Experimental City: The Sci-Fi Utopia That Never Was

Oct. 17, 2017 Ι CityLab

To forestall the continuing growth of cities as “cancerous organisms,” the Minnesota Experimental City (MXC) was conceived in the mid-1960s by epochal technologist Athelstan Spilhaus. A modular settlement of 250,000 people or more, the city was to be powered by clean energy and run on public transit. Experimental City would be a tabula rasa—a place to begin anew, free from the constraints and compromises of past cities, located in the remote marshlands of northern Minnesota.

Spilhaus could be gruff, but maintained a patrician air, expressed in his decades-running “Our New Age” comic strip, which confidently proclaimed science fiction to be science fact just around the corner. To advance the cause, he gathered around him a progressive cadre of experts including Buckminster Fuller and civil rights pioneer Whitney Young. The world they outlined was startlingly prescient.

Spilhaus was far ahead of the day’s consensus on climate change and the necessity of minimizing waste. (One newspaper headline: “’Recycling’ to be key to experimental city.”) The MXC predicted the rise of personal computers, video conferencing, and a proto-Internet that would allow networked remote shopping and banking. They envisioned how this technology would allow people to work from home, and extrapolated the subsequent effects on transit networks and urban development.

A “dual-mode” transit network addressed the first-mile, last-mile problem with individual vehicles that can be driven independently, but then hook into a series of cars running on a track as they near the city center. No traditional internal combustion engines would be allowed. Spilhaus envisioned an almost organic process of assembly and disassembly, in which modular components of buildings would be digested into the city sub-structure and used again. His experimental city was always a work in progress, constantly making and unmaking itself to perform better.

The city’s price tag was estimated at $10 billion (in 1967 dollars), mostly to be funded by private industry. (The idea was to pay for it with the war surplus saved by ending war in Vietnam.) Completion was set, rather ominously, for 1984. The venture initially received some federal funding, but enthusiasm stalled when Vice President Hubert Humphrey (a former mayor of Minneapolis and a supporter of the plan) failed in his 1968 presidential bid.Focusing their energies at the state level, backers convinced the Minnesota legislature to establish a state agency to set site criteria and find a location. They settled on 55,000 acres near the town of Swatara, Minnesota, and quickly attracted the wrath of local residents. By then it was the early 1970s, just a few years before the New York Daily News’thunderous “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headline. The brand of the American city was wrecked; they were viewed as unredeemable hovels of crime, corruption, and unrest.

Animated by both conservationism and NIMBY populism, the people of Swatara wanted no part in the MXC experiment, even though it sought to solve many of their ostensible concerns about dysfunctional urbanism. They marched more than 150 miles from their town to the state capital in St. Paul in a Minnesota January as protest. The MXC lost state support in 1973, effectively killing the project.

The new documentary The Experimental City by Chad Friedrichs (who directed 2011’s The Pruitt-Igoe Myth) is a fantasia of mid-20th century techno-utopian fervor, depicted through the grainy imagery of tube TV. It takes us into a world of swirling cigarette smoke and stale coffee, technicians in white button-down collared shirts and horn-rimmed glasses, computers the size of small kitchens that run on reels of magnetic tape. Considering the scale of these experts’ ambition—to build a city that would solve the burgeoning crisis of urbanization from almost every angle—the technology at hand seems primitive, yet the future to them seemed close and under their control.The Experimental City illustrates a moment before the environmental movement had embraced technocracy and documents the run-up to our current political era. There is a distant parallel in President Trump’s campaign proclamations to “Make America Great Again” with ambitious investments in infrastructure. But the cast of characters that shepherded this project reminds us that the world of the film is long past. One of the Experimental City’s most influential backers was Otto Silha, a progressive Republican; Silha was happy to work with Democratic Vice President Humphrey and root for his election as president because he supported the project.

The ambition to build such a thing seems as wildly impossible today as it has since the early Eighties, and the failure of the MXC is an evocative symbol of this shift away from trusting in technocrats and the government striving to shape how we live. The end to central-planning ambition, and the fading expectation that the future is navigable and improvable, are hallmarks of our own political moment, exemplified by the dismissal of expertise by a large swath of the populace.

As part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Freidrichs will screen his film at the Chicago Cultural Center on Oct. 18. In advance of the screening, Freidrichs took some time to chat with CityLab about the future that never was.From the end of World War II to the mid-20th-century space program, Americans had great faith in the ability of technocrats to execute hugely complex and ambitious plans. How did that spill over into the MXC?  

You can really begin the story of the Experimental City at the end of World War II. For better or worse, that war was ended with a massive technological project—the Manhattan Project. It was a similar project that put together the best and the brightest and said, “Let’s solve this one issue.” You see that, likewise, with the missile program. Bernard Schriever, who was on the steering committee of the MXC, was in charge of getting the Minuteman missile ready to launch within 10 minutes.The idea that you could solve these things with experts, with a one-fix solution, was a very alluring idea, because it had been proven out in the past.

This blue-ribbon panel of experts ran into political resistance from the citizens of Swatara, and they were able to kill the project. Their stance was part conservation-based, but also recognizable to anyone who has witnessed anti-development advocates in their own city. What did prominent environmental groups think of the MXC? The Swatara folks were the ultimate NIMBYs because they had to be. There’s no way, when you look at it from their perspective, that it’s irrational to be a NIMBY.

