The Cell Phone’s True Magic

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Thus pronounced Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the prophetic author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and many other science fiction classics, in his “Third Law” of 1973. The connection between technology and magic can be traced back even farther than the 19th century, when electrical inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were popularly known as wizards—a label that neither apparently tried to shed. In the era of Edison and Tesla, magic was part of the mystique of invention, and, frankly, an effective marketing strategy. Both electrical inventors were self-promoters fixated on reputation and market share.

The cover of The Daily Graphic of New York, 9 July 1879, pronounced Edison a “wizard.” SI negative #80-18655

The cover of The Daily Graphic of New York, 9 July 1879, pronounced Edison a “wizard.” SI negative #80-18655

Sir Arthur’s statement prompted me to reflect on if, and how much, times have changed. It seems to me that we are thoroughly accustomed and adapted to today’s electrical devices that have transformed our public and personal lives. They no longer astonish. Yet these gadgets are more powerful, mysterious, and “magical,” than ever. Their inner workings are infinitely miniaturized and shrouded in impenetrable disposable boxes. We are increasingly reliant on latter-day magicians, a priesthood of technicians, to mediate between them and us.

Of all the devices that surround us, the cell phone may qualify as the most magical. Yet, unlike other disruptive technologies—the telegraph, telephone, and light bulb—few people are familiar with the name of its inventor, Martin “Marty” Cooper. I had the privilege of interviewing him in a public forum last month. (Watch the interview on C-SPAN3).

The author (left) interviews cell phone inventor Martin Cooper. Photo by Chris Gauthier.

The author (left) interviews cell phone inventor Martin Cooper. Photo by Chris Gauthier.

While working at Motorola, Cooper introduced the public to the first true cell phone in 1973 (the year that Clarke handed down his Third Law), and brought forth what is surely the most ubiquitous technology on the planet. It is estimated that the number of cell phones in use in 2014 will actually exceed the world population of seven billion. A game-changing technology by any measure, it has become the continually-evolving platform for a dizzying array of novel devices whose social impacts are incalculable. We humans are the ultimate social animals and, for good or ill, the cell phone is the perfect tool for addressing our social needs—and neediness.

Yet Marty Cooper refuses to mystify himself or his amazing accomplishment. One of the most down-to-earth people I have ever met, the trim white-haired Cooper is above all a teacher, devoted to building bridges between the public and technology.

During our interview last month, I asked Cooper about his “Eureka moment” in the discovery of the cell phone. He immediately rejoined that there never was such a moment—and added that I should not have expected one. Like almost all major inventions, he said, the cell phone was the culmination of many small, often anonymous improvements made over a long period. He gave ample credit to his coworkers at Motorola as well as to other engineers, and stressed that he never came forth with the mythical “Aha!” It was not magic, but plain hard work. The greatest challenge was reducing the size of the phone, called the Dyna-TAC, from the size of a brick (hence, the nickname) weighing 2.5 pounds. Even after the major breakthrough of the invention of the integrated circuit, shrinking the handset was a long, hard slog.

Two early Motorola "brick" phones and an early flip phone. Photo by Chris Gauthier.

Two early Motorola “brick” phones and an early flip phone. Photo by Chris Gauthier.

Well, what about your April 3, 1973, public demonstration of the first cell phone in New York City, I asked? Was it anything like Samuel Morse’s first telegraph message, “What hath God wrought?” a line borrowed from the Bible. No, his was hardly a mystical moment, Cooper remembered. He made the call not to a colleague, but to Joel Engel, his rival at AT&T, who was then working on a cellular car phone. Known for his puckish sense of humor, Marty said: “Joel, I’m calling you from a cellular phone, a real cellular phone, a handheld, portable, real cellular phone,” making sure that Engel got the point.

Another major thing Cooper wanted us to know is that a cell phone is not a phone at all. Unlike illusionists who try to distract our gaze when they perform their tricks, he pointed out exactly where we should look. He explained that the cell phone is a special kind of radio, tracing its lineage not to Bell but to radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi (that’s why the sound you hear when you first turn on your handset isn’t the once-familiar dial tone but the hiss of radio static.) As a communications engineer, this is a lineage that he is clearly proud of.

As for his greatest accomplishment, Cooper is quoted as saying the “personal telephone [is] something that would represent an individual, so you could assign a number not to a place, not to a desk, not to a home, but to a person.” The capability of calling an individual rather than a place, he insists, was the real value of his technical breakthrough. AT&T was focused on the car phone—place, not person. Told repeatedly that the personal cell phone was impossible, Cooper prides himself on his perseverance and faith in himself. No surprise then that he puts great stock in the cell phone as an agent of human individuality in our mass culture. That is its essence and true magic.

Cooper holds up his invention. Photo by Chris Gauthier.

Cooper holds up his invention. Photo by Chris Gauthier.

In May, the Lemelson Center will join with Smithsonian Magazine and the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination to explore themes of invention both magical and factual. The 2014 “The Future Is Here” festival will focus on “Science Meets Science Fiction: Imagination, Inspiration, and Invention.” We are inviting the public to explore with us the tantalizing realm where the real, the imagined, and the illusory meet, if not in the “Twilight Zone,” at least in the same neighborhood. “Science Meets Science Fiction” will open new vistas on society’s future by highlighting the visionaries in science, invention, and science fiction who epitomize human imagination and creativity. We invite you to join us. But we’ll ask you to silence your cell phones.

Future Is Here Marquee

50 years ago today: Opening a “Palace of Progress”

The Museum of History and Technology (the previous name of the National Museum of American History) was dedicated on today’s date 50 years ago, opening to the public on the following day, January 23, 1964. Director Art Molella reflects on the fascination with the future and sense of modernism that shaped the museum’s outlook and even our building. This post first appeared on O Say Can You See.

“New Smithsonian Unit to be a Palace of Progress,” gushed The Evening Star about the exciting exhibitions in store for visitors to the “Big Marble Shrine” being built on the National Mall.

The Museum of History and Technology (MHT), the original name of the National Museum of American History (NMAH), opened to great fanfare on January 22, 1964. President Lyndon Johnson presided over the ceremony, saying, “every doubter who hesitates before the onrush of tomorrow will … spend some time in this great museum.”

Reproduction of rendering of MHT by Hugh Ferris, Avery Library, Columbia University. Ferris was an architect and the foremost delineator of buildings in his day. In Ferris’s rendering, abstract sculptures of scientific instruments surround the building.

Reproduction of rendering of MHT by Hugh Ferris, Avery Library, Columbia University. Ferris was an architect and the foremost delineator of buildings in his day. In Ferris’s rendering, abstract sculptures of scientific instruments surround the building.

