Chasing the mirage of the “future city”

From Futurama to The Line, Mohamed Elshahed points to the failed promise of the smart metropolis, where yesterday’s dreams make up tomorrow’s nightmares

When masses revolted across the Arab world and beyond in 2011, two visions of the future were at odds, and cities were at the center of both. One looked for social justice, including housing, public spaces, and better living; services and rights; and fewer coercive economic and political systems to manage the realization of such demands. The other vision—supported regionally by petro-monarchies—was one of escalating consumption, privatization, surveillance, construction, endless profit for a few and poverty for most, securitization, and overconfidence in materiality and technology.

“Future cities,” as a marketed concept, are a concern for some and a fantasy for others. According to the World Bank, by 2050, seven to 10 billion people will be living in cities. The latest viral proposition for a future “smart” city is The Line in the Saudi Arabian desert, one of four regions that will comprise NEOM, the mega-city project announced in 2021 by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia claims that The Line, planned to house nine million people, will “revolutionize our current way of life.” In January 2023, Architects’ Journal reported a roster of celebrated names in contemporary architecture aligned with the project, including Morphosis, OMA, UNStudio, and Coop Himmelb(l)au. Their task is enormous: to design the pieces that fit within the concept of a 170-kilometer-long linear city that is only 200 meters wide and 500 meters high, with mirrored facades. The concept of the city was announced and promoted before its architecture was designed and deemed practical, or even technologically possible.

The linear city is not a new idea; in 1965, Peter Eisenman and Michael Graves proposed a 34-kilometer-long, 1.6-kilometer-wide megastructure in New Jersey. While that project was never meant to leave the drawing board, excavation has already begun for The Line. The proposed city in three dimensions is, in fact, a wall. The straight line and the wall are both artifacts of colonial modernity, cutting across natural landscapes—including mountains—as if drawn on mute maps. Lines across the terrain are reminiscent of borders, an invention of territorial sovereignty which, in practice—for most modern territories—has translated into a containing boundary, where populations previously free to move began to require visas and travel permissions. A wall stretching the distance of a territory calls to mind demarcations born of militarized racial paranoia, such as the fence between the US and Mexico, or the wall enclosing the shrinking Palestinian territories. A line connects two points, but both ends of the proposed location lack significance: One is in the desert—where the closest point of note is the city of Tabuk, which The Line evades—and the other plunges into the Red Sea, presumably with minimal damage to marine environments. Visual renderings of the project make it look like a polished object sitting on a landscape. But cities are not objects.

At present, the “future city”—as a concept pushed by corporations and dictators—is in crisis. It is primarily a visual product, an exercise in modeling. With more roads, more security, taller buildings, and lifestyles of consumption, these visions promise a stable future for those selling concrete, steel, expertise, and loans. In contexts where visions of entire cities may not be attainable, the same formula is deployed in plans like Cairo2050 or Saudi2030—elite projections that often require the uprooting of entire urban areas to be replaced with commercial business districts or touristic investment towers, wiping out previously cohesive cultural and urban fabrics in the process. Future city-making by way of bulldozing through working-class and historic districts is common in China, Egypt, the US, and many places in between, flattening the world.

“With more roads, more security, taller buildings, and lifestyles of consumption, these visions promise a stable future for those selling concrete, steel, expertise, and loans.”

The global public is inundated with news images of vast destruction of cities by various processes—some natural, most not. Concurrently, CGI artists seem to have taken the role of architects and planners, generating a deluge of images of entire cities to be built at the behest of individuals—often dictators and CEOs. Buzzwords created in public relations offices purport to potential buyers that such cities will be sustainable, clean, green, efficient, self-sufficient, and so on—terms that are vaguely defined and liberally applied, and, therefore, largely stripped of meaning. The stark contrast between war- and earthquake-torn Syrian cities and Saudi Arabia’s proposals for The Cube (an immense city-within-a-city set to sport holographics and flying racecar tracks) or The Line—futuristic metropolises contained within geometric forms of unprecedented and unnecessary scale—is akin to dystopian futuristic cinema and literature depicting military-protected and surveilled pleasure domes, surrounded by wastelands inhabited by the subalterns.