At the same time, there was an equally compelling conflict between the two approaches to environmentalism. Spilhaus very much believed in solving things with grand gestures and [that] it was solvable with technology. The history of environmentalism was rooted in a much more hands-off approach. Human hands corrupt nature.

The Izaak Walton League, a prominent environmental group at the time, came out against the Experimental City. They felt that it would pollute. The last thing they needed were more cities. The last thing they needed was more urbanization. If anything, we need to spread people out, as opposed to concentrating them.

In 1967, we didn’t have a lot of these groups. The point at which the MXC started to get covered more, and when opposing views on the MXC started to matter, was the early 1970s. By that point, the consensus about the right kind of environmentalism had solidified in a way that I’m not sure it had in ’65 and ’66 when this project started getting off the ground.Because these two things were on the rise—the grassroots appreciation of the little guy, as well as the mainstream environmental movement which was very suspicious of technology and perhaps even urbanism at the time—[they] made it so the MXC [was] received [by] the state agency at the wrong time in history. You get the sense that if it had been built 10 years earlier, it might have stood a better chance.

Was it a canny political step for Spilhaus to refuse to explain how the MXC would look, so he wouldn’t be tied to a specific vision that might become unpopular? Or was it a blunder not to delineate a common vision early on so that everyone could unite around it?

I think Spilhaus wanted to keep it relatively vague. The idea was that it was going to be experimental and that it would change, so he didn’t want to be pinned down, partly because he didn’t want his city to be pinned down. I don’t think there’s guile here.From the vantage point of Otto Silha, there was a tendency to try to identify a couple of visuals, and the one that kept on coming up was the idea of the dome that would enclose the entire central core, or large parts of it. This was an era when the dome was viewed as futuristic, ecological, energy-saving; and [steering committee member Buckminster] Fuller was at the peak of his popularity.

When you listen to recordings of the workshops and the steering committee meetings, it comes up over and over again: the idea of a mile-wide dome as something that is not only utilitarian, but something that acts as a giant symbol for the city. A concrete image was needed, and they did locate that in the dome.

By the early 1970s, the idea of the dome as something that would enclose a large area was abandoned. My guess it that it was viewed as a little too out-there. However, that stuck. Whenever you talked to residents [of Swatara], the thing that they always talked about is this dome. It became the ultimate negative symbol. The meaning of the dome changed. It was about control. It was about enclosing people. I don’t know what kind of image they could have presented that could have convinced the folks in Swatara that this was going to benefit them.Spilhaus spoke of a range of technological and sociological improvements that the MXC would bring, and there was the idea that it would alter how people behaved and interacted very fundamentally. It’s not expounded upon at length in the film, but was this a particularly contentious topic, given all of the public mistrust and fear of statist social engineering?

They ran these workshops at the University of Minnesota from 1967 to ’68 on all manner of topics, technological as well as social. Some of these workshops were about education vis-à-vis the computer. That was viewed as something that would allow students to integrate into a school system through the computer, rather than their physical presence. In addition, [there was] the idea of the city as a kind of learning community, something that you could learn from—a kind of transparent city where students could be brought around and learn how cities actually function.

The idea behind it was that this city would be so different and so unique that you wanted to make it so that people could adapt to it. They were truly thinking about people. And this is coming out at a time when technology is changing so rapidly, the idea was that society would be changing quickly anyway. In the Experimental City, they were thinking … “How can we keep people from being left behind?” That’s the optimistic read of the Experimental City.They were certainly aware that there would be concerns of what this city would actually be like. They didn’t have cynical outlooks. It was optimistic.

Why have urbanists and policy leaders lost their ability to dream big, like with the Experimental City? And what can the MXC teach us?

I don’t know if urbanism is distinct from society, and I think there has been a general suspicion of this kind of project. Even amongst those who wish we could dream big, it seems foolhardy. I don’t see it being politically viable. There was a moment, in that post-World-War-II era, where we really got behind those big projects. There was a peak in this kind of project in the 1960s that made it conceivable to propose. As to why we don’t have those anymore, I would just try to identify one [factor]: A cynicism or tamping down of optimism.

I asked a lot of our interviewees, “Have we kind of lost something?” The response we got was, yes, especially the ability to plan for the future. The idea of the future in the 1960s was everywhere. It was tied to this idea of progress, science, and in some senses, the idea of expertise. This wasn’t a people-power idea; this was a top-down idea that the smartest people in the world will guide us to a better future.I did sense a kind of melancholy on the part of many interviewees who were associated with the MXC project that we have lost something very important in a kind of perceived consensus. Whether or not that consensus actually existed, or whether it just existed in the room that they happened to be in, it’s difficult to say. And perhaps that consensus just represented the people in power in the 1960s.

A caveat to that is that they tried it, and they weren’t able to influence the future so much. Maybe that idea was bankrupt from the beginning. You can’t plan for the future. Humans don’t have the technical capacity, or the deep-down emotional capacity, to be able to plan for 20 years off. I can see it both ways. That’s the thing that really drew me to the project. There was something about a city that was going to improve all the other cities that was a very beautiful and noble idea, but at the same time, those counter arguments against that mentality were equally compelling, and that clash was really interesting.