Such statements captured the spirit that gave birth to the museum, one that “combines the history and technology of a Nation.” “In a country such as ours,” stated MHT’s founding director Frank Taylor, “…these are inseparable because of the tremendous influence science has had on our way of life and development.”

Frank Taylor, MHT's founding director, standing on the building's fifth floor terrace. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 22A, Folder: 52.

Frank Taylor, MHT’s founding director, standing on the building’s fifth floor terrace. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 22A, Folder: 52.

“The onrush of tomorrow…”— an interesting statement to make about what was after all a history museum. But the future was very much in the air, not to mention in outer space. It was the decade of the Space Race, culminating in the US moon-landing foretold by the recently assassinated President, John F. Kennedy.

1964 also happened to be the year when the New York World’s Fair opened in Flushing Meadow. The fair and MHT shared a common theme of technological progress, with the fair looking to the future and MHT to history as its prologue. Fairgoers toured the technological Futurama in the General Motors pavilion, seeing lunar rovers explore the moon and atomic submarines and “Aquacopters” survey the ocean depths.

Modern display techniques developed for world’s fairs challenged MHT’s new staff of designers to create equally exciting historical displays inside the new museum. Many of the fair’s pavilion buildings manifested the same mid-century modern style as MHT. The first modern building on the Mall, MHT emerged from the enthusiasm of the 20th-Century Modern Movement and a deep faith in technological progress. What better way to express this than through an emblematic building—the concrete embodiment of the animating beliefs behind the new museum.

An April 1964 postage stamp in the collection of the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum.

An April 1964 postage stamp in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum.

The story of MHT’s design involves some fascinating twists and turns. Putting any sort of modern building on the traditional National Mall was never an easy sell to the conservative Fine Arts Commission in Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian started on the safe side, choosing a firm that had been involved in the Mall’s early century redevelopment: McKim, Mead, and White. Knowing MHT had to harmonize with the neo-classical buildings around its site, the lead architect, James Kellum Smith, compared MHT to the Acropolis — “the sacred precinct of Athens” — and to ancient Rome. When Smith died in 1961, the young Walker Cain took over, agreeing that the Mall “is a classical environment if there ever was one.”

Cain said he designed “a building which is classical in definition, and the detailing is modern.” The in-and-out pattern of the building’s marble walls was meant to suggest abstract Greek columns. Original designs showed modernist renderings of scientific instruments surrounding the building. One such sculpture was put in place: Jose de Rivera‘s “Infinity” at the Mall entrance, which to Cain evoked an abstract orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system. Modern sculptures like Alexander Calder’s “Gwenfritz” embellished the building at other spots.

Installation of the "Infinity" sculpture by Jose de Rivera. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 34, Folder: 17.

Installation of the “Infinity” sculpture by Jose de Rivera. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 34, Folder: 17.

As a result, MHT represented a modern/neo-classic hybrid. Architectural critics like Ada Louise Huxtable of The New York Times were annoyed by the compromised modernism. (“An awkward attempt to marry the classical and the modern, the building is legitimately neither; it is a monstrous and meaningless misalliance,” she wrote.) But, in some sense, the building’s blend of styles accurately represented its amalgam of traditional Americana and forward-looking technology—the Museum of History and Technology.

As it turned out, the year MHT opened was a problematic one for “progress” of any kind, as I was reminded when I happened to watch an episode of American Experience’s 1964. While it was the year Ford’s sporty Mustang debuted, it also witnessed the murder of three Civil Rights workers in Mississippi, a major escalation of the Vietnam War, and Berkeley student protests.

A future post blog will consider how the young Museum registered such social and cultural changes.

A pin in the museum's collection from the 1964 New York World's Fair

A pin in the museum’s collection from the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Can We Control Surveillance Tech?

On October 25, the Lemelson Center will hold its annual New Perspectives on Invention and Innovation symposium and this year’s theme is ripped from the headlines: inventing the surveillance society. We knew we had a hot potato in this topic when we began planning early in 2013, but we had no idea it would soon explode when Edward Snowden leaked information about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) spying at home and abroad. To say that this has raised the stakes for us at the Lemelson Center would be a huge understatement. While there are myriad aspects to the ongoing controversy, our symposium will focus on the technology of surveillance and the related issues of social and ethical responsibility.

surveillance-header

If history has taught us anything, it is that technology and invention can often escape our control, however good our intentions. If we wait to address social problems downstream after they arise, it is usually too late. It then becomes mostly a futile game of catch-up. The ideal approach is to try to anticipate such problems from the start of major projects, building in front-end attention to the social and ethical impacts of emergent technologies. I say “ideal,” because there are major obstacles to doing so. Mostly it’s a matter of money, but second-guessing an emerging technology in this way may also be criticized and dismissed as a brake on innovation.

Occasionally, though, such foresight is evident. Consider the government’s Human Genome Project, in which the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy (DOE) were major players (the latter because of concern over health issues related to radiation from atomic testing and chemical exposure). Both the DOE and the NIH genome programs set aside fully 3-5% of their annual budgets for risk assessment and for the investigation of Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI). While such efforts may not have fully anticipated, much less solved, future problems, at least they were a move in the right direction.

Human Genome Project logo

Human Genome Project logo (color) Credit: the U.S. Department of Energy Genome Programs (http://genomics.energy.gov)

That privacy issues were deeply implicated with the genome project was recognized early on. There was a real danger that personal genetic information could get into the wrong hands or be used inappropriately, with truly scary consequences for individuals, including denial of employment and health insurance. One might reasonably ask why the same care has not been taken with information and communications technologies that have allowed the NSA to do what it does. Why were we taken by surprise by both government and commercial abuse of digital innovations? Perhaps it’s because they emerged over a relatively long period of time and from a disparate set of players, whereas the Human Genome Project(s) had much more the flavor of a crash program like the Manhattan Project, with its reliable funding, central management, and tightly controlled access.

Yet, as with the genome project, government- and particularly military-sponsored R&D played a critical role in the launching of today’s breakthrough digital technologies, and they still do. The Internet owed its birth to the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Project Agency, which developed ARPANET. With national security as the over-arching motivation and justification, keeping the new technologies in control and out of the wrong hands had to be a major concern. Because of the veil of secrecy, I can’t say if there was actually an attempt to establish regulations with respect to the privacy issues that bedevil us today. Perhaps there was, but clearly the events of September 11 have fundamentally changed the rules of the game.