There is something dubious about a city being built entirely with the designs of an architect for a corporation or state. In 1939, when Norman Bel Geddes’s exhibit and ride Futurama opened to the public in New York, it promised a city that captured contemporary imaginations with multi-lane highways traversed by individual automobiles amid supertall high-rises—a dream that was sponsored by Shell and General Motors. That projection of the modern city remains today. Individual cars on highways become individual flying vehicles, made by the same companies or owned by the same banks.

At the same time, in Europe, another vision of the future started unfolding with the razing of buildings to make way for the realization of Germania, what was to be the Nazi world capital. Often, megalomania around the many iterations of this vision of the future are shaped by the dreams and desires of their sponsors—those in oil, automobiles, rubber, and concrete; real estate developers and financiers; or democratically-elected fascists and neocolonial dictators—and then translated into desirable spaces designed by architects. Nearly a century later, neither Futurama nor Germania exists materially, but their imprints on the present remain. Even without material success, yesterday’s dreams can serve as the foundation for today’s nightmares.

The past-future of car dependency is one such nightmare, as whole cities have been upended and designed entirely to serve the automobile. The private car—for which public transport was ripped out of cities from Cairo to Los Angeles—could have been a passing invention if culture and politics were geared toward collective mobility and living close to one another, as opposed to car companies’ emphasis on “freedom,” individuality, and seclusion. Other technologies from the early-20th century, such as solar energy, were not embraced by corporate interests. Solar energy was first tested in Maadi, Cairo by American inventor Frank Shuman in 1911, around the time the Ford Model T was introduced. After World War I, Ford cars made their way from the US to as far as Egypt, while successfully tested solar technology was forgotten in the sands of time. Private capital pushed the more profitable product. What would 20th-century cities have looked like if the fates of these technologies were reversed?

While the private car proposed horizontal expansion for the future, the skyscraper offered upward growth. The image of the skyscraper has been sold to the public with powerful propaganda, as an essential element of futuristic cities. In cinematic representations and in proposed plans for the coming decades, the skyscraper—despite its high material and environmental costs—is linked to dominant conceptions of the future city. From the Flatiron to the Steinway Tower, such progress serves a small segment of society, its capitalist logic often assumed to be the only governing logic of modern life. Where will the subalterns of The Line live? For the majority of the human population, such towers are mere images on postcards and social media; for others, they are symbols of late capitalism’s “great derangement,” to use Amitav Ghosh’s phrase for delinquent modes of political and socioeconomic organization, which produce environments and conditions defying logic. The socioeconomic conditions that encourage the trend of the supertall for the superrich consequently render the tens of thousands homeless individuals on the street level invisible in the world’s richest cities.

“Even without material success, yesterday’s dreams can serve as the foundation for today’s nightmares.”

Burj Khalifa, a multi-use luxury tower that famously requires its septic waste to be trucked away, was designed by architect Adrian Smith of SOM. Completed in 2010, its height is emblematic of the century-old American conception of progress. However, with today’s construction costs, labor safety regulations, and pay requirements, such projects are only possible in locations where there are indentured workers operating in a racialized system following age-old British colonial labor customs, an abundance of local capital, and a desire to become avatars of Western Universalism. Dubai transformed, in two short decades, from a flat desert to a collection of high-rises reminiscent of the cartoonish cities illustrated in 1920s science fiction, with their sky bridges and vertical trains. But a century later, when flying vehicles were meant to exist, experiments in drone package delivery have failed. Flying vehicles and bionic suits are the sorts of cliché, sci-fi objects—rendered in glossy white surfaces, replicating an iPhone aesthetic—presented as artifacts from 2077 at the oddly conceived Museum of the Future in Dubai. The city, which will host the COP28 climate summit in 2023, has a per capita consumption of oil that surpasses the rate of industrialized economies with larger populations. The materialization of this version of the future comes with real environmental, human, and political costs.

Dubai’s presentation as an emblem of future cities is built on flimsy foundations, established as recently as the early years of the Industrial Revolution—ideas from a few European elites who backed brutal colonization. These ideas often regarded nature as something savage and irrational, to be ruled and extracted from. They have not stood the test of time, and yet, their promise endures, propped up by private interests. As economies and investors expect permanent growth and predictability, certain old ideas have a way of sticking around, if restlessly changing their aesthetics. The repackaging of the old as the new with slight improvements, in a culture of appearances and planned obsolescence, makes branding key in the “future industrial complex.” Despite the increased occurrence of natural and human-made crises—including astronomical US military dominance and spending; an unrelenting climate catastrophe, particularly rising sea levels; destruction from war; and widespread starvation and malnutrition, as well as disease due to pollution and poor industrial practices—there is a powerful and expensive future industrial complex, mostly busy with producing reality-evading images.

