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).
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!