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Art and the Arcology: A creative and futuristic vision for sustainable megastructures

Arcology is a combination of the words “architecture” and “ecology”; it may evoke an image of an ark, or the Ark — Noah’s proverbial world-saving super-ship, which is said, as we all know from the story, to have protected the remnants of humanity and animal kind from the Biblical God’s world-ending wrath.

New Orleans Arcology Habitat, IX”(2011) by Ahearn-Schopfer & Associates: Digital (CGI) image: rendering provided by Tangram 3DS Services—Kittery, ME. © 2011 Ahearn-Schopfer & Associates — Boston, MA
New Orleans Arcology Habitat, IX”(2011) by Ahearn-Schopfer & Associates: Digital (CGI) image: rendering provided by Tangram 3DS Services—Kittery, ME. © 2011 Ahearn-Schopfer & Associates — Boston, MA

Like the Ark, an arcology is a structure — often a megastructure — meant to be self-containing and self-sustaining, housing and nurturing all those who dwell within its walls. And, as with the Ark, the arcology is potentially civilization-saving, or so some futurists have imagined it. Unlike the Ark, however, the development and functionality of most arcologies as envisaged are dependent on cutting-edge, emerging, or even sci-fi standards of engineering and technology, as well as unprecedented levels of economic, political, or social incentive.

These so-far theoretical and futuristic habitats are meant to take the concept of sustainability to the extreme; to the extent that they can, in an idealized state, meet all or at least most of the physiological needs of their human inhabitants while, at the same time, committing little or no damage to the environment. Some of the most advanced arcology concepts even feature a interior symbiotic interweaving of both urban infrastructure and the biosphere, attempting to accommodate humans as well as animals, plants, and a host of various other life-forms endemic to healthy ecosystems, all within the boundaries of one structure.

Arcologies have no fixed or specific design. Among the models proposed by a number of contemporary arcology designers, however, they typically appear pyramidal and skyscraperesque, emphasizing verticality as well as technologies that make use of vertical urban space, such as the emerging trend of vertical, indoor farming.

Arcosanti’s western face, north of Phoenix, Arizona (2006) by Cody Raskin: Digital photograph; private work. © 2006 Cody Raskin
Arcosanti’s western face, north of Phoenix, Arizona (2006) by Cody Raskin: Digital photograph; private work. © 2006 Cody Raskin

The term arcology can be traced to Paolo Soleri (1919 – 2013). The Italian architect coined it around 1970, during which time he also published his “manifesto” on the concept, Arcology: The City in the Image of Man, and broke ground for Arcosanti, a small-scale, prototype, test-bed arcology and “urban laboratory” — as The New York Times dubbed it — located, to this day, north of Phoenix, Arizona. Soleri’s architectural aspirations, typified by the experimental design of Arcosanti, were based on the notion that humans could flourish without harming the surrounding biosphere. That is, by building an urban environment in the correct way, and interacting with that environment in the correct manner, humans could dramatically reduce their negative impact on nature.

Some have traced the idea, or its forerunner, to Buckminster Fuller’s 1960 proposal for a dome covering Midtown Manhattan, featuring the ability to regulate the weather. In 1971, Fuller (1895 — 1983) submitted a similar proposal, the Old Man River’s City project, for East St. Louis, Illinois. Further back, we find an example in English author William Hope Hodgson’s 1912 novel The Night Land, which describes a world in which the remnants of humanity have retreated to an arcology-like metal pyramid called the Last Redoubt.

But if Arcosanti, small as it is, is the arcology’s true prototype design, or if a mere domed town or neighborhood represents the genesis of the idea, then arcology models have come a very long way, and grown much, much more complex in the past half century or so. Today’s most well-known arcologies are truly massive in scale. This cannot be understated; if ever completed, these structures would be, by many orders of magnitude, the largest humans have ever built. This is sensible, for most arcologies are intended to house, in a single structure, entire cities worth of people as well as provide stable living conditions for densely populated areas — thus being suited, and indeed first envisioned for, large metropolises — while also protecting the environment outside the structure from the deleterious effects of pollution, development, and urban sprawl.

Take the New Orleans Arcology Habitat (NOAH), for instance. The proposed triangular arcology designed by architect E. Kevin Schopfer, his firm — Ahearn-Schopfer & Associates — and two other firms, is modeled for installation off the banks of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, Louisiana, and intended to house up to 40,000 people on a floating platform just over one square mile in area. That's more than 17 times the population density of the surrounding city.

