idea would be to put them to work designing the biggest nonstarter ever conceived. That might distract them from their normal duties, which seem to be to inflict their designs on as many cities as possible. Telosa has smitten the world of architectural wordsmithy (I plead guilty), spawning a sort of Olympics of the Imagination. Marc Lore fits right in. Let the games begin!

[An engaging take on Telosa by Jessa Crispin ran in the Sept. 20 UK Guardian.]

Gridded layout of Telosa. Could it resemble the new urbanism from a distance? Nah. (BIG)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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6 Responses to Telosa: The next BIG thing

  1. Anonymous says:

    Right on! Wonderful put-down.


  2. Lewis Dana says:

    I’ll leave the philosophizing to others and just:
    1. Suggest that ARUP is the Swedish word for “burp!” Or maybe the feeling I get when I look at their ideas for poor Providence.
    2. Opine that a new city in the Southwest without water, without an industrial/techno/commercial reason for being is hilarious.
    3. Comment that R.A.M. Stern’s Brown gym is disappointing because it lacks a really majestic Corinthian-columned portico and showers modeled on the Baths of Caracalla.


  3. LazyReader says:

    Building whole cities from scratch never worked. The best cities aren’t Planned they’re managed….
    People breed culture, not the other way around…….
    And from cultural underpinnings come civilization and cities that people find, Interesting. A city from scratch.

    This is nothing but the 21st century attempt at the City Beautiful movement………but even the city beautiful movement was a miserable failure. City Beautiful movement.

    The most famous city from Scratch was Brasilia.


    • The City Beautiful movement, Lazy, was a great success that was interrupted by the rise of modern architecture. Many of the most beautiful sections of American cities still rest their laurels on the classical buildings that remain from that era. Failure? You are delusional.


  4. LazyReader says:

    People forget Utopia
    – Was a satire
    – was tribal
    – practiced slavery
    – Had no private property
    – The slaves are either from other countries (prisoners of war, people condemned to die, or poor people)
    – Wives are subject to their husbands and husbands are subject to their wives although women are restricted to conducting household tasks for the most part.

    We already have a society like that……….. in the Islamic world it’s NO Utopia


  5. John the First says:

    There are two kinds of utopias imaginable during a democracy.
    The one kind is that utopia which proceeds from the imagination of the people in general, which is by necessity small absurd and petty of character. The other kind proceeds from the imagination of the contemporary oligarchy, the latter class is always lurking in the background in such times because intelligence never completely dies, even not during the apparent reign of the hoi polloi, and that utopia is by necessity tasteless and absurd, but in a grand and grotesque manner.


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