A major factor in the whole problem of management and control was the privatizing of government R&D, resulting in hybrid organizations combining private and government sectors (see Kevin R. Kosar, “The QuasiGovernment: Hybrid Organizations with Both Government and Private Legal Characteristics,” Congressional Research Service, June 22, 2011.). The pattern was established after the Second World War with the creation of Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs)—so-called GO-CO (government owned, contractor operated) organizations. The first of these was the Air Force’s RAND Corporation, established in 1947 in Santa Monica, California. Government atomic weapons labs like Oak Ridge and Los Alamos national laboratories soon followed suit. Such quasi-government arrangements allowed for much more flexibility in terms of spending, procurement, hiring, personnel adjustments, and more rapid technology transfer from basic research to application.

Entrance to Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The entrance to Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Part of the Department of Energy, the Lab is run by a contractor.

There were clear advantages to this model, but it has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism over the last decade because of the potential for corruption, lack of accountability and oversight, and loss of government control of research. In particular, the FFRDCs greatly complicated the problem of regulation. More than a decade ago, public policy expert Ann Markusen argued persuasively against privatizing national security. She pointed out that government out-sourcing requires strong management, but “such capacity is undercut by the unpopularity of regulation and unwillingness to spend on it” (“The Case Against Privatizing National Security,” June 2001).

As I write, the question of governmental oversight of the National Security Agency’s data-mining, monitoring, and outright spying is being hotly debated. Perhaps NSA was and is indeed working within its own regime of regulation and accountability. But the cosy relationship today between government agencies like NSA and the companies they outsource to makes it far too easy for classified government innovation and information to flow into the commercial sector, where there is little if any incentive for regulation. The Snowden case was a prime example.

PRISM Logo

PRISM logo via WikiCommons.

Today, I often hear it argued that no one should have been surprised by the revelations of government spying. After all, social media users, not to mention on-line shoppers, have willingly, with little if any apparent concern for the consequences, already ceded much of their personal privacy to corporations. As my colleague Jeff Brodie noted (with tongue firmly in cheek), “we want our cake, we want the icing, and we want to eat it without gaining weight.” (A penetrating satire on this incredibly self-destructive social behavior is David Egger’s recent novel on the ultimate perils of Big Data, The Circle.)

Invention and innovation, however, can also be powerful forces for democracy and the public good. Recent history has shown that cell phones and social media have made it far more difficult for dictators to control information. Such technology has clearly been crucial to the Arab Spring, for example. But it is also a double-edged sword that can be used by ill-intentioned regimes to undermine democracy in unprecedented ways. With mounting concerns for national security, surveillance technologies are not going away. But is it too late to bring them back under at least some semblance of democratic control?

Where Art and Tech Meet

A couple months ago, I was invited to write an introductory essay for Masters of Abstraction, a new book by German photographer Peter Badge. The book is a collection of portraits of winners of the Fields and Abel prizes in mathematics, and the Turing and Nevanlinna awards in computing. These are the top prizes in their fields, all modeled more or less on the Nobel, which has no category for mathematics.

I first met Peter about fifteen years ago when I was co-curating an international exhibition on the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize. He was commissioned to photograph the laureates for the exhibition and accompanying volume. When I watched Peter at work I was immediately struck by two things: first, his uncanny ability to relate to the laureates on a personal level and to capture on film his sense of their personalities and deep humanity, however remote or abstract their research; and, second, his stubborn insistence on sticking with analog photography and old-fashioned photographic film—specifically black-and-white Kodak Tri-X—just when digital technology was taking over his medium. Over the years, he has never gone digital, despite the near-disappearance of Tri-X from the shelves of photo stores. These observations prompted me to reflect on the tools of photographers, human creativity, and machine “intelligence.”

Vint Cerf, 2004 Turing Award Winner

Vint Cerf won the Turing Award in 2004 with Bob E. Kahn for “pioneering work on internetworking.” c: Peter Badge/Typos1 in cooperaton with the Heidelberg Laureate Forum – all rights reserved, 2013

Let me try to explain why I think this matters. It is conceivable that Alan Turing, mathematical genius, code-breaker extraordinaire, and pioneer of artificial intelligence after whom the prize is named, could have ultimately rendered Peter’s work obsolete. Turing’s famous “Turing Test,” proposed in 1950, is defined in Wikipedia as a “test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of an actual human.” As far as I know, Turing himself never ascribed any deep existential meaning to his test.  However, in the popular mind, it carries the implication that smart machines, perhaps in the not too distant future, will surpass and eventually replace the brains of intelligent, even super intelligent, humans.

HAL9000

HAL 9000, via Wikimedia Commons.

Should that appalling day arrive when the descendants of HAL 9000, the single-minded and omniscient computer of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, become masters of the universe and solve all conceivable mathematical riddles, would we still want to buy Peter’s book? Would we want to view photographs of human also-rans in some future mathematical Olympiad totally dominated by machines? Granted, it would be interesting and probably comforting to study the humanity, character, and creativity written in their faces. But, in the end, would it matter?

For Peter, the answer to this question is surely that yes, it matters, and for a myriad human reasons. Intelligence is ultimately a human concept. In that sense, we can reasonably ask if intelligence can ever truly be “artificial.” Peter’s goal is not only to honor prizewinners, but to probe the mysteries of human creativity. He knows instinctively that creativity can never be reduced to computer algorithms. It is ironic to think that Turing himself, who lived a brilliant but tormented life, would have been the worst possible candidate for machine replacement.

That takes us back to Peter’s loyalty to analog film, his chosen and evidently natural medium. I have not asked Peter this question, but I think I know why he has not yet gone digital. I suspect he resists the imposition of a computerized process between himself and his human subjects.

Shafrira Goldwasser, 2012 Turing Award winner.

Shafrira Goldwasser won the 2012 Turing Award along with Silvio Micali for their work in the field of cryptography. c: Peter Badge/Typos1 in cooperaton with the Heidelberg Laureate Forum – all rights reserved, 2013.

There are suggestive parallels here with the creative processes of mathematicians. Evolving computer technology has changed how mathematicians work. Abstract mathematics increasingly involves computers; the verification of proofs is one example. But, just as photographers “see” their final image in their mind’s eye before actually taking the shot, mathematicians often visualize their proofs in advance. Both photographers and mathematicians share this sensory, almost tactile feeling for their creations.

Abstraction is central to science and mathematics, but the term has other, equally rich resonances. In this sense, the title of Badge’s book—Master of Abstraction—plays brilliantly on the association with masters of abstract art. Even die-hard believers in machine intelligence cannot credibly claim that artists will eventually cede their studios to ranks of painting robots wielding brushes and palettes. The creative theories and inventions honored in Peter’s book are not just equivalent to art, they have become art and speak to the identity of all forms of creativity.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that photography, too, is all about numbers: film speeds,
f-stops, shutter speeds, focal lengths, light intensity, even the “golden ratio” applied to framing an image. This is just as true for analog film as it is for digital photography, though digital has added a few more numerical parameters to play with. At some point though, Peter Badge, like all genuine practitioners of his art form, puts the numbers behind him and proceeds on the wings of creative instinct. And this is where Peter and his subjects merge in body, mind, and spirit, in a realm where numbers become sheer beauty.

