Floating cities, cities in the desert, cities in the air…while Smart City projects are becoming ever-more daring, they also increasingly appear feasible. The latest idea, a desert city concept designed by an Italian architect, has attracted the interest of the Saudi Arabian authorities.

[Study] Do Smart City goals ultimately justify extreme designs?

Jules Verne may yet be proved right. Ever more plans are appearing for futuristic cities made up of huge skyscrapers, floating cities, underwater cities, and so on. The latest to date is a concept from Italian architect Luca Curci, to create a desert city made of quasi-autonomous ring-shaped units. Endeavouring to exploit to the full the resources available in the arid environment, the architect has drawn up plans for a prototype city intended to create accommodation for small communities, powered by wind and photovoltaic energy and recycling waste water and other wastes. Curci claims that the Saudi government has already shown interest and is trying to find sites where these cities might be built.

Other visionaries have suggested founding floating cities which are self-sufficient or specialise in a given type of production. In India, they are planning a megacity, Dholera, which will be twice as big as Mumbai. Meanwhile a Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut has designed a city of ecological skyscrapers which are energy self-sufficient. However, there is nothing new about these gigantic projects. They were very much in vogue throughout the 20th century, as urban architecture professor Thierry Paquot, explained to l’Atelier: “Those projects were very much part of the 20th century landscape. In the 1960s Paul Maymont produced a design for a seven-story city under the Seine. The idea of cities based on cutting-edge technology is an old obsession but it now seems quite feasible.” And this, he underlines, is the basic difference: however daring Luca Curci’s and Vincent Callebaut’s plans may seem, they can now actually be built. It remains only to be seen whether the fact that these colossal projects are now feasible means that they will in fact come to fruition.

Imaginary or realistic projects?

It should be stressed that of all the mooted projects, those that make it from the drawing board to the construction site are very rare. Luca Curci argues that this is quite logical: “The role of the architect is not just to design plans for actual buildings, but also to look at what cities might look like in the future.” Many designs for futuristic cities will therefore be experiments rather than actual construction projects, attempts to shed light on the direction in which tomorrow’s smart city should be going rather than this year’s building plans. Vincent Callebaut explained this ideal to FranceTV: “Our goal is to aim for the stars in order to land on the moon. We want to push our clients to raise the bar as high as possible.” L’Atelier analyst Étienne Roché points out that there we are touching on one of architecture’s basic tenets: “An architect must distinguish him/herself through a particular approach.” Immodest designs enable their creators to set out a style, to differentiate themselves.

If they are to be built, such concepts need to be able to attract engineers and investors. This can be difficult when the plans appear simply outrageous. That Curci’s desert city appeals to the Saudi authorities proves that such projects are far from being just the stuff of science fiction, though it has to be said that Saudi Arabia has always been drawn to extraordinary projects. The city designed by the Italian architect is based on the idea of linking small communities together and there could be many different applications for this type of design. “It could be a useful design for campuses, research facilities, army centres, basically for all types of smaller community,” explains Luca Curci.

However, Thierry Paquot sees a major drawback. The urban architecture expert feels that the self-sufficient nature of some of these designs could be unwelcome for residents who are looking for freedom. Moreover, underlines the London School of Economics, the way people choose to live in cities seems to depend on their culture, and cannot necessarily be predicted. This realisation might lead one to doubt the viability of futurist cities built from scratch. The eco-district in Tianjin, China, for example, has not managed to attract the 350,000 inhabitants that were originally planned. A number of years after construction, the new ‘green’ Smart City district has only 20,000 residents.

Between demographic issues and people’s desire to escape the limitations of the city

Cities are of course all about citizens. The potential residents are central to the thought process for most, if not necessarily all of tomorrow’s cities. People are the main reason why so many of these extraordinary projects are now being brought forward. It is striking to see that the descriptions of a large percentage of these futuristic cities start with the same observation: the world is becoming increasingly urbanised. “Given the massive rural exodus, and rampant urban acceleration, the models for tomorrow’s cities – green, densely populated, and connected – must be thought through right now!writes Vincent Callebaut. Future city planners will have to rethink the way cities work, as Dholera in India – a huge project but one which sets out to meet the challenges the country is facing – is intended to do. A recent report from McKinsey predicted that India would need to build over twenty new cities in the next few decades in order to respond to the pressures of its population.



Another reason why architects are coming up with plans for cities of the future built from scratch is that they want to avoid the limitations of existing megacities. “It’s easier to design a smart city from scratch than to start with an existing city which has a huge limitation – its residents,” argues Thierry Paquot. He points out that a city’s residents have needs, requirements and objections that will put the brakes on any attempt to create a ‘smart’ Paris or New York. In other words, while inhabitants motivate and inspire architects, they are also at the end of the day in a position to decide whether or not those plans succeed.

Extreme design serving the environment rather than new technology

Planning a smart city in the desert offers a huge amount of freedom to the architect, who thus has the opportunity to design an environmental utopia. These projects all have a common thread: to reduce the environmental impact to zero, inter alia by producing more energy than it consumes. Most of the city planners cited in this article seem driven by this ‘eco-mindset’. Luca Curci stresses that he is “very concerned about environmental issues. Our designs must use everything that nature has to offer.” Meanwhile Vincent Callebaut highlights the concept of ‘archibiotics’ – bringing together the ‘architecture of the living’ and the new Information and Communication Technologies. These urban architects are working to bring to bear simple tools which will nevertheless have a real impact on energy use. Reducing CO2 emissions and optimising waste recycling are among their key concerns. A convincing example is the colossal project taking shape in the Songdo district in South Korea – a ‘smart city’ whose roads and water, waste and electricity systems are packed with electronic sensors enabling, inter alia, irrigation of green spaces and waste recycling.

Much smart city planning draws inspiration from nature both in the way it works and in its aesthetic. Vincent Callebaut’s Asian Cairns project is a series of towers which take the form of flat pebbles piled up on top of each other to create multifunctional urban centres making use of the latest biotechnologies. Another project by the same architect is based on the design of an Amazonian lotus flower. This is a truly utopian self-sufficient city, described by Callebaut as the ‘Lilypad, A Floating Ecopolis for Climate Refugees’. Luca Curci draws his inspiration for his cities of tomorrow from how living cells fit together. His concept is thus a smart city inspired by and for nature, to some extent pushing the new ICTs into the background. In these designs, digital technology takes second place to environmental and human needs. The fear of seeing technology dehumanise or even ‘roboticise’ the smart city, as Carlos Moreno talked about recently and the British newspaper the Guardian reported highlighted in a  recent article, is now encouraging architects to put man and nature back at centre stage.

Lilypad, a project by Vincent Callebaut

This utopian thinking is not however confined to smart cities designed from scratch. It is also now impacting the way historic cities such as Paris function. With its Paris 2050 project, the city has set out to slash its CO2 emissions by 75% by 2050 by installing green spaces as part of the architectural design. Over in London, the Garden Bridge project has aroused considerable controversy. These are highly ambitious projects, but Étienne Roché argues that “architecture always thrives on crazy projects that will take ten, twenty, even a hundred years to come to fruition. This is even truer of urban planning and this is what will ensure such concepts eventually go down in history.”  

The Garden Bridge project on the Thames in the centre of London, ARUP

By Anthéa Delpuech and Guillaume Scifo