Skip to content

Retirement Plan

Post date:

It all started to go wrong with the Garden City. People may have had their own house on a bit of land but, rather than mimic the large landowning estates by growing staple crops on the estate and garden vegetables round the back, it was more important to miniaturize the gardens at the front, with lawns, hybrid tea roses and daffodils. Any kitchen garden was for gardeners to manage. To grow plants for their appearance and not because one had to eat them was status. It still is.


The early-mid 1920s in Europe were a golden age for urban visions to alleviate urban overcrowding. Ludwig Hilberseimer produced four visions for the city but his 1924 High Rise City is the most reproduced. It has streets and communal courtyards separated by apartments with views over both but we never saw what was supposed to happen in those courtyards.

High-Rise City Project, 1924 Ludwig Hilberseimer

One year later, Le Corbusier announced his Plan Voisin. It’s stated raison d’etre was to alleviate overcrowding but publicity was assured by it proposing a large part of Paris be demolished to make way for a battery of tall residential towers set in parkland overlooking an airdrome of all things. I’ve never seen a section or plans of an apartment or a typical floor. The drawing on the right below indicates floor levels but, without windows, it’s difficult to guess how these buildings work or might work. Without a multitude of restaurants, cafés and small stores at ground level, it’s not even clear why all these people need to be in Paris.

Plan Voisin made it de rigueur for 20th century architects to freely reimagine the city without any danger those visions would come to pass. Kenzo Tange established his visionary credentials with his famously unbuilt 1960 Plan for Tokyo.

Making remote parts of Tokyo easier to commute from was more essential and far less expensive than creating real estate along the way, as evidenced by the US$11.2 bil. Tokyo Bay Aqua Line [right] opened in 1997 to link Kanagawa with Chiba. Its 23 km in 15 minutes compares favorably with the coast road’s 100 km in 90 min. on a good day.

The infrastructure is less exuberant than the Tange scheme as It has nothing to prove except its financial viability, something it’s still struggling with.

Arata Isozaki proved himself a visionary with two aerial city schemes ostensibly proposed as solutions to overcrowding at ground level. The 1960 City in the Air cleared the ground of troublesome building footprint.

City in the Air, 1960, Arata Isozaki

Isozaki’s 1962 Clusters in the Air managed less accommodation on less footprint ratio with visionary cantilevers suspending living units with gravity-defying drainage.

Clusters in the Air, 1962, Arata Isozaki

Kiyonori Kikutake’s 1968 Ocean City established his visionary credentials by reconstructing the ground, offshore.

Kiyonori Kikutake, Ocean City, 1968

Michael Graves and Peter Eisenman’s 1965 Linear City was to connect Boston and Washington DC with a linear building encompassing urban functions that displaced rural ones along the way.

I don’t understand that last sentence. It’s as if infrastructure exists outside of any space for critical evaluation.

Paolo Soleri’s 1970-ish Hexahedron was proposed as home to 170,000, and about a kilometer high and wide. It didn’t happen despite areas being labelled “RESIDENTIAL”, “COMMERCIAL” and “CULTURAL CENTER”.

Jaques Fresco is responsible for The Venus Project (1970–2000?) articulating his vision for a resource-based economy in which all goods and services are available to all people without the need for means of exchange such as money, credits, barter, and so on. Architectural design proceeded despite all resources not yet being declared the common heritage of all Earth’s inhabitants. Many renders and models were produced.

All these proposals say nothing about food. It’s always produced somewhere else and somehow finds its way to these urbanizations to sustain them.

The Fresco scheme has much vegetation but no crops. I can imagine Fresco saying “In a resource-based economy all farming would be performed by autonomous robots” and, until we have a resource-based economy, no-one can say whether that will turn out to be true or not.

SUPERSTUDIO’s 1971 Megaton City is more of a critique of society than an actual proposal. It features more rugged vegetation but again nothing in the way of agriculture. It could of course easily incorporate some but this would raise questions of sufficiency as well as weakening the natural vs. artificial contrast being set up.

