By Andrew Lin
BY ANDREW LIN
An exploration of sci-fi planet-spanning behemoth cities and their artistic relation to us.
The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to a thriving population of 106,000 or so Cantabrigians and our own fair Harvard College, currently stands as a teeming suburb more or less integrated into the fabric of Boston proper. Cambridge, however, was not always a paradise resplendent in its indoor plumbing and Pinocchio’s and the bright neon signage of the Cambridge Savings Bank. Indeed, there once were men and women who, after months of sailing, arrived on the virgin shores of the Charles to build houses and churches and schools for ministers. While some of their descendants stayed on to build Boston into the city it is today, others instead forged new paths west, building a constellation of cities dotting the whole of the United States, a sparkling necklace of human civilization linked by tenuous chains of railroad and (a little later) asphalt.
The same familiar process, namely the continual creation of accommodations for the billions of people of the world, has dragged on the world over across centuries and continents. At least on a single-planet scale, all this urbanization and growth ends with the ecumenopolis, a term coined by urban theorist Constantinos A. Doxiadis in 1961 to describe a single universal city. Though Doxiadis’s idea of the ecumenopolis entailed individual urban centers (megalopolises) connected by suburban belts, science fiction and popular culture have since characterized the ecumenopolis as a city whose reach and sheer sprawl literally consumes the entire surface of a planet — Earth in our humble case. This, of course, is an astonishing technological and logistical leap from the gritty, poverty-stricken reality of urbanization in the modern world. Within that present impossibility, however, the artistic role of the ecumenopolis in popular culture enters in as well, for planet cities and their smaller megalopolis cousins have served as creative fuel for some of the most astonishing works of science fiction in the modern popular canon.
Writing in 1942, Isaac Asimov was among the first science fiction authors to conjure up the idea of a planet city with his own Trantor, the hub of the Galactic Empire and center of the Milky Way in his incidentally outstanding Foundation series. A planet city in the most literal sense, Isaac Asimov’s Trantor throngs with a population of some 40 billion, stacked vertically in huge enclosed domes and layers. Trantor as a planet city was more than mere window-dressing as well; Asimov depicts in the Foundation series the collapse of the Roman Empire in terms of space navies and falling planets, and in this role, Trantor was Rome itself, a huge conurbation doomed to fail by its own resistance to change. This idea of an ecumenopolis as the center of a great but doomed empire sounds familiar to any viewers of Star Wars as well, and with good reason: the whole idea of Coruscant, the sparkling planet-city capital of the Galactic Empire, echoes Trantor almost directly in its scope and function.
The ecumenopoli of science fiction, however, are not merely limited to planets in galaxies far, far away; Earth too is a more than viable setting for future megacities built by and for earth-bound humans. In this category Asimov again is a pioneer, depicting in his sci-fi detective novel The Caves of Steel an Earth of 8 billion (not too far off) in which New York City covers a vast swath of New Jersey and northern Pennsylvania as well, with underground dwellings beneath huge metal domes. From that initial spark, the examples of Earth-bound megacities in science fiction go on and on: the congested megalopolis Los Angeles of Blade Runner, the Mega-Cities of the comic-book series 2000 AD, and the Sprawl in the novels of William Gibson are all salient examples of megacities which, though not ecumenopoli in terms of sheer size, still embody the interconnected and expansive spirit of Doxiadis’s original vision.
It is certainly easy enough to view ecumenopoli as mere flights of sci-fi fancy, as fantasies dreamt up by writers, dreamers, and filmmakers looking to use glitzy neo-Googie architecture to make a quick buck. Disconcertingly enough, however, the realization of something resembling an ecumenopolis here on Earth may not necessarily be all that remote, what with conurbations such as Tokyo and Mumbai housing well over 20 million people in huge stretches of organized (and disorganized) urban chaos. The urbanization of the world is certainly not limited to the mega-cities of Asia either; in his landmark study Megalopolis, urban planner Jean Gottmann designated the whole of the Northeastern Seaboard as a single titanic megalopolis, with an arm of superhighway and fiberglass flung out all the way from our fair Boston to Washington D.C and containing some 37 million people when the study was first published — namely in 1961.
With hyper-urbanization creeping up behind the collective shoulder of humanity, it is certainly high time to comment on some of the issues with ecumenopoli that most certainly have come up in their various artistic iterations within science fiction. Certainly there are the usual concerns of resource management, waste disposal, and ecological impact that characterize the engineering concerns underlying any massive public works project. Isaac Asimov confronted these issues when describing the huge bloat of resource consumption on Trantor in his description of the thin jugular of the capital of the Galactic Empire, with fleets of merchant ships sending in goods, and waste disposal ships necessarily shipping out the trash. But there are deeper issues as well, lurking artistic problems with the idea of the planet city that indeed have also merited discussion in science fiction. The residents of Asimov’s various caves of steel suffered from extreme agoraphobia (as did Asimov himself in real life), becoming so divested from the very world — the raw earth, the bright sky — that fed and nurtured humanity for so many years. Works such as 2000 AD employ the ecumenopolis as a means through which to parody the tedium of modern urban planning and pointedly criticize the inevitable divestment of humans from nature when in an all-encompassing urban environment. Even the aesthetics of planet cities in mainstream science fiction seem to capture that same claustrophobia prevalent in the built-up districts of many a downtown; the shimmering video billboards of Blade Runner have long since come to Times Square, Piccadilly Circus, and many other urban intersections.
Within most of these issues, there does run a single, continuous thread: they are extrapolations of present concerns regarding cities today, here and now. In his original presentation of the ecumenopolis, Doxiadis envisioned a universal city in which humanity could fully express its collective potential, a domain representing the best fusion of humanity and machine, with bands of urbanization crisscrossing the Earth – all to be constructed within 150 years from the heady theoretical year of 1968. As with many of the idealistic urban planning experiments of that era, however, Doxiadis’s ecumenopolis has already come to fruition in an interesting way; the present sprawling suburbs surrounding most major American cities certainly are proof. Our suburbs, along with the slums surrounding some of Doxiadis’s various model cities – disasters in urban planning such as Brasilia, that is – are often hotbeds of socioeconomic instability, enervators of traditional city centers, and exercises in environmentally-unsustainable planning.
Cities individually are marvelous creations, aggregations of people that in and of themselves represent some of the highest human engineering and artistic feats ever achieved. So much of the popularity of massive cities in general and ecumenopoli in particular is derived from their sheer magnificence, of the power of skyscrapers piercing the firmament of alien and not-so-alien worlds, of humanity exulting in its collective capacity to remake the environments in which its individuals teem. The dream of the planet city radiates that same optimism, the same faith in human accomplishment above all else – a mindset certainly in keeping with the era during which it was first conceived. Whether taken to be the literal planet-spanner of Asimov and sci-fi or the hub-and-spoke universal city of Doxiadis and starry-eyed urban planners, the ecumenopolis is ultimately here to stay — in both our lives and our minds.
Andrew Lin ’17 ([email protected]) spent a sizable proportion of his FOP trip boring fellow FOPpers with long-winded ruminations on New Urbanism and urban development.