*Frei Otto’s proposed “Arctic City,” a kind of polar Brasilia covered by an insulated, polyester tent. “The future of that period wasn’t mistaken, but defeated.”
words Douglas Murphy
The beginning of the 1970s was a heady time for architecture. The oil and energy crises were still to hit, postmodernism was still a marginal heresy practiced by cranks and, despite maybe a sense of boredom at the same old concrete, the tide was yet to fully turn against state architecture. The overwhelming impression was one of accelerating development: humans were on the moon; new technologies such as computing and new materials such as plastics were forging ahead; and desire for social change was bubbling over. There was every reason to think that this new movement, in which governments planned and built entire new cities for thousands of people, would continue and progress.
Knowing what we now know, it’s tempting to laugh at the naivety of that generation. Nobody lives on the moon, we’ve never been to Mars and hundreds of thousands of people do not live in orbital space colonies. Back on Earth, we’re STILL 20 years from nuclear fusion; the leisurely three-day week for all, that shibboleth of technological progress, failed to materialise; and our governments are as stupid as ever. When we look at plans for Walking Cities dragging themselves over the landscape, or New Babylons, in which every citizen is a nomadic artist, it’s easy to get the impression that designers of that age were out of touch with reality, and drunk on the promises of technique.
But this is not really the case. To a large extent, the future of that period wasn’t mistaken, but defeated. Since the energy crisis, and the end of the Cold War, the notion of large-scale planning for specific outcomes has become quaint. But back then, for every ludicrous drawing depicting organic cities spreading over the landscape like crystals, there were proposals for architecture that took the urban forms and construction technologies of the time and tested them in new configurations. The Arctic City, a 1970 study conducted by Frei Otto with Ewald Bubner, Kenzo Tange and Arup, gives us a glimpse of what was genuinely just around the corner.
There were various reasons why the proposal made sense at the time. On the one hand, there was a new obsession with frontier conditions. The exhilaration of knowing that humanity was heading off into space and to the moon focused attention on other remote areas: expeditions were being mounted deep into the ocean, plans were made to industrialise the deserts and rainforests. On the other hand, the race for raw materials and resources, combined with emerging new technologies, meant it was becoming economically plausible to move into increasingly extreme environments. If design ingenuity meant humans could live comfortably in such inhospitable conditions, then all manner of industrial opportunities might present themselves.
The first stage of construction was to prepare the site by digging a set of external foundations in a 2km-wide ring. Then a grid of cables, formed from a newly developed high-strength polyester fibre rather than steel, would be laid across the site and fixed together. The double-layered translucent pillows that would create the skin would then be attached, before the entire dome was inflated to a height of 240m at its peak. By not building from steel, the roof could behave as a skin rather than a true dome, meaning that it would be less susceptible to wind, snow and changing loads.
Once the dome was inflated and the internal pressure was at the correct balance, the city inside could be built. There would be four main entrances and exits, and they would connect to the various external facilities (and, of course, the industrial area, which would be the city’s main purpose). A submerged ring-road in the dome would connect the housing (for a maximum of 40,000 people) with a central administration area and recreation district, while pathways and “moving sidewalks” at ground level would lead between the various functions….