Why must the future always be so curvy and so Calatrava? The release of Tomorrowland [trailer], the Disney Studio’s confused fairytale about possible futures, reinforces the idea, built into the Studio’s namesake ride—and evident in just about every sci-fi film of the last few decades—that our destiny is to live, work, and play in buildings that swoop, swell, and surge into the sky with no respect for right angles. The film’s centerpiece is a city that does less to evoke Disney’s olde version of what is to be than it takes from what is already under construction or built in Dubai and Shanghai and extrapolates it to a gravity- and humanity-free extreme.
Without giving away too much of the plot, the city in question is a mirage, which appears as a vision beyond a wheat field: Oz as the ultimate Edge City, branded by Tesla and Coca-Cola, where people don’t do anything so much as they look fabulous in designer clothes (I think I saw everything from retro Jil Sander to Versace) as they whiz around in magnetically levitated transports and with jet packs. At its heart, one that the film reveals most clearly when it takes a darker turn, is a green-screened version of the City of the Arts and Sciences project by Santiago Calatrava, FAIA, and the late Spanish architect Félix Candela, in Valencia, Spain.
It seems ironic to me that it is exactly that failed carcass of cultural aspirations, sitting in a Spanish flood plain as it gathers debt and loses roof tiles, should be the emblem of what our architecture will become. In the movie, its interiors are empty, devoid of anybody but the movie’s harried stars and a few guards. If Tomorrowland is right, we are destined to live in monuments to structural bravura and texture smoothing programs that have little relation to context, site, or human scale. The film reinforces our destiny of being subject to structure, rather than its active inhabitants, by making Gustaf Eiffel—the architect of bridges and a useless observation tower that serves as a symbol for an actual city—one of the four founding fathers (no mothers, of course) of this new world.
You could argue that this is as it should be. Our office buildings are certainly tending to the Rubenesque, as are our shopping malls, airports, public plazas, and other grand public edifices. Architects have a fondness for revealing structure because it seems more honest. Some might even argue that we are following our organic destiny: Through biomimicry and following the logic of the optimization of materials, the minimization of wind resistance, and the translation of flow diagrams into built fact, we will arrive in a built environment where all we can do is go with the flow. Surfaces will be continuous, structure will dictate form, and everything will blend into the optimal continuity of spaces.
I would beg to differ. Or, at least I hope this is not as it will be. However much I would love to careen around with a jetpack on my back, I would hope that I could fly through a real place that is not completed and clad in all white and silver finishes. I want to live in a world of variety, a place where the virtual and the real mix in ways that are always surprising, perhaps annoying, but still filled with possibility. As Tomorrowland itself shows, the ideal city goes nowhere except into entropy. I want a future that optimizes for human beings, for the environment, and for the ability to act on and in the spaces the next generations will inherit from us.
What is most frightening is that Tomorrowland claims that a certain kind of architecture—one that is rooted in nostalgia for a simpler world of Worlds Fairs as much as New Urbanism , chained to Leave it to Beaver’s set—will develop that backward-looking aesthetic into an engineer’s dream of technological perfection. It presents the future urban environment as a perfect solution, and one that is dead. I say we need less Calatrava and more funk. Let’s fight for the difference, for variety, for the incomplete, and for the messy reality of our history, our today, and our tomorrow.