The Minnesota Experimental City (MXC)—a utopian plan for the city of the future that was decades ahead of its time, and yet is surprisingly little-known—was the brainchild of the urban planner and technocrat Athelstan Spilhaus. Spilhaus was a man who saw science as the solution to the problems of the world, and became a public figure presenting his ideas of utopia in everyday life through his comic strip “Our New Age.” During the mid-1960s, he conceived an ambitious plan to condense his ideas into a prototype for future cities that would be both noiseless and fumeless, accommodating America’s growing population and their by-products.
A new documentary, The Experimental City, explores the development, and ultimately, failure of the MXC’s vision for future settlements. Using retro film clips, it takes us back in time to a period where Spilhaus’ predictions of computers that can fit into your home and remote banking appeared more of a fantasy than reality. The film is directed by Chad Freidrichs (known also for his 2011 film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth) and was premiered at the Chicago Film Festival, in conjunction with the Chicago Architecture Biennial.
In proposing the MXC, Spilhaus identified America’s consumption problem and extrapolated the country’s rising population, issues that are still relevant today, and proposed a world that relied on technological solutions as a vision of the 21st century. A rural site was selected in Swatara, Minnesota, and planning began. In the MXC, a new waste management system would reprocess any waste as useable elements within the city, with buildings constructed from reusable components that made them quick and easy to assemble and disassemble for the ever-changing needs of the city.
Although now the Minnesota Experimental City may appear out of date in creating a brand new conceptual city from the top-down—see Le Corbusier‘s Ville Radieuse or Frank Lloyd Wright‘s Broadacre City for other examples in which this approach didn’t work—the documentary’s director Freidrichs thinks that the MXC shares a surprising amount in common with today’s large-scale master-planned cities:
I’ve begun more deeply researching other similar schemes that are going up today. The similarities are eerie. Songdo, South Korea is great example: if you look at the problems it’s trying to address, and the infrastructure it’s putting up, it’s really kind of shocking how similar this is to MXC. A lot of these techno/green/smart cities and neighborhoods that are popping up around the world sound like an echo from a half-century ago, and they’re even proudly using the words ‘laboratory’ and ‘experiment’ again.
Today it is almost completely forgotten, but the Minnesota Experimental City was, in many ways, emblematic of the end of society’s reliance on individuals designing our futures and the beginning of the anti-establishment cultural phenomenon. Had it been developed a decade earlier, the MXC may have had better luck in the political climate, but the underlying morals of the project are as relevant now as they were back then. Spilhaus never made it to the 21st century he always dreamed about, sadly passing away just 2 years before the millennium.