Thought: Architecture likes simplistic oppositions, especially when Architecture and Nature are seen as opposites yet a conceptual pair. Could architecture’s problem with food production have something to do with cultivation being neither Architecture nor Nature?

Food + Shelter

The history of integrated urbanization and agriculture is yet to be written. I’ve only recently learned of Edgar Chambless’ 1910 Road Town Concept. The rooftop is a promenade, somewhat oddly. Industry is cottage and agriculture is integrated and intended to be performed by the inhabitants. Transportation is underground but it’s unclear why, or why anyone would ever need to go anywhere.

In 1930, Moisei Ginsburg and Mikhail Okhotovich proposed dispersed agricultural villages with easily deployable collapsible and transportable dwelling units as well as buildings for 3 to 100 persons. All were to be dispersed across the Soviet Union in an isotropic grid presumably to minimize walking distances. If I knew the distance between those villages it’d be possible to calculate the area each was expected to manage. This is important because the Soviet Union doesn’t have 12-month growing seasons.

In the same 1930, in France, a large house might still have had a kitchen garden. This is Robert Mallet-Stevens’ 1932 Villa Cavrois.

This aerial photograph and plan show the gardens. House and pond form a single composition and the rectangular plots to the right are a flower garden. Beyond that to the right and outside the composition is the kitchen garden.

Frank Lloyd Wrights’ Broadacre City proposal was first exhibited in 1935 but he never ceased promoting it. It’s an attempt to integrate accommodation and food supply into a self contained city. During the Cold War he talked it up by claiming its decentralization offered protection from atomic attack. It was never realized or, as far as I know, even the inspiration for anything but it did have the intention to not separate food and shelter. In fairness, the lifetime of this project coincided with a period when not just Americans but people around the world believed cities offered the hope of a better life.

The year 1945 brings us Ralph Rapson’s Case Study House #4 with its internal garden feature substituting for a view and providing a pleasant and satisfying diversion even if cultivation on this scale could never allow four people to be self-sufficient.

Thanks to Mark for telling me about Kisho Kurokawa’s 1960 Agricultural City. Who knew? Even now, all we know is that each village was to be for 200 persons in a 500m x 500m grid elevated for some reason.

Gilles Gauthier’s 1994 Linear City suggests that “the mechanization of agriculture as proposed by the Japanese engineer Tetsuya Hanmura would also be appropriate for the Linear City” or at least not too far away. Thirty-odd years on from Kurokawa, the future of agriculture in Japan is no longer reimagined traditional farming enclaves but autonomous robots all the way down.

This past decade, we’ve been spoiled with visionary proposals for urban farming, often prefixed by the word vertical.

The less architectural side of vertical farming takes place in sheds not unlike growhouses and not necessarily in urban areas.

The usual output is green leafy vegetables and a huge amount of basil. It’s easy to see why. Basil is big business bu it’s susceptible to frosts and the countries where Italian food is most popular don’t produce it.

Basil isn’t without nutritional value, but the nutritional figures below are per 100g. A 2,000 calorie per day intake means eating 8.7 kg. I’d be more keen on vertical farming if its cleverness was directed at staples like onions, potatoes, cabbages, wheat and rice, or even fruit and nuts.

These past few years we’ve also been spoiled with visionaries using marker pens to design away the world’s problems and impress us with napkin sketches demonstrating the spontaneity of their creativity and the urgency of their need to sell it to us.

It might just be me, but I don’t trust commercial architects any more than I do the private sector to sort the world out. I’m not sure we should trust universities either as long as they draw funds from the same sources via funding, gifts, endowments and philanthropic initiatives.


The preface to The Rethinking states

Our efforts … were twofold : first, we sought to think of ways, through design, to narrow the rural-urban divide in China, a divide precipitated in the era of Mao and maintained since, despite efforts to the contrary by successive adminstrations. Second, we sought to conceptually dissolve the distinction between rural and urban, city and countryside and architecture and landscape by revalidating the Chinese philosophical concept of Polaris – a worldview that sees opposites as complementary and understands all things to be an alternation between binary poles.”