Sergei Novikov, 1970 winner of the Fields Medal.

Sergei Novikov won the Fields Medal in 1970 for his work in algebraic topology, most notably the Novikov conjecture, which concerns homotopy invariance of certain polynomials in the Pontryagin classes of a manifold. c: Peter Badge/Typos1 in cooperaton with the Heidelberg Laureate Forum – all rights reserved, 2013

Archimedes, the greatest mathematician of antiquity, is featured on the Fields Medal for mathematics. A Latin inscription from Astronomica, by the Roman poet Manilius, surrounds Archimedes likeness:

you are seeking to pass beyond your understanding and make yourself master of the universe….

Archimedes on the Fields Medal, via Wikimedia Commons

Archimedes on the Fields Medal, via Wikimedia Commons

In a title match for “Master of the Universe” between Archimedes and HAL 9000, where would you put your money? I know where I would.

Eco-City Update: From Idea to Reality (Part 2)

Read Part 1.

I was saddened to read about the death last month of Paolo Soleri, the Italian-American architect who was one of the godfathers of the eco-city movement. I feel fortunate to have known Soleri, and treasure the memory of the personal tour he gave me in 2001 of Arcosanti, his experimental town in the desert outside Phoenix, Arizona. He began building it in the late 1960s and was still working on it at the time of his death. Designed to be free of cars and bound closely to nature, Arcosanti was to reach a maximum population of 5,000, concentrated into the smallest comfortable area. Soleri believed in building up and not out, leaving as much land as possible to nature and farming.

Soleri’s principles for Arcosanti are part of a continuum of sustainable urban planning that began with the garden city movement of the 19th century, designed to address the physical and moral problems manifested in industrial cities. They are also still evident today in the development of eco-cities in the U.S. and around the world. But to call Arcosanti a successful eco-city would be a stretch; its population numbers less than 100. Are there places where the eco-city concept is faring better? Is it possible to apply these ideas to larger, established urban centers? What variations on the sustainable development theme are in play today? In this two-part blog, I’ll explore these questions with examples first from overseas (specifically, India and China), and then from the U.S., where eco-cities are offering solutions to a range of challenges, from natural-disaster recovery to the revitalization of established neighborhoods within existing cities.

Part Two: Eco-City Movements in the United States

Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti, created in an unsettled area and rooted in the beliefs of a visionary, is an early example of an eco-city in the United States. As the eco-city movement in the U.S. has matured, other paths toward sustainable development have gained ground.

For cities rebuilding after a natural disaster, for example, the eco-city strategy is offering an appealing alternative, especially when federal and other financial incentives are factored in. Greensburg, Kansas (one of the towns included in Eco-Cities: A Global Survey 2011, published by the International Eco-Cities Initiative, in which the Lemelson Center participates), is rebuilding sustainably after the devastation of the town by a tornado in May 2007. The decision to “go green” was made by the community within days of the disaster, and a grassroots community-based organization called Greensburg GreenTown has been collaborating with local government, businesses, and residents on the rebirth of Greensburg as an eco-city.

The GreenTown group sponsors a variety of programs, from tours of green sites around the city, a farmers market, and a lumber reclamation project, to educational presentations and volunteer opportunities. A sustainable building database, developed in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), documents Greensburg’s new energy-efficient buildings. Today, Greensburg uses 100% wind power, boasts the most LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings per capita in the U.S. and the first LEED Platinum building in Kansas, has sustainable water and waste management systems in place, and is the first city in the U.S. to install LED streetlights throughout the city.

The Greensburg model is also being adopted in other disaster-stricken towns. Greentown Joplin has been established to help guide the recovery of Joplin, Missouri, victim of a tornado in 2011, and organizations as diverse as the NREL, Global Green USA, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation are supporting sustainable rebuilding projects in communities hit by Hurricane Sandy last year.

It has undoubtedly been challenging for these cities to reconceive themselves in the eco-city mold and they are to be commended for embracing the future with responsibility and optimism. Those same characteristics are also being applied in the creation of “eco-districts” in existing cities around the U.S.

The San Francisco Planning Department’s Sustainable Development Program, for example, is tasked with facilitating “the implementation of sustainable infrastructure systems by coordinating private development and public improvements through community engagement.” The goal is to balance plans for the city’s future growth with the city’s and state’s priorities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and water and energy use. One way in which the Program is meeting this mandate is by establishing eco-districts—sustainable “neighborhood scale public-private partnerships that can strengthen the economy while creating a stronger sense of place.”

An eco-district is planned for Treasure Island, an artificial island built by the federal government in 1939 (it has been the site of a world’s fair, a naval base, and the San Francisco International airport). The San Francisco Treasure Island Development Authority sees the project as a “comprehensive approach to sustainability—environmental, economic and social equity,” with green buildings constructed, in part, of recycled and locally-sourced materials, solar- and wind-generated electrical supplies, waste management including composting, and enhanced public transportation to reduce the use of personal vehicles.

While Treasure Island is still in the planning stages, five eco-districts in Portland, Oregon, are in various stages of realization. Defined as “essentially a neighborhood working together on things like waste management, transportation, renewable energy, energy efficiency and even district heating and cooling toward overall better sustainability,” Portland’s eco-districts are planning or implementing energy efficiency programs for businesses and residents, bike facilities, neighborhood waste strategies, energy retrofits for older buildings, and more.

The eco-district concept has reached Washington, D.C., as well. The SW Ecodistrict Initiative, announced earlier this year, is “a comprehensive effort to transform a 15-block federal precinct just south of the National Mall into a showcase of sustainable urban development. In addition to accommodating the future space needs of the federal government, the Ecodistrict will extend the civic qualities of the National Mall, create new places to live, and promote a vibrant, open, and walkable neighborhood and workplace.”

From new construction to retooling existing cities and neighborhoods, it seems clear that the idea of the eco-city is gaining ground in the U.S. and abroad. With the exception, perhaps, of the Chinese model, some common themes emerge in the initiatives described here: a shared philosophy of environmental stewardship, collaboration between private citizens and government, and an understanding of the economic and social advantages of sustainability. Paolo Soleri, I believe, would be pleased.

This post was originally published on EDCmag.com. Reprinted with permission.

