Arcologies Already?

Toronto is in the midst of a building boom, and what with the new and continuing onslaught of proposed condo towers in the city, I would be surprised if this slows down anytime soon.

But our own small boom pales in comparison to some of the notable explosions of building occurring around the world. China, for instance, is estimated to be building 870 million square meters of new residential floor area per year. This global atmosphere of rapid (and frenetic) building is turning out to be something of a playground for contemporary architects eager to try out the new possibilities introduced by this benevolent economy and the advances being continually made in engineering.

Perhaps worried that they are being left behind, Moscow has just given preliminary planning approval to what could be the world’s largest building. Note that this does not mean the world’s tallest building, although it is tall (450 meters at that, way higher than anything else in Moscow). The Crystal Island, designed by the British firm Foster + Partners, is expected to house a gross floor area of 2.5 million square meters. Although called a building, the glass and steel enclosure will house a whole range of uses including public space, an international school, shopping amenities, a hotel, offices, and plenty of residential units. I say ‘called a building’, because I am wondering if that is exactly what this is. It seems more of a ‘hyperstructure’ or ‘arcology’ to me – a whole community within one structure.

What I find most interesting about this project is that it sets a precedent for a whole new type of project. The skin designed for the project creates an environmentally mediated interior especially suited for extreme weather conditions. This makes sense of course, given that it is intended for Moscow where the weather is just that. Then again, given the predictions made by the IPCC, is not the whole world expected to see “extreme weather conditions” in the not so distant future? For some time Science Fiction writers have been predicting that this is the future of the built environment – that some day all of our lives will be played out within these sorts of large-scale mediated environments.

Are we glimpsing the future here?


  1. Speaking of large-scale mediated environmennts – has anyone looked at Toronto recently? When I used to live in the city, I recall being able to get to and from work with barely a step or two outside. Moving from my place in the beaches – to the bus – to the subway – then into the underground tunnels and up into my building. I was outside maybe 5 – 10 minutes while waiting for the bus. The underground in Toronto has effectively made the core of the city one giant building – or hyperstructure as you like to put it.

  2. Jordan beat me to it.

    I have also wondered how practical it might be to build galleria-style roofs between the buildings (in the financial district, at least) to enclose that space.

  3. But how will we maintain (or build) these “large-scale mediated environments” when the oil runs out? This seems like quite the catch-22: man-made climate change creates extreme weather conditions that require us to live inside; but living inside requires us to use insane quantities of energy, thus exacerbating the ecological catastrophe even further…

  4. I spent a few months working in Place Bonaventure in Montreal. Apparently, it’s since been renovated, but at the time it had many of the characteristics of an arcology.

    It had the mix of uses within one building — offices, retail, conference space, and a hotel (though no apartments that I recall). But the weird part was the way they were all mixed together on a maze of internal “streets” on every level. Shops had front doors and window displays facing onto otherwise looked like a typical office building corridor. It was eerie how empty these corridors were — multi-level “streets” may be more efficient, but they can spread the foot traffic out pretty thinly. It was convenient in the winter, but I could never imagine living there.

    So I’d argue the design challenge will be even harder than the engineering challenge — put a city inside, and you need a whole new variant of urban planning to make it actually work.

  5. Toronto’s arcology could be seen as spreading farther out from the PATH system downtown, to attached residences at Yonge and College (residences at College Park), Yonge and Bloor (Manulife Tower, etc), St. Clair (mostly/all offices if i recall) and Yonge and Eglinton where there are both offices and residential towers — all connected to each other by subway.

  6. Funny…I just started reading The Cave, by Jose Saramago, and a hyperstructure called “the Center” looms central to the theme (or, at least, it seems to, so far). If this book is anything like Blindness, the Center will be, ahem, somewhat less than “good” as the book unfolds.

  7. What else are they putting into this building? I see the sloping glass walls near the base will create some pretty big skylights; would that allow indoor gardens to help feed the population of this mini-city?

    As much as you can put in, it is still a city, in that external needs (energy, food, waste management) must be served from the outside to one degree or another. It looks lovely, but long-term sustainability does not seem to be addressed.

