Notes from the Director: Looking at the inventive side of urban planning :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Art Molella, Director

Invention, technology, and science have long provided inspiration for utopian dreams and fantasies. At the end of the 19th century, Edward Bellamy gained fame with his novel Looking Backward, 2000–1887, which  pictured Boston in the year 2000 suffused with futuristic technologies like the "musical telephone" (radio), the credit card, and electricity for heat and light. This sort of technological optimism culminated in visions of the future city at the 1939–40 World's Fair in New York.

Those dreams in turn inspired Walt Disney in the 1960s to propose his own urban vision in Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow)--a real city-of-tomorrow laid out like a wheel, interconnected by a monorail, and protected by an air-conditioned dome. The city was never built, but became instead the famed amusement park in Orlando, Florida. In the mid-1990s, however, the Walt Disney Company revived the town idea in what is now Celebration, Florida, originally designed to serve the families working in the high-tech entertainment industries at Disney World.

In researching our recent book, Invented Edens: Techno-Cities of the Twentieth Century (MIT Press), Robert Kargon and I visited Celebration and several cities of a similar type. We viewed them in the broader context of what we dubbed "techno-cities," which we define as new cities of limited size built around large industrial or technological enterprises. The core idea was to move industry away from the busy metropolis to small towns in rural settings. Originating in the Garden City idea proposed by British urban planner Ebenezer Howard, the techno-city was designed as a remedy to the Dickensian squalor of the crowded, smoky, and disease-infested cities of the Industrial Revolution. Using new technologies of construction, transportation, and communication, these cities were amazing inventions in their own right. Hundreds, if not thousands, of them were built over the last century, almost all surviving today.

Invented Edens follows the trajectories of a dozen or so representative examples, exploring their founding idealism as well as their internal contradictions. They include Norris, Tennessee, home to the Tennessee Valley Authority; Salzgitter, Germany, a new steel town established by the Nazis; Torviscosa, Italy, built by the fascist government to accommodate synthetic textiles; Ivrea, Italy, center of the Olivetti company, known for its typewriters and other office machinery; Ciudad Guayana, Venezuela, a steel town planned by a team from MIT and Harvard; and ultimately, Disney's Celebration, a real techno-city that began to enter the realm of fantasy--simulating the early 20th century while using modern, high-tech networks.

Enthusiasm for techno-cities flagged noticeably at the end of the 20th century as interest began to shift toward the so-called eco-city--environmental, ecological urban projects built from scratch. These newest invented cities will be the subject of a future column.

From Prototype, October 2008

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