Eco-City Update: From Idea to Reality

I was saddened to read about the death last month of Paolo Soleri, the Italian-American architect who was one of the godfathers of the eco-city movement. I feel fortunate to have known Soleri, and treasure the memory of the personal tour he gave me in 2001 of Arcosanti, his experimental town in the desert outside Phoenix, Arizona. He began building it in the late 1960s and was still working on it at the time of his death. Designed to be free of cars and bound closely to nature, Arcosanti was to reach a maximum population of 5,000, concentrated into the smallest comfortable area. Soleri believed in building up and not out, leaving as much land as possible to nature and farming.

Soleri’s principles for Arcosanti are part of a continuum of sustainable urban planning that began with the garden city movement of the 19th century, designed to address the physical and moral problems manifested in industrial cities. They are also still evident today in the development of eco-cities in the U.S. and around the world. But to call Arcosanti a successful eco-city would be a stretch; its population numbers less than 100. Are there places where the eco-city concept is faring better? Is it possible to apply these ideas to larger, established urban centers? What variations on the sustainable development theme are in play today? In this two-part blog, I’ll explore these questions with examples first from overseas (specifically, India and China), and then from the U.S., where eco-cities are offering solutions to a range of challenges, from natural-disaster recovery to the revitalization of established neighborhoods within existing cities.

Part One: Eco-city Movements in India and China

Bangalore, India

India has a long-standing eco-city movement. For example, Auroville in southern India traces its philosophical roots to the 1920s and the teachings of Indian scholar Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual collaborator Mirra Alfassa. Its formal organization came later, first with a 1966 UNESCO resolution that supported Auroville as “an international cultural township designed to bring together the values of different cultures and civilisations [sic] in a harmonious environment,” and then with an inauguration ceremony in 1968 attended by representatives from 124 countries. Seeing itself as “a universal city in the making,” Auroville strives to be a place where people “live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities” in an ecologically sustainable way. Endorsed by the Indian government, the township is still growing with a current population around 2,300 from 49 countries.

More recently, the Indian government has begun to look at ways to superimpose an eco-city model on existing cities. As Ted Bardacke of Global Green USA has pointed out, “There is only a net reduction in emissions if you also retrofit existing places.” Bangalore, India’s urbane and burgeoning IT and biotech hub, is testing the feasibility of this idea.

In the 2000s, Bangalore’s population grew rapidly from five million to eight million. According to a recent report in the Washington Post, though, the city’s infrastructure has not kept pace with its population and economic growth. Bangalore is plagued with clogged roads, accumulated trash in the streets, opportunistic construction, contaminated water supplies, severe water shortages, and environmental degradation. Adding to the challenge of transforming Bangalore into a beacon of environmental responsibility is India’s fractious political scene, with competing, sometimes clashing interests, at the national, regional, and local levels. This political chaos has bred a culture of government corruption, with a consequent lack of responsible urban planning.

Refusing to accept this unpleasant reality, a newly formed Bangalore Political Action Committee, led by IT entrepreneurs, athletes, artists, and other public figures, is trying to muster the public will and the votes necessary to turn the situation around. They want to reinvent Bangalore as an eco-city. The success of Bangalore’s green initiative will partly rise or fall with such local, grassroots groups and their ability to harness the political forces needed to build citizen consensus and create regulatory change.

Governments and political discourse, though, are not the only factors affecting the success or failure of eco-city initiatives within existing cities. Inherent cultural dynamics also play a role. Built around a technology-oriented economy, Bangalore presumably has attracted citizens with a natural drive towards innovation and progress. Clashes between the local government and Bangalore’s predominantly young, pub-going populace also seem to point to an openness to change confronting cultural traditions. India’s democratic system of government, of which the Bangalore Political Action Committee is a prime example, should work in favor of positive outcomes to the city’s problems. And if the eco-city concept can be realized in an existing mega-city like Bangalore, its viability in other parts of India should be enhanced.

Tangshan, China

Chinese eco-city initiatives provide an instructive contrast to Bangalore. In 1976, the city of Tangshan was devastated by one of the country’s worst-ever earthquakes, followed by 30 years of reconstruction, revitalization, and new development. In 2006, Chinese President Hu Jintao made an inspection tour of the city on the 30th anniversary of the great earthquake and announced his strategic vision to reconceive the city as a demonstration region for scientific development. Following President Hu’s instructions, Tangshan’s people are accelerating the process of transformation away from a resource-dependent city and toward a new ecological city.

It is important to note the Chinese approach also includes completely new development initiatives like Caofeidian, a new eco-city near the city center of Tangshan and about 250 kilometers southeast of Beijing. Initiated in 2009, Caofeidian is designed to be climate- and carbon-neutral with a projected population of 1 million citizens (my visit to Caofeidian has been the subject of some of my previous column posts). China’s goal is to build hundreds of new eco-cities in relatively short order—in just one to two decades—while simultaneously superimposing eco-city imperatives on some of its existing mega-cities. In this iteration, the national government has created a top-down planning model for eco-city development that can be seen as a driving force for rapid development.

However, as in India, cultural traditions are affecting the adoption of the eco-city lifestyle. In fact, there are already clear signs of resistance among ordinary Chinese city-dwellers, who complain about the lack of sensitivity to Chinese vernacular styles and the practices of feng shui, for example. New buildings are generic, bearing little resemblance to traditional Chinese styles, a factor of the dominant roles of Western designs firms like Sweco in environmental redevelopment in China. While China’s government may be able to build many eco-cities rapidly, the question remains: will they be socially sustainable?

This post was originally published on EDCmag.com. Reprinted with permission.

Eco-Cities: Can They Work?

From time to time in earlier columns, I have reported on the rising global phenomenon of eco-cities, an urban innovation touted as one of the solutions to conjoined problems of urban sustainability, environmental degradation, and climate change. While eco-cities were proposed as early as the 1970s, they have only become real in the last decade or so, with announcements of the construction of model eco-cities Dongtan, near Shanghai, China, and Masdar, near Abu Dhabi, UAE. Hundreds more are now underway or about to be launched worldwide. But can these cities really do the job their advocates claim they will? Along with Westminster University (UK) and the Johns Hopkins University, the Lemelson Center is co-sponsor of the International Eco-City Initiative.  Among the products of the collaboration is a new study of eco-city standards, which attempt to put these new cities to the test.

“Tomorrow’s City Today—Eco-City Indicators, Standards & Framework”

This recently published Bellagio conference report addresses a key area of contemporary sustainability research and policy: how to define “indicators” and “standards” for sustainable cities, or “eco-cities.” I interviewed the report’s editor, Simon Joss of the University of Westminster.

 

What are eco-cities and why are they important?

