Megalopolis (1939–1979)

Diellëza Tahiri
10 min readSep 27, 2022

This period is a continuity of Metropolis, it did not have an industrial revolution to influence economy, mentality, and architecture as it happened for the previous era. It will still use the same tools, the same industry but what is different, is the mentality of people. Megalopolis is the period of huge social changes that will trigger new philosophies, new beliefs; will enhance creativity, art, culture, and most importantly, freedom! The second world was the deadliest conflict in human history, resulting in 70 to 85 million catastrophes, with more civilians than military people killed. Millions of people died due to genocides, like Holocaust, deliberate death from starvation, massacres, and disease. The air warfare played a big role in the conflict, including strategic bombing and nuclear weapons that left a lot of cities destroyed (Berlin, Tokyo) and nearly on the edge of complete vanishing (Hiroshima, Nagasaki). The humankind had never experienced such a terror, whose consequences in people’s mentality will be studied by philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, theists. They began to connect the war with rationalism and industry of monopolist metropolis and asking themselves how is it possible for something that was meant to make life easier (machines), to be used for killing people? Rationalization, technology, and science can really be dehumanizing and self-destructive.

Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland (image: Hulton Archive, 1945)

The moral crisis caused by this terrific tragedy of the Nazi Regime, brought a completely new mentality which philosophers call existentialism. A simple explanation is: nothing matters except your physical matter of existence, thereof there is no god, no spiritual force to guide you except for yourself. As Sartre says:

“Life has no meaning a priori… It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.”

or as Heidegger raises a pragmatic question:

“Why are there beings at all, instead of Nothing?”

With this radical change of mentality, comes a change of politics and therefore, a change in economy. Now government will become powerful and will try to balance the social classes, circulating the money from the bourgeois to the poor by making them pay taxes according to the wealth and providing better life conditions for working class. The Welfare State, which is based upon the principles of equal opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for citizens unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life, is a successful outcome of the new governance, and can be seen as one of the most humanist decision in the history of humankind. Welfare as a matter of fact, someway influenced by existentialism, was not centering around efficiency and rationalism but mostly around social justice and sensibility. People have changed, and so has the purpose of life.

A similar philosophy at the end will reflect in architecture, and urban planning. In comparison to metropolis, the city centers will begin to shrink while the peripheries will grow to a point where different cities of diverse sizes, will merge with one another, and thus create one huge region that will be called a Megalopolis.

A creative illustration by Cedric Price, shows the evolution of the city, “from its origins in the mists of time up until fairly recently, the urban form resembled a hard-boiled egg.”

Cedric Price: The city as an egg

With this reverse growth and extremely huge cities, the importance will shift to peripheries and will fade from the historic centers that sometimes were completely demolished and replaced by new functions. On the other hand, peripheries will be densely inhabited by two type of people: the working class that will move from ordinances to social housing state and the middle class which will move to the garden city. The previous decades of war, political and economic issues, had left many cities in terrible conditions, especially the centers where you could find shanty towns and still people living in buildings like mietskasernes. In megalopolis, humanism will take over monopolism and the working class will be provided housing in newly built peripheries, where huge immigration happened. Oddly enough yet necessary, behind this social housing architecture the idea was existentialism while the tools were still fordist/taylorist and efficiency.

left image: Pruitt-Igoe, St.Louis (1954) ; right image: Levittown, Long Island (1946)

As for the middle class, which was constantly blooming and growing, they would like to live in suburbs, depicting the garden city concept. The United States would surely be the host of this new urban development, with prefabricated and affordable single-family houses for the middle class.

Levittown located in Long Island, New York is one of the first truly mass-produced suburb and is widely regarded as the archetype for postwar suburbs in the US. Initially, it was proposed for veterans of World War II after they returned home in 1947–1951. As well as a symbol of the famous “American Dream”, Levittown would also become a symbol of racial segregation in the States. Before the sales began, the agents were aware that no applications from black families would be accepted. As a result, American veterans who wished to purchase a home in Levittown were unable to do so if they were Black or Jewish.

Nantucket model, Levittown, Long Island (1946)

As architecture, the houses were cheap and designed typically using the same tools, of fordist/taylorist principles: research on typical spatial organization, prefabricated construction, two or three home typologies, and mass production.

On another note, the shrinking centers, in particular those areas where working class used to live, were the main focus of the so-called Urban Renewal Programs. Ironically, these “ideally positive” programs sometimes operated under corrupted directives: first, they demolished buildings of important heritage to re-accommodate working class and second, they did not build social housing for them as promised but cultural, commercial centers instead. This phenomena were present primarily in the United States, and then in Europe as well.

The 1960s are the astonishing peak of megalopolis, representing an absolutely rigid culture, highly demanding of greater individual freedom, wanting to break free of the social constraints of the previous age through extreme revolutions. The World War II had brought a huge leveling of social classes in which the surplus of the old feudalism disappeared. And now the educated society, with open-minded aspiration and visions inflamed a new beginning of counterculture and revolution in social norms about music, sexuality, drugs, clothing, education, gender, race, and civil rights.

The Night of the Barricades, Paris (1968)(image:Gökşin Sipahioğlu

Notable events, protests and revolts will make the change what we live today, such as The Paris Riots of 1968, Woodstock Festival of 1969, Gay Liberation Front march of 1969, Bra Burning -protest against Miss America in 1968, etc.

