Even today, predictions of the future feature flying cars, Blade Runner-style advertising hoardings, and other conspicuous technology. But in the August 1925 issue of Popular Science magazine, then-president of the Architectural League of New York, Harvey W. Corbett, not only made uncannily-accurate forecasts of today’s cities, he had some design ideas which are finally beginning to become real.
Corbett’s plans, beautifully illustrated in pen and ink for the magazine piece, and dug up by Core77, show various ways of dealing with his most accurate prediction–that cities would grow ever more crowded. It seems that the prevailing view at the time was that cities would experience “decentralization,” but Corbett insisted that 1920s-era architects should instead concentrate on handling increases in population and traffic.
His designs put people first. Roads are shifted underground, down with the subways, and exist on multiple levels, with faster traffic running in deeper tunnels, and ramps to move between them. In fact, we never need see another automobile on the surface, as the parking is also buried.
Another innovation that we could do with today is a network of freight tubes to carry parcels and goods. With the popularity of online shopping, a freight network could have been a great alternative to noisy, sky-filling delivery drones. In 1925, private subway trains had been operating under New York for 20 years, but Corbett’s prediction of a network really kicked into reality 15 years later, when the City of New York bought the existing lines and folded them into its new subway system.
Most startling, accuracy-wise, is Corbett’s view of a freeway interchange. The illustration of a crossroads surrounded by looping on-ramps and feeder roads looks just like every motorway junction today.
But the best part of Corbett’s plans is their human scale. The surface of the city is reserved for cyclists and pedestrians, without the noise or paranoia caused by high-speed transport hurtling through our living spaces. Instead, streets are for humans, with spiral escalators to take them down into the transport systems.
His mixed-use buildings also mimic the human-scale city centers of many European cities, with restaurants, schools, offices, homes and even playgrounds on every block, thus avoiding office ghettoes which are empty at nights and weekends.
It’s not all so idyllic though. While Corbett’s practical utopia is even more desirable today, now that we are living with the consequences of giving our cities away to the automobile, the rest of the August 1925 issue of Popular Science contains some more menacing glimpses of our present day. Just two pages after Corbett’s future city is an article titled “Tear-Gas Bombs Rout Mob: Army Trains Police in use of War Gases.”