Ideas and propositions about eco-cities have been around for at least three decades, and the last five years or so have seen a considerable global mushrooming of practical eco-city initiatives. In the recent survey carried out by our research group, we identified at least 178 eco-city projects globally, although this may be a conservative figure: in China alone, there are reportedly over 250 cities embarked on eco-city development!

That said, defining the eco-city is challenging, for both theoretical and practical reasons. Conceptually, beyond the general idea of eco-cities being more sustainable than current “conventional” cities, it is quite difficult to settle on specifics. There is no agreed norm or standard of what counts as an eco-city. Even agreeing on the basic balance between environmental, economic, and social goals of sustainability can be tricky. Practically, the fact that eco-city initiatives are applied in often vastly different national, cultural, and economic contexts means that they end up taking diverse forms and shapes: a city generating ten per cent renewable energy may be ambitious in, say, India, while the threshold is typically much higher in European cities, such as Freiburg (Germany) and Stockholm (Sweden), with several decades more experience.

However, there are some general, global trends that I think drive current eco-city innovation, against the background of the dual challenges of global climate change and rapid urbanization (in 2008, for the first time in human history the majority of people lived in cities), particularly in Asia and Africa. Among these is the policy of “ecological modernization” which seeks to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation. An illustrative example here is the World Bank’s Eco2 Cities initiative which goes by the slogan “environmental city as economic city.” Another trend is increasing international knowledge transfer, with international architecture, technology, and engineering firms playing a central role. Furthermore, the “carbon” discourse has become a core characteristic of the modern eco-city, as illustrated by terms such as “low-carbon,” “zero-carbon” or “carbon-neutral” cities. In this sense, the eco-city has become more ubiquitous in comparison to earlier examples from the 1970s and 1980s which were much more locally defined.

Wind farm at Caofeidian International Eco-City, about 50 miles south of the port city of Tangshan and somewhat farther from Beijing. Courtesy of SWECO.

Where is the major action today in building eco-cities?

If I had to pick one global region, I would choose Asia, where a whole range of new eco-city initiatives have been launched within just the last few years. As mentioned, this is mainly due to the unprecedented urbanization occurring there—China is said to have to build a new city of the size of New York every year for the next twenty years to accommodate people migrating into urban areas. Similar developments can be observed in India, Indonesia, and Africa. A further factor that I witnessed on visits to China and South Korea is the determination to be at the forefront of technological innovation: one really gets the sense that the new urban age is being shaped in and across Asia.

Of course, innovation in sustainable urbanism is currently also taking place in many European and North as well as South American cities. The recent eco-city initiative of Alexandria (VA), or the eco-districts in Portland (OR) may not be on as large a scale as Masdar (United Arab Emirates) or Sejong (South Korea), but they are just as illustrative of the global attempt to transition to a low-carbon economy.

Artist Impression- Aerial View of Proposed Master plan of Masdar City (Eastern Orientation). Courtesy of Masdar City.

Why should we care about “standards” and “indicators”? In fact, what are they and what problems are they supposed to address?

History teaches us that once in a while a process of consolidation and standardization occurs, often as a result of technological innovation: for example, in the late 19th century when the increasingly ubiquitous application of electricity in daily life prompted the need to develop standardized electrical power systems (though we still often have to pack adaptors when traveling abroad!). Similarly, as more and more cities, businesses, and political organizations strive to implement sustainable strategies and practices, at some point the need arises to develop a “common language.” Otherwise, how can we agree on a bottom line and framework for sustainable cities? It is for this reason that there has been a recent flurry of eco-city indicators, standards, and frameworks. While this is partly driven by efforts by scientists and policy-makers trying to define various aspects of urban sustainability, it is no doubt also driven by business interests aimed at marketing urban sustainability as a “product.”

Our new research initiative, which involves the Lemelson Center along with several other partners across the world, aims to contribute to this emerging debate. We are interested in mapping the various approaches to eco-city indicators and standards—there are so many schemes that we first need to take stock of what is out there—followed by in-depth analysis of how individual approaches actually work: how they contribute to defining sustainable urbanism, guiding policy implementation, and encouraging practice learning among scientists, policy-makers, planners, business, and citizens.

One of the challenges our project will have to grapple with is at which level indicators and standards are most appropriate. Perhaps expecting standards or frameworks to emerge at the global level is unrealistic, given the vastly different local contexts of cities across the world. Then again, reducing carbon emissions is a global concern, which suggests the need for comparable, international measures.

Apart from generating knowledge, we hope that our research will also directly contribute to policy debate and practice innovation. For example, one of our partners is the Clinton Foundation’s Climate Positive Development Program, through which we will have access to, and will be in dialogue with, cities across the world.

London Building With Integrated Wind Turbines. Photo by Christine Matthews, via Wikimedia Commons.

What is and should be the role of technological and other sorts of innovation in the development of eco-cities?

Engineering and technology firms have increasingly become centrally involved in developing eco-city indicators and frameworks. The reason is obvious: cities are one of the main sources of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. So, attempting to effect a transition to a low-carbon economy, one inevitably has to address urban development. Given this focus on energy, it is no surprise that technological innovation is to the fore. At the same time, increasingly various “smart” urban technology solutions, based on information and communication technologies, are applied to manage urban infrastructure and services. Together, these open up huge business opportunities: hence, the current jostling among international technology firms for a market share in urban development. However, as a political scientist, I would add a word of caution: a city is not just a “system,” and not just made of infrastructure; it is also a center of social, cultural, and political activity. Therefore, we surely also need social and cultural entrepreneurs to get involved in eco-city innovation!

Traveling in Time with James Smithson

Of the millions of visitors to the Smithsonian each year, I suspect that scarcely more than a handful know anything about the obscure figure who was behind its founding. Born in England in 1765, James Smithson, the illegitimate son of a British nobleman, became a dedicated scientist, deeply versed in chemistry, and well regarded for his careful micro-experiments. From this successful career in chemistry and mineralogy, he invested wisely enough to amass a reasonable fortune. But even those of us who work here know little else about James Smithson because a catastrophic fire in the Smithsonian Castle in 1865 destroyed all his papers and mineral collections, along with all his personal effects.

James Smithson as an Oxford Student, 1786, by James Roberts, Oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Ref. NPG.96.28.

During a recent trip to England, I found myself on a pilgrimage of sorts to  places significant to James Smithson, whose surprise bequest gave birth to the Institution. My first stop was Pembroke College, one of Oxford University’s smaller colleges from which Smithson graduated in 1786. Although the college is currently undergoing renovation, modernization, and physical expansion, respect for its heritage remains strong. Sitting in the common room of the College’s main hall, I had a palpable sense of Smithson’s presence and of the tradition that shaped him. Around the walls hang solemn portraits of the bearers of that tradition, the Masters of the College. Smithson, on the other hand, is a somewhat obscure presence at Pembroke. His memory is marked by a rather modest plaque on the outside wall of the entrance to the main hall; it was a gift from the Smithsonian in 1896. The Brits, it seems, are even less familiar with Smithson than we are in the United States.