Woodstock, New York (1969)(image:Henry Diltz)
Gay Liberation Front march, New York (1969)(image: Diana Davies)

Architects from now on will not decide alone on how and where people live. Advocacy planning and participatory process will begin to apply in urban and architectural project in scope of multidisciplinary approaches and multicriteria analysis.

Along with this, the gender question as well will evolve as now women will be heard in scientific studies, sociology, journalism, and thereof in architecture and urbanism.

One very influential character is the brilliant Jane Jacobs, a journalist from New York, who understood cities as functioning organisms that relied on diversity and complexity. She opposed large-scale urban renewal programs that affected entire neighborhoods areas and built freeways through inner cities. She was an absolute heroic figure that still inspires our today open-minded society:

“Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas need old buildings. Cities need old buildings so badly that it is probably impossible that vigorous streets and districts could grow without them.”

Jane Jacobs (1961)(image: Phil Stanziola)

Parallel to social revolts of the 60s, the world of architecture experienced theoretical protests as well. Many Italian and English avant-garde architectural groups strongly opposed the early modernist architecture of famous figures including Le Corbusier.

They created the “Radical Design Movement” consisting of Archizoom, Superstudio, Studio Alchimia in Italy and Archigram in the United Kingdom. Their aim was to “prevent modernism from becoming a sterile and safe orthodoxy by its adherents”, through seductive vision of a glamorous future machine age; however, social and environmental issues were ignored by the architects.

“No-Stop City” by Archizoom, is a radical analysis of architecture and design projects, offering a model for “an immaterial city without quality, a city dedicated only to the continuous flow of information, technical networks, markets and services; where architecture disappears in a pure “urban semiosphere”, free of all symbolic value”.

“Plug-in City” by Archigram, is another utopic project against metropolis, of a hypothetical fantasy city, containing modular residential units that “plug in” to a central infrastructural mega machine. The works of Archigram suggested a nomadic way of life and, more particularly, a liberation from the modernist “suburbia”.

Archigram (Peter Cook): Plug-in City (1963)

These attempts to change architecture of this period were not in vain. They inspiried many contemporary projects later, like the famous Pompidou Centre by Rogers and Piano, early Norman Foster works and Future Systems.

MEGALOPOLITAN LANDSCAPES

The second part of the Debate on Sustainability will continue in the megalopolis period and they will realize mistakes in their previous approaches towards sustainability. Starting with Mumford who will boldly criticize what he once defended, the Garden City. Before the War, the concept of garden city was used by bourgeois only, meaning it was not common. On the contrary, after the war and growth of middle class, peripheries will be home to hundreds of garden cities or also known as suburban residences or suburbia. This failure on sustainability, explains the essence of megalopolis concept. Certainly, adapting nature’s logic to city planning is the opposite of sustainability:

First, in terms of urban planning, such suburbia model occupies a great surface of land with an actual low density of people living there in comparison to the smaller but denser historic cities; it also does not contemplate any kind of spatial hierarchy considering streets, squares, public spaces, walking paths and recreation areas, the very essential elements that make a city alive.

Second, the architectural design of houses in suburbs in such monotonous semblance, lacks the sense of identity, soul and free-will, encouraging even a humorous human homogeneity and yes, a dehumanizing social segregation on racist and religious basis (case of Levittown). Cities in order to be sustainable, should be mixed, dense and compact; provide public transport instead of highways for cars, thereof the debate mixed, dense and compact; provide public transport instead of highways for cars, thereof the debate on sustainability will focus on shifting to historic city model instead of garden city.

Bertraud and Richardson (2004)

This comparison between these two models shows pretty clearly the huge mistake of the approaches on sustainability during metropolis age that sadly speaking, continued to spread during megalopolis as well.

Another approach beside the historic city concept, is “urban entropy”, which originates from thermodynamics studies and information theories. It relies on the idea that certain processes are irreversible or impossible and describes the structure or behavior of different systems as measures of the molecular disorder and randomness of these systems. When applied in urban systems, entropy processes can be found in the failures of garden city concept to suburban developments of megalopolis, with effusive, low-density, and broad urban growth that we call, urban sprawl.

Unfortunately, urban sprawl will be present even in the contemporary age of today. This phenomenon must be detected and prevented in order to achieve urban sustainability. Considering systemic paradigms, in the light of the previous assumptions, the city can be approached as a dynamic and complex system which changes and develops in space and time, constantly it moves and evolves “within itself”. However, today new procedures are being developed to plan sustainable cities which, in a circular process, regulate this spontaneous evolution and ensure that entropy is kept within a range defined by the minimum value, below which the system becomes vulnerable and unstable, and the maximum value, above which the system becomes unsustainable.

Vernacular architecture is one different idea that came to the minds of architects and urban planners during the 60s. No matter how efforts they had spent to govern the development of cities, society has always been there shaping the cities without architects, which actually proves to have very sustainable features and values. Disregarding “the controlled city growth” of western countries, most countries of Middle East and Latin America were growing in very informal ways: shanty towns in Pakistan or Favelas in Brazil and what is interesting is how self-sufficient, creative, humble, and yet of common-sense they are. Many architects like Bernard Rudofsky, John Turner and Christopher Alexander considered visiting and analyzing such places where they would get inspired to write and initiate a humbler approach to architecture and planning reflected by diverse patterns occurred.

Occasionally, such new methodologies will be seen in projects as PREVI, Lima in 1968 and later in metabolism architecture.

Christopher Alexander: A pattern language (1977)
Kurokawa-Kikutake-Maki: PREVI, Lima (1968)

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