Has BIG thought about the sinister subtexts of techno cities?

Do techno cities symbolise a brave new world or an oppressive tyranny?

Ingels’ plan for Toyota’s city of the future includes substantial data gathering opportunities for the Japanese firm.
Ingels’ plan for Toyota’s city of the future includes substantial data gathering opportunities for the Japanese firm. Credit: BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group for Toyota

Like a supercharged humanoid set to default TED Talk mode, Bjarke Ingels leapt to the stage of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January to unveil his latest bold vision of the future. The Danish architect responsible for conjuring a power plant with a ski slope on top and an apartment block in the form of an undulating figure of eight has now turned his hand to crafting a whole new city – with a radical vision for its modes of transport and the structure of its community.

‘Normal streets are a mess,’ Ingels declared, standing in front of a gigantic screen that showed a conventional city street being sliced up into three different ribbons, creating separate streets for fast-moving autonomous vehicles, people-powered bikes and hover-boards, and pedestrians. The three separate arteries would be woven together through neighbourhoods planned around a 3x3 block grid, each cluster framing a central courtyard or park, the network creating ‘a wide variety of intersections between humans, animals, vehicles and even robots.’

his heady new place is the dream of Japanese car manufacturer Toyota. The company has commissioned Ingels to masterplan its new ‘living laboratory’ to be built across a 175-acre site in the foothills of Mount Fuji. Initially planned to house 2,000 people, the Woven City will see timber apartment buildings draped with greenery and topped with swooping roofs of photovoltaic cells, stuffed full of the latest artificial intelligence technology. The smart homes will know when to restock your fridge and take out your trash, and even monitor how healthy you are.

‘Combining the traditional craft of Japanese wood joinery with new robotic production methods,’ the solid timber buildings will stand on top of a subterranean realm, where water filtration systems and hydrogen power storage will mingle with driverless delivery vehicles servicing the city’s residents above.

The homes are described as ‘test sites’ for the company’s future technologies, with every bit of data harvested and processed for its commercial gain

The plan appears to have much in common with the principles of many postwar town plans, with people separated from cars and the messy business of servicing and deliveries swept beneath an elevated podium. Yet there is an important difference. While New Towns were the work of the state, every aspect of this new city’s residents’ lives will be monitored and managed by the private interests of Toyota. The homes are described as ‘test sites’ for the company’s future technologies, with every bit of data harvested and processed for its commercial gain. 

Ingels’ plan joins a host of similar megalomaniacal urban schemes by high-profile designers for tech companies, all looking to expand their influence beyond the bounds of their conventional businesses to every aspect of the city. 

OMA, for example, is working on a company town for Facebook in Menlo Park, Cali­fornia. Google has pumped serious cash and city-making expertise into a new urban planning branch of its company, Sidewalk Labs, and Thomas Heatherwick is designing a 2,500 home scheme in his trademark Hobbit-meets-Avatar aesthetic. Again, the question is what purpose its high tech data will serve. Several high-profile members of the project’s board recently resigned over data protection and privacy issues, while one critic has described it as ‘a colonising experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues’.

While the slick presentations of Ingels et al are seductive in their technocratic logic and blue sky dreaming, it is important to remember that cities are not machines that can be optimised, or laboratories for running experiments. They are living, breathing, messy, vital places run by democratic process, not the commercial desires of chief executives and their shareholders. 


Oliver Wainwright is architecture critic at the Guardian