I was able to view Smithson's manuscripts in the Royal Society's archives.

From Oxford, I traveled back to London, where my next stop was the Royal Society. Only twenty-two years old when he was inducted into that venerable scientific body in 1787, Smithson was its youngest member. Early on, he had set his sights on becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society, still considered an honor on a par with winning the Nobel Prize. In the Society’s archives, I saw his manuscripts reporting experiments on Tabasheer, among other chemical substances, submitted for publication in the Society’s Philosophical Transactions. I was also thrilled to read the minutes of Smithson’s induction into the Royal Society, even though he eventually had a terminal falling out with the organization.

James Smithson's induction into the Royal Society.

No one really can say why he gave his money to the United States. Some conjecture that his bitter parting of ways with the Royal Society, coupled with anxieties about his illegitimate birth, may have led him to bequeath his largesse not to England but to the United States, a country he had never seen. We have only this famously cryptic mandate: “to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” That was the long and the short of it. Yet, from this seed a large research and museum complex eventually grew. This led me naturally to the question: What would James Smithson, a chemist known solely for extremely precise analytical experiments, think of his legacy in terms of what the Smithsonian Institution is today?

Jake Andraka at the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Awards. Photo via Smithsonian Magazine.

By coincidence, only a few days after returning from my brief Smithson exploration, I attended the inaugural Smithsonian Magazine American Ingenuity Awards. This celebration of creativity in its myriad forms illustrates the modern-day Institution’s range, far beyond the highly specialized realms of chemistry pursued by Smithson. The award categories comprised nine subject areas: the Physical and Natural Sciences, Social Progress, Visual Arts, Historical Scholarship, Technology, Education, and Performing Arts.  For me, one of the most inspiring moments was the acceptance speech by high school sophomore Jack Andraka, the Youth Achievement winner, who invented a paper sensor that can detect a protein linked to pancreatic cancer (a project that also won him the grand prize at this year’s Intel Science and Engineering Fair). Bursting with youthful creative energy, Andraka told us how an uncle’s illness prompted his amazingly simple invention. All of the incredibly talented and accomplished winners, though, represented the spirit and variety of the nineteen museums and research centers that make up today’s Smithsonian. They also perfectly embodied the spirit of invention and innovation at the core of the Lemelson Center and of the Smithsonian as a whole.  I came away from the event with a much better understanding of the convergence of all forms of creativity, and heightened insight into how the disparate parts of the Smithsonian can work together toward the greater whole.

If Smithson could have traveled in time to our day, though, what would he have made of all this?  What little survives in Smithson’s own hand deals almost solely with his chemical and mineralogical research, but thanks to Heather Ewing’s recent biography The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian, we now know a great deal more about him, and we see a man and a world not all that different from our own. Uncovering a wealth of fresh evidence, much of it circumstantial but entirely convincing, Ewing argues that Smithson had a romantic soul and a broad interest in man’s place in the cosmos; she documents, for example, his fascination with pre-history and lost civilizations.

Just as important is what she notes about his era: that it was one of amazing discoveries. In Smithson’s time, chemistry was emerging as a science and the basis for a world-transforming chemical industry. A host of new gases were being isolated and electric current was revealing itself as an important new force of nature. New planets and galaxies were being discovered, while geology was undergoing a revolution that would challenge the biblical chronology of creation.

In short, it was an age of ingenuity, perhaps even rivaling our own (keeping in mind that we all tend to be technology chauvinists for our own age). Armed with Ewing’s new evidence, I feel I can say with confidence that James Smithson would have not only understood but applauded the Smithsonian’s American Ingenuity Awards and the wide-ranging institution whose spirit they represent.

From the Director: The Colorful, Kinetic World of Charles and Ray Eames

When it comes to inventive uses of color, there is hardly a more inspiring example than the contributions of the late husband-and-wife design team of Charles (1907–1978) and Ray Eames (this year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ray Kaiser Eames [1912–1988]). Working primarily as a painter before their marriage, Ray Kaiser Eames did much to infuse their shared creations, and through them our everyday lives, with color. For Ray, color was not only an aesthetic technique, but also a communications device, a means of conveying information about objects, spaces, and volumes. She had learned this from her teacher Hans Hofmann, the German-born American abstract expressionist, known for his brightly hued canvases.

Chair Designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen for the "Organic Design in Home Furnishings" Competition, designed 1940, molded plywood, wood, foam rubber, and fabric. Courtesy of Vitra Design Museum

While we owe a great deal to the Eameses for brightening and enlivening our everyday lives, they were especially influential in the world of museums. The collections of many art and design museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, boast not only of vibrantly colored plastic and fiberglass Eames chairs, but also of incredibly innovative seating like the “potato chip” chair. Its unique shape depended on new molding techniques that the Eameses developed during World War II for producing plywood splints for wounded soldiers. Lesser-known, though, are the many exhibitions that they designed for museums and world’s fairs.

The Eameses were really all about communication and information, employing design primarily as a public-education tool. In their hands, exhibitions evolved into powerful informational and educational vehicles. Their famous Mathematica exhibit, on the art of mathematics, was sponsored by IBM and debuted in 1961 at the California Museum of Science and Industry. Parts of it are still on display in science museums today, and IBM released an iPad app based on the exhibition last year. The Eameses were also instrumental in introducing films into exhibitions, regarding motion pictures as an indispensable educational technology. Their long and close relationship with IBM produced films for IBM’s pavilions at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair and the New York World’s Fair of 1964.

ay and Charles Working on a Conceptual Model for the Exhibition Mathematica, 1960, photograph. Image from Eames Office.

The Smithsonian benefited from Charles and Ray’s talents, too. One of my first encounters with the creative work of these geniuses was in the 1970s at the National Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History). Despite the passage of several decades, I still have vivid memories of an exhibition on historic toys designed by Barbara Charles from the Eames office. It was fun, whimsical, and a visual feast in its use of color. Especially memorable, however, was the accompanying short film, Toccata for Toy Trains, originally produced in 1957 by the couple themselves (Ray was given top billing). Lushly colorful, particularly in the seductive use of reds, and with a musical score by renowned film composer Elmer Bernstein, the movie was shot from the intimate perspective of real toy trains (and not scale-model trains—a significant difference). It drew you completely into the world of toys, long before Pixar came on the scene.