  8. I will stay cold (or hot) and enjoy the outside world any day instead of the dreary PATH Mall.

  9. James M, don’t be a hater.

    Only good things can come from massive resource-intensive vanity construction projects whose goals are separating us from our natural environment in previously inconceiveable ways.

    What could go wrong?

    (Incidentally, that Moscow building makes me think of the Glass House in Perdido Street Station.)

  10. James M: Wind power. Renewables. The world could use some incentives to build wind turbines at an exponential rate. Buildings like this might help.

    Incidentally, this building includes plans for smart ventilation/heating and on-site, low-carbon energy generation.

    A bigger worry is whether planners are competent enough these days to plan something this integrated. Historically, they’ve been too anti-mixed-use to build anything liveable.

  11. James M wrote:

    “…man-made climate change creates extreme weather conditions that require us to live inside…”

    No, what required us to live inside was the instinct to avoid being killed by the more deadly aspects of our environment, among them the extreme weather conditions we’ve be subjected to for at least the past five million years.

    “…but living inside requires us to use insane quantities of energy…”

    Nope, just the opposite. The very fact that we can insulate our indoor environments to mediate temperature changes saves energy versus bonfires or however else you’re envisioning staying alive outside.

    “…thus exacerbating the ecological catastrophe even further…”

    The benefit of a true arcology is that it is a self-contained ecology that should eventually reduce our reliance on the global ecology outside.

  12. Diane: Cool your jets, please. I don’t think we should sleep outside with the rain and sleet and wolves and bears; nor do I think we should replace houses with bonfires. But I do think that most people in modern, industrial societies could stand to spend more time outdoors and less time in artificial climate-controlled enclosures. And I question the wisdom of using vast quantities of material and energy to create artificial environments rather than taking better care of the environment we’ve already got. Perhaps a “true arcology” would be more benign, but that thing in Moscow is just a huge building that’s going to have a huge ecological footprint.

    Leo: I’m all for renewables, but I’m sceptical about their ability to generate energy on the scale needed for a world of 2.5-million-square-metre glass-and-steel buildings. Also, to come back to my basic point, shouldn’t we be trying to break down our alienation from nature, not increase it?

  13. Being a space nerd, I would also point out that developments like this on Earth will help for future developments when we do finally colonize other planets.

  14. Finally, a SimCity reference on Spacing! Awesome headline.

  15. James M. – I think you make a good point about the division between our lives and the “natural” world; indeed any shift towards these sorts of mega-structures would imply a clear concession that the division is beyond repair, that romantic notions of human co-inhabitation with or passive stewardship of natural forces are no longer feasible. Such a move would be tantamount to admitting defeat on that front, substituting a fundamentally active and controlling attitude towards the environment instead.

    It should be mentioned that the Crystal Island is not in fact an arcology. The project in question is really just a large shelter (with all kinds of neat gadgets). There are no proposed agricultural or waste management components.

    Anybody interested in Arcologies should check out Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti project in Arizona. Incidentally, I think this “turning our back on nature” aspect is implicit in Soleri’s work although it is certainly not his intention.

  16. I’m very happy with living inside for certain periods, and I like the wild things humans build. Big things too — and economies of scale would make running such a large building more efficient than several smaller ones, non?

    I also like being outside, in nature.

    I like both, and I like freedom. Freedom like the Russians are providing with this great large building. Russia = freedom.

  17. Shawn, sure, big buildings have the potential to be more efficient in certain ways, and it looks like Crystal Island is trying to make use of those efficiencies as much as possible. I just think that in looking to solve our environmental problems with sexy high-tech engineering marvels, we unfortunately overlook the perfectly good low-tech options that are already available to us — options that our grandparents knew all about, in many cases. Is that really such a crazy way of thinking?

    I’m not sure I understand your point about freedom. Perhaps you’re being ironic or “ironic” or somewhat variant thereof.

  18. James, I was (mostly) kidding about the freedom thing. It sounds funny to say Russia = freedom. Ironic, I suppose, after growing up in tail end of the cold war.

    Though I do think there’s enough room for both — and my reaction to some of the comments that this will “separate people from the natural environment” is so what, we’re free to live where we want, and maybe some of us want to be separated sometimes.