This sounds good but opposites define each other and form conceptual pairs anyway and without recourse to Chinese philosophy. The problem is one of conceptually dissolving the distinction between urban and rural while maintaining their nature as opposites – a tall order.

“This report … presents a critical reflection on the developmental city and the countryside, making no attempt to sustain the status quo. It proposes several alternatives for the future of rural China that avoid the common mistake of turning the countryside into enclaves of suburban villas or high-density urban centers marooned in an agricultural field.”

Another tall order. The China status quo is that farmland is still being built on at a considerable rate, there’s an oversupply of upmarket housing and, for a country aiming at 100% employment, there’s simply not enough things in cities for people to do. Non-urban areas have to be made more attractive and viable places for people to live. But for whom and how is the problem.

“The challenge for the studio was to imagine a self-sufficient place able to support a dynamic economy in the countryside, providing cultural and intellectual stimulation and offering a respite from the inequalities and divisions that plague the developmental city; in other words, to imagine the city as a space of equal and plural coexistence.” The Taiqian Studio, An Introduction, Christopher C.M. Lee

The design site was a real one as the (then current) urbanization plan for the area proposed consolidating four villages into a single new agricultural town housing 4,400 persons in 1,200 dwellings. The intention of such plans is for combined villages to share community amenities, improved services and infrastructure but the downside is that demolishing villages and consolidating them into high-rises literally and symbolically disconnects the villagers not only from the land but from their land. The project aim was thus not to question the forces behind relocation but to make the built manifestations of relocation more palatable to villagers. Oh and also to city-folk feeding an Airb’n’b economy.

As for the projects, my sole evaluation criteria was whether I could imagine myself living in any of them. I didn’t. All had a feeling of retirement home about them, as if they were designed as people placeholders to empty cities of those who can’t, don’t or won’t participate in the venture capitalist economy. All the same, the idea of a self-sufficient place providing cultural and intellectual stimulation and a respite from the inequalities and divisions of cities still appeals. But, if those inequalities and divisions are the inevitable byproduct of that very same economy, then there’s no option but to take whatever’s available out there and retire from cities and the economy they sustain.


  • You bet Graham and thanks for the shout out. I was wondering about the lifted grid as well. Me thinks it just adds graphic drama and may have inspired Archigram to some extent? We have a plug-in infrastructure : building system today, but Peter Cook took it to a real theatrical and structurally gymnastic level. As far as I can tell, he ignored the food issue as well. “Oh, that’s what the hinterlands are for.” As you are aware, this topic is right up my alley, and have never seen the sea of greenhouses one. Will be researching it for sure. I don’t want to be “that guy”, but the LC cruciform towers are actually for office use. I only picked up on this about 5 years ago. The low, mid-rise L-shaped buildings are the housing. Brasilia slabs are probably the best descendent examples . It’s all in THE RADIANT CITY. The idea was the office spaces on each side of the double-loaded are only 7m deep. The boss and the worker bees all get the same light and potentially, air. The way the car parks are laid out and the way the cars circulate around both housing and office is pretty cleaver. Green spaces are just non-edible vegetation. Arcosanti does have a planned energy apron which is really a sinuous greenhouse. Whether they ever get to it or not is another story. Maybe it can support the full 5000 population build-out. TVP is just plain cute. How those two convinced the public they are architects w/ an out of scale city plan and no accompanying math is beyond me. As the father of RBE thinking, Fresco should have just hired architects to build his vision. Again, the farms are the filler in between the network of linked circular cities in a hexagonal pattern…I think. Agreed…lot-o-non-food vegetation belts. I am encourage to see Mr. BIG used the word “Policy” in his “I got it all figured out sketch”. My personal belief system is that 3 things are needed for a potential paradigm-shift utopian concept:

    1. Built environment that includes farming, water, sanitation, energy, transport, housing,
    manufacturing, etc… into a finite, comprehensive platform.
    2. Specific, not generic, site(s) to assemble a mat of city modules
    3. Compendium polices that work hand-in-hand w/ 1 & 2.

    In this piece you authored, you hit the nail on the head. Food (and water) are right at the top of the determinants list and problems to solve.