NOAH has a unique design that is both aesthetically appealing and, on multiple levels, functionally advanced. The structure is a hollow, beveled pyramid, featuring deep blue windows and sidings that surround its massive tubular “arms” — all its business, communal, residential, and operational facilities located inside these chambers — which complement the surrounding water, and contrast with the grayish trim provided by its steel frame. As part of a hi-tech, climate-change-adaptive measure, which keeps in mind New Orleans’s location below sea level and its susceptibility to devastating Atlantic hurricanes, NOAH’s wide, floating base enables it to stand above water in the event of a flood; its open center, combined with specially curved and tilted panels, plus sliding anti-storm barriers, allows for hurricanes and other weather systems to move around the structure, rather than damaging it directly. Lastly, NOAH is designed to be as sustainable as physically possible. It’s carbon neutral, deriving all its power from solar arrays, wind turbines, and hydroelectric generators. And, its air conditioning and climate control systems use very little energy, since they’re provided, in a large part, by a passive glazing of its windows and siding, giving the habitat an ideal ratio of light and heat gain to loss as well as heating and cooling vents placed in communal “sky gardens” located every 30 floors up from its base.

But NOAH, as impressive as it appears, is but one of numerous, dazzling arcology designs, and, by comparison, relatively small. One proposed arcology, the Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid, is so large that it’s designed to house 1,000,000 people on a floor area of 3.1 square miles, and stretches to an altitude of 6,575 feet, more than twice the height of the current tallest structure, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Yet the Pyramid itself pales in comparison to the X-Seed 4000, quite possibly the largest building ever fully envisioned, fashioned after both the appearance and height of a mountain— specifically Mount Fuji, near Tokyo — towering to a Himalayan elevation of nearly 13,200 feet (2.5 miles) above sea level, with 800 floors stacked on top of a 3.7-mile wide base. X-Seed is intended, like NOAH, for maritime placement — this time in the Tokyo Harbor — and, like the Shimizu Pyramid, would be able to accommodate anywhere from 500,000 to 1,000,000 residents. It is billed by its designers, Taisei Construction Corporation, as an “intelligent building,” making use of countless sensors located both within and without the structure to track changing weather conditions, and adjust light, temperature, and air pressure throughout its interior according to these changes.

Yet the visionary Shimizu Pyramid and X-Seed are just that — visionary — and, like many arcology concepts, remain in the liminal realm between science fiction and science fact. Plus, many of these designs suffer from sheer legal and financial infeasibility; the existence of many proposed arcologies would depend on a comprehensive application of technology that is currently either speculative or fictional at worst, and emerging or prohibitively expensive at best. The Shimizu Pyramid, for example, features massive struts made from a material containing large numbers of carbon nanotubes. However, while carbon nanotubes — one of the strongest materials known to science — are indeed used in construction, no team of architects, engineers, or builders has ever come close to creating a frame as large as that needed to support the Pyramid, much less a traditionally-sized one infused with so many nanotubes. Also, consider the cost of constructing something like the X-Seed 4000. In 2007, it was speculated that it would cost roughly $300 billion to $900 billion to build the arcology; that translates to around $353 billion to $1.06 trillion in today’s money, adjusting for inflation. (Compare that cost to the $1.5 billion spent on constructing the aforementioned Burj Khalifa!) It’s difficult to imagine that any government, corporation, or other organization would be willing to put forward that much money on a construction project.

Wall / Texture
Wall / Texture

That being said, the megascale arcology, as a concept, remains one of the noblest and most daring social and environmental aspirations concocted by the human race— a way of radically engineering ourselves out of our continuous destruction of the natural world, and thus our own self-destruction. Indeed, the contemporary idea of the arcology has evolved far beyond Soleri, to encompass a wide array of proposed technological solutions to humanity’s ecocidal tendencies; the threats of climate change, mass extinction, overpopulation, and resource depletion looming on the horizon, the world has, in recent years, looked to extreme solutions — arcologies among them — for methods of pulling back from the brink of ecological ruin. Among these solutions, the mega-arcology stands out as an example of what might be possible if we explore the far fringes of architecture and sustainability, and the communion of nature and human ingenuity.


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