S. Dillon Ripley, eighth Smithsonian Secretary (1964-1984), standing in the Secretary's Parlor in the Smithsonian Institution Building in front of the portrait of Joseph Henry, first Secretary of the Smithsonian (1846-1878). Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives.

But the Eameses’ relationship with the Smithsonian was even more fundamental. According to Benjamin Lawless, the longtime design head of the National Museum of History and Technology, Charles Eames was a favorite of then–Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley. Ripley persuaded Eames to produce an hour-long film about the Institution, and, in the early 1970s, Eames in turn convinced Ripley to establish a film unit at the Smithsonian. The Eames office even sent an experienced staff member to the Smithsonian for a year to help get the unit off the ground. It became a pioneering museum film studio, known for such productions as the Emmy Award–winning film for the Smithsonian’s 1876 exhibit, designed by Bill Miner, another veteran of the Eames office.

Charles and Ray Eames and their associates brought color, motion, and life to Smithsonian exhibition halls, and helped museums in general become modern educational organizations. In all of their projects, color was a strategic tool; never did they apply hues indiscriminately. Rather, their brilliant palette spotlighted salient points of information that they wanted to convey, capturing both the eyes and minds of viewers.

To learn more about the Eameses’ style, you can visit the Eames house and studio in Los Angeles, a symphony of color and colorful objects that they collected or used in their varied projects. Their papers reside at the Library of Congress, which produced a lively online exhibit, The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention. The accompanying catalog under the same title (Harry N. Abrams, 1997) includes insightful essays about their design philosophy and widespread influence.

Technology’s Promise: The View from E42

This post is a follow up to my earlier blog about the 1942 World’s Fair, “The Greatest Fair that Never Was.”

In modern society, technology is not only a tool but a potent symbol. I recently reflected on the display of invention and technology planned for the Esposizione Universale di Roma (EUR or, more commonly, E42), the 1942 World’s Fair that was to celebrate twenty years of Mussolini’s Fascist regime but never materialized because of World War II. I noted that the fair aimed to blend technological modernity with a revival of ancient Rome. This post follows up with further details from the E42 archives on how Fascist ideologues looked to the past to glorify their future, defining the expo’s major themes.

A submitted design for the Arco dell'Impero. Photo by Art Molella.

Among the most striking, though unbuilt, symbols of E42 was the Arco dell’Impero—the Imperial Arch—conceived as a gateway to the fair and its district (the present Roman suburb of EUR). The monumental structure signified the Roman triumphal arch, one of the most distinctive architectural forms of ancient Rome. Mirroring the arches of Constantine and Titus in the Roman Forum, this interpretation at EUR’s entrance was to be a 795-foot-tall engineering marvel. The call for proposals for the structure sparked the imaginations of inventors and architects throughout Italy. Here was a chance to showcase Italian civil engineering expertise and the virtues of such new construction materials as reinforced concrete, aluminum, and chromium steel.

Among the design submissions preserved in the E42 archives was the “invention,” by one Dr. Engr. Ettore Fenderl, of a matching underground arch that securely anchored the aboveground portion while doubling the space for visitors (the idea was rejected). Other plans called for four cog railways to move visitors around the massive arch, a bar, a restaurant, and even an amusement plaza featuring a parachute drop. The arch was also meant to symbolize peace and light. Plans called for it to be illuminated at night with diffuse electric lights or perhaps in neon, “like a great rainbow originating in Rome.” It was even suggested that the arch could be used for advertising, with a gigantic screen for light shows promoting corporate products.

The Piazza Marconi obelisk. Photo by Art Molella.

A less spectacular monument, but one actually built, was an obelisk dedicated to Guglielmo Marconi, the “father of radio.” Designed by Arturo Dazzi under Mussolini’s 1937 commission, but not completed until 1960, the obelisk stands today on EUR’s Piazza Marconi. The panels on one of its faces celebrate Marconi’s life, while other panels present traditional religious imagery. Its vertical thrust arguably suggests a radio antenna and modernity. At the same time, the obelisk is one of the most ancient of emblems. Moreover, this one is in the Ethiopian style (as my colleague Harry Rand pointed out to me), making it a clear reference to Rome’s 1,700-year old Obelisk of Axum that the Italian army looted from Ethiopia in 1937 (it was repatriated in 2005.) Addis Ababa was to be the capital of ll Duce’s revived Roman Empire, proclaimed in 1936. In fact, E42 was originally scheduled to open in 1941 to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the new Empire. A great deal of meaning was packed into this one ornately carved structure.

Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The massive buildings surrounding the obelisk on Piazza Marconi exemplify Fascist rationalism, a futuristic interpretation of Roman classical architecture. As many have pointed out, EUR evokes the surrealistic paintings of the Italian futurist Giorgio de Chirico, who, along with others of his tradition, powerfully influenced modern art and architecture. Projected as the new Rome, EUR contains one of Italy’s greatest concentrations of Fascist-style buildings, a meeting ground of Ancients and Moderns.

Vinea model. Photo by Art Molella.

Another bridge to antiquity in E42 was the plan to incorporate a recent blockbuster archaeological exhibit on Roman civilization that had been organized by the Italian government in 1937 to celebrate the 2000th birthday of Caesar Augustus. With financing from FIAT, the exhibit eventually formed the core of the Museo della Civiltà Romana (Museum of Roman Civilization) that opened in 1955. The museum is known for its colorful, realistic models of Roman technology, including aqueducts, bridges, and such famous roads as the Appian Way. War technologies are heavily represented, with siege engines of various types, catapults, battering rams, and my favorite, the vinea, a movable shelter designed to protect Roman soldiers during assaults.

Model of Rome. Photo by Art Molella.

At the conclusion of the exhibit is a room-size, 1:250-scale model of the city of Rome in the age of Constantine. Depicting Rome at its maximum expansion, the model encompasses the urban area within the Aurelian Walls. In addition to its overview of Rome’s city plan, it includes exquisite replicas of the Colosseum, Circus Maximus, and other celebrated monuments. Begun in 1933 by a craftsman named Pierino Di Carlo, the model is itself a technical tour de force, consisting of some 150 irregularly shaped pieces that fit together along the roadways. The idea of encapsulating ancient Rome in a Fascist-style museum neatly sums up the strategy of E42.

As E42 was being planned, the New York World’s Fair opened in 1939, with its theme “Building the World of Tomorrow”; the Italian pavilion in fact was used to test some of the ideas for E42. Futurama, the New York fair’s memorable theme-ride sponsored by General Motors, depicted an American future characterized by automated highways and a vast network of expressways. E42’s Fascist planners also mapped a road—one that ran from the 4th century AD to the mid-20th century and beyond, in hopes of building the Appian Way to Modernity.

From Prototype, June 2012.