Frank Lloyd Wright got the future of cities wrong

By | 4 minute read | October 16, 2017

The Illinois rendering. Image via Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

A mile-high tower: Buildable? Possibly. Practical? Definitely not — especially in 1956, when Frank Lloyd Wright presented his vision for The Mile High Illinois on this very day.

The proposal featured 528 floors serviced by 76 elevators, which he said would be “atomic powered.” Wright had no client and no site. He did, however, have drawings and sketches, one of which, at 1/16 inch scale, was more than 25 feet tall.

As a vision of the future, it was a tantalizing proposal. In practical terms, however, The Illinois simply wasn’t doable. While modern skyscrapers are indeed getting taller and taller, today’s visionary building design is less about height and more about data-driven sustainability and energy efficiency.

So why aren’t mile-high skyscrapers defining features of our skylines today? Some reasons are obvious, like massive wind load and a massive shadow. There’s also safety to consider. “A mile high tower is tough from a life safety point of view,” architect Ronnette Riley said in a phone interview.

The taller you go, the more elevators you need. But “people don’t want to be waiting forever,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, architect and Columbia University professor. “Suddenly you’re building a tower of elevators. At some point, it stops making sense.”

The tallest building in the world today is Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Bill Baker, its structural engineer, has studied Wright’s design throughout the years: “It had some good ideas. And some ideas that weren’t quite so good,” he said in in a phone interview. Wright’s taproot structural system — burrowing one central mast into the ground — wouldn’t have worked, Baker said.

But Wright did try to work out some of the technology. His plans got down into details as tiny as anchor bolts, Baker said. Wright also recognized he’d need technical help, listing names of academics, structural engineers and researchers on one of his drawings.

So why did Wright, known for his residential work and love of the American prairie and its horizontality, suddenly shoot straight up?

For one, there was the prospect for media attention — and the project earned lots of it. “He shocked the industry,” said IBM Watson IOT for Buildings’ Claire Penny. More importantly, though, the proposal “got people thinking about tall buildings in the future.”

Wright loved the American landscape and disliked cities. His vision of the future was oriented towards suburbs and cars, with people moving away from cities. But Wright was pointing towards a supertall future that didn’t come to pass, said Chakrabarti.

Instead, cities are moving to a way of life that existed before the 20th century — bringing humans together instead of sprawling out and away from each other. Today’s technology, said Chakrabarti, is crafting a future that’s more village-like than megalithic.

Imagine a beautiful Italian hill town with tight intimate streets — the stuff of Instagram dreams. Modern fire trucks can’t fit down those streets, which is why American towns widened their streets, sometimes at the detriment of sidewalks, creating communities only accessible via cars.

Frank Lloyd Wright presents The Mile High Illinois at the Sherman House Hotel in Chicago | October 16, 1956

In our new future, small, emission-less, autonomous vehicles could easily navigate through narrow twisty streets. And the future of buildings, a crucial element of any city? That too is all about data—both for the building itself, and the people inside.

Claire Penny’s work at Watson IoT centers on two elements: building efficiency and employee happiness.

Just as in manufacturing, aggregating and understanding data can improve operations and efficiency in a building over time. That, combined with data on building costs, can be highly useful to building developers. Monitoring and measuring individual building components, and taking care of them before they wear out or break, is fiscally smart.

As buildings get smarter, they’ll recapture water, and even regenerate power. Data can help translate that into better energy efficiency and sustainability. Data can also examine how people use the space. How productive are they? Can they quickly find the information they need? Are they happy in the building? “How do people flow?” Penny said.

Retail too is reinventing itself. Architect Ronnette Riley said her grandfather used to shop in a retail store with a centrally located bar, where he’d look forward to having a drink while getting measured for a suit. Today, she said, shopping trends are again moving back to in-store experiences. “Old ideas are new again,” Riley said.

Included in the notes of the black-and-white sketch for the Mile High Tower: Total about 100,000 people

Sixty-one years ago, Wright spoke of fitting 100,000 people and 15,000 cars into a structure that jutted far into the sky. In today’s architectural future, the human experience is front and center, and visionary buildings are ones that consider their people and purpose, and how tech and data can support both. In our version of futurism, said Chakrabarti, that means we’re using technology to connect us back to our humane roots.

“Technology should free us to spend more time with our loved ones,” Chakrabarti said. “It’s something that makes our lives better.”