    But making sure those old “grandparents” low-tech solutions aren’t overlooked is important indeed. But room for both — things are more complicated, and crowded, than in their time.

  19. the whole bio-enclosure concept is fundamentally flawed. Be it expressed via dome, sphere, cube or even a stately tetrahedron

    I know it is a slightly different idea, but there do seem to be some fundamental problems with the enclosed ecosystem concept that may have an effect on how well an arcology could operate.

  20. OK, I can get behind that balanced approach, provided that the proponents of the high-tech solutions have some pretty compelling evidence to support their vision. As a general rule, we should be sceptical of untested solutions, especially when they’re humongously complex megaprojects that require us to put all our eggs in one basket.

    I still think undoing our alienation from nature is something we urgently need to work on, so that we can develop a truly holistic and ecological understanding of our place in the world. After all, faith in our ability to master the world through technology is what got us into the present mess in the first place. Of course, I recognise the irony (hypocrisy?) of saying this through the medium of a blog and an iMac.

  21. I think about enclosing the sidewalk on Queen Street in Toronto with removable glass in the winter- each shop owner could pay for you his front. So we could windowshop in the winter, support the small businesses, not be forced into the mall to stay warm, and maintain a connection to the outside world.
    But I must say the Isabella Gardiner Museum in Boston left a lasting imporession on me even as a child.

  22. Whose alienated? I don’t feel alienated in big modern architecture. In fact, I find modern buildings, particularly huge concrete brutalist structures often “bring nature in” wonderfully. There’s often lots of glass, or the building itself adapts and complements a natural form (Scarborough UofT campus, Ontario Science Centre). In Canada we can be alienated from nature because it’s too cold or deadly for much of the year, and modern architecture has mitigated that a great deal, much more than venerated Victorian and Edwardian structures that close us off from nature much more.

  23. Shawn, I can’t speak to your personal alienation (and I’m not sure we’re using the word in the same sense anyway), but signs of our civilization’s alienation from nature are not hard to find. I would start with the oft-quoted statistic that most North Americans can’t identify 10 native plant species by sight (though they can identify more than a thousand corporate logos). The point is, whole bodies of knowledge about the natural world, and whole ways of thinking about our relationship to that world, are being lost as we become more urbanised. I would argue that this is one of the root causes of our inability to really deal with the multiple ecological crises we’re facing.

    I don’t have any ready solutions. I’m certainly not an anarcho-primitivist who thinks we should all go back to being nomadic hunter-gatherers or whatever. I’ve lived in cities my whole life. But I do think this a serious problem that deserves more attention, and more thoughtful attention, from city-lovers.

    Your point about (certain kinds of) modern architecture “bringing nature in” is intriguing. I’ll have to reflect on that.

  24. One of the things that arcologies are meant to address is the interface between city and nature. With a sprawl-based city, the tendency is to continue edging outwards until stopped by a natural barrier like a mountain range or the sea. Wilderness, and even rural space, becomes suburban space as the city encroaches. There are many places in today’s world, particularly in the U.S., where you can drive from one city to another without ever seeing open, natural space between them.

    An arcology, rather than being placed inside a city, is actually meant to be a city in itself. This way, you have a clear division between urban, rural, and natural spaces. It’s true that you could choose to stay inside the urban space all the time, but you could also reach the natural space much more quickly, because you wouldn’t have to traverse miles of suburban space first.

    Concentrating the city into a small, hyper-urban space would allow urban dwellers the opportunity to simply go outside the city, pass the agricultural band that might surround it, and be in a natural space. I know of several organizations that bus inner-city youth out to the country so they can see animals bigger than a pigeon for the first time in their lives. If these kids were able to walk the distance from the city to the countryside, that might not be such an issue.

    Yes, the tendency lately is to design arcologies that fit inside a conventional city. In such a situation, there would be several additional zones to cross between the arcology and the countryside, namely urban, suburban, and any remaining rural areas. Still, one of the purposes of an arcology is to reduce the tendency of the city to sprawl out and eliminate every bit of countryside between the urban core and the nearest mountain or ocean.

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