In a linear view of time, how will cities proposed today as future cities—built on tabula rasae that run away from what’s existent—avoid the fate of themselves becoming outdated, unfashionable, part of an unwanted past? Environmental activists, representing native communities in counties from India to Colombia, argue that other modes of world-making are possible: They’ve been shared by many cultures across the world before this relatively brief, globalist, capitalist disruption in the history of humanity. This is not an anti-modernist tirade; in fact, many of the modernist ethoses which drew from the Western rediscovery of the so-called primitive “other” championed a return to clarity, efficiency, and equality, values incongruous with today’s culture of excess, waste, illusion, inequality, and permanent emergency. We were supposed to have flying cars.

This resistance is not a call for all to live in a Hassan Fathy mud house—which Zaha Hadid once called “irrelevant” architecture; “heritage is about change,” she asserted. Native societies have resisted aggressive forces of extraction masked as modernization by maintaining belief systems and ways of existing that do not conform to Western capitalistic logic. What they propose when they protest climate injustice, and violations by corporations and militaries, is a pause and reevaluation of current systems, and the lifestyles and cultural hegemony they produce. Those systems have long expired. Instead, societies should explore ways in which existing settlements are afforded livable continuity. Visits to Mexico City in 1950 and 2023 may feel different, but central features and landmarks remain, with architectural bits and pieces added, as well as urban improvements in public space, transport, and preservation. By contrast, Cairo took a different developmental trajectory during that same span of time. These cities were driven not only by different visions of the future, but also by different politics. Despite immense changes, Mexico City shows signs of stability, while Cairo has been ravaged by infrastructural failure; the conditions there led to the proposition of a new satellite capital 50 kilometers away as a solution to its population density crisis. But this future city is one of many desert cities surrounding Cairo that the Egyptian government built for this exact purpose—cities that remain only partially populated due to a lack of affordable housing and public transportation, leaving the problem of overcrowding in Cairo unresolved, and abandoning unlisted, derelict urban heritage often demolishing it as slums. This unstable urban condition can be avoided if communities are able legally, financially, and with the appropriate expertise to maintain and improve upon that which works, rather than demolish and rebuild anew for profit.

“Cycles of continuity will always be broken, but more equitable cities and new forms of settlement require an urgent rethinking of the political and economic structures that produced today’s realities.”

Until the forces of modernization or colonization, many cities in Africa, the Arab region, and beyond were stable, but often described by outsiders as “stagnant,” or, in today’s terminology, “underdeveloped.” During processes of future-making, sometimes involving wars and the annihilation of entire forms of habitation, many previously cohesive cities have been fragmented or violently disfigured. By contrast, Europe today is a continent of old cities with little room for dramatic change, due to preservation laws and regulations, many apart of the immense effort for reconstruction and restoration following World War II. The European approach is also characterized by what Rem Koolhaas called “practices without theory,” like Norman Foster’s refurbishment of the Reichstag, “where somehow something was more or less preserved and semi-modernized.” In this context, Koolhaas suggested the countryside as a space for future architectural innovation. Will the future city, as envisioned by prophets of contemporary architecture and their patrons, not arrive in European territories?

The invention of the future city as an entity is a vestige of the recent past. This hallucination of the future can only be profitable within a linear understanding of time, a restless chase after tomorrow—“progress.” Cycles of continuity will always be broken, but more equitable cities and new forms of settlement require an urgent rethinking of the political and economic structures that produced today’s realities. The design of long-lasting, interconnected, yet independent, self-sufficient, collaborative, sustainable communities will depend on innovation to improve quality of life where it counts, rather than to generate profit for some, while dangling the promise of the future like a carrot in front of overworked masses in perpetual survival mode. By unlearning what hasn’t worked and recovering what did, societies can rethink habitation, labor, lifestyle, and their relation to one another. A future based on the ethos expressed in city squares around the world a decade ago—which has yet to be tested—may deliver stable, fulfilling forms of urban living that divert from the constant chase after a mirage of mirrored towers in the desert.