The Master Plans of a Modern Past

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By Aileen Kwun / Published by Dwell
Architects have always dreamed big about city life—these iconic utopian visions bring us back to the future.

Plan Voisin by Le Corbusier (1925)

Enamored with the promise of vertical living, Le Corbusier proposed a new city center for Paris. Sponsored by Avions Voisin automobile company and named Plan Voisin, his concept called for a structured, orthogonal grid of 60-story towers that would have gutted existing communities, at the time beset with poor hygiene and cramped conditions. Produced between 1922 and 1925, the theoretical scheme for two central transit arteries and higher-density dwellings caused an uproar, yet it remains a key case study for urban planning.


Broadacre City by Frank Lloyd Wright (1928)

An attempted rebuttal to the ills of rapid urbanization, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City—a four-square-mile agrarian utopia—presented an antithetical approach to the density of cities. His plan envisioned a sprawling suburbia set in a verdant landscape, centered around a government-regulated social program in which each household would occupy an acre-large homestead. Though the idea was largely met with criticism, Wright would tour to promote the idea for years to come, with a 12-square-foot plywood scale model in tow. 

The Master Plans of a Modern Past - Photo 1 of 3 - Manifesto of Aerial Architecture by F.T. Marinetti, Angiolo Mazzoni, Mino Somenzi (1934)

Manifesto of Aerial Architecture by F.T. Marinetti, Angiolo Mazzoni, Mino Somenzi (1934)

Manifesto of Aerial Architecture by F.T. Marinetti, Angiolo Mazzoni, Mino Somenzi (1934)

Emblematic of the Italian Futurists and their embrace of the speed and volatility of the Industrial Age, this 1934 plan envisioned the metropolis as a runway for various modes of transportation. Poet F.T. Marinetti, father of the Futurist movement, published the politically charged plan in collaboration with architect Angiolo Mazzoni and journalist Mino Somenzi. Their inventive scheme called for an elongated "large city unified by continuous lines…a parallel thrust of Airways and Airchannels."


Plug-In City by Archigram (1964)

Pioneers of "paper architecture," Archigram was an avant-garde design collective active in the 1960s in London. Using collage and illustration to communicate progressive, otherworldly designs, they produced concepts that were more theoretical than practical. The Plug-In City, designed by Peter Cook, envisioned an urban landscape devoid of static buildings. Instead, the scheme consisted of standardized modular "components" that would slot into the framework of a mechanized megastructure.


Walking City by Ron Herron (1964)

One of the Archigram cohorts, designer Ron Herron reinterpreted Le Corbusier’s famous notion of the house as a "machine for living" with this space-age fantasy of a city that would be fully automated and mobile. Powered by artificial intelligence, the urban landscape comprises numerous robot-like pods with legs that allow whole neighborhoods to roam the Earth and transport resources. In Herron’s mind, the peripatetic structures would also have the ability to combine with other self-contained modules to form large walking metropolises.

City in the Air by Arata Isozaki (1960-62)

Population density and urban housing shortages were the core concerns of City in the Air, a 1960–62 proposal by architect Arata Isozaki. A key figure from Japan’s artistic and philosophic Metabolism movement, Isozaki called for adaptable megastructures informed by organic biological growth. Elevated above Tokyo’s skyline, this unrealized plan features modular units propagating outward, like branches from a central tree-like trunk, to maximize the number of residences in a tiny footprint.


The Master Plans of a Modern Past - Photo 2 of 3 - City in the Air by Arata Isozaki (1960-62)

City in the Air by Arata Isozaki (1960-62)

Dome Over Manhattan by R. Buckminster Fuller (1960)

Futurist R. Buckminster Fuller worked with architect Shoji Sadao on the design of this mile-high, nearly two-mile-wide geodesic dome, which they proposed be placed over a roughly 40-block swath of midtown Manhattan. Designed with a wire frame and shatterproof, aluminum-plated glass, the structure would regulate weather, reduce sun glare, and limit air pollution.


The Master Plans of a Modern Past - Photo 3 of 3 - Urban Matrix by Stanley Tigerman (1967)

Urban Matrix by Stanley Tigerman (1967)

Urban Matrix by Stanley Tigerman (1967)

Parallel to his Chicago-based practice, architect Stanley Tigerman has long produced an independent body of illustrations and drawings imbued with critical commentary and speculative ideas. The Urban Matrix, one of his many schematics, proposes a plan for a buoyant "total environment." Extending outward into Lake Michigan from Chicago, the modular tetrahedral units could be added on incrementally, with growth unbound by terrestrial limitations.