The Ultima Tower is an arcology concept for San Francisco by Eugene Tssui an architect. Some call him a visionary. If the Ultima Tower concept is emblematic of his work, I think virtuouso is a more appropriate term because while his work is beautiful it is more an expression of the unsustainable status quo than that of progress toward a sustainable future.

   I see nothing visionary about the Ultima Tower other than its scale. It is intentionally designed like a termite mound, a structure of a community insect, the entire population of which is organized in castes under a king and queen. I think a coral reef is a far better biological structure to use as a model given that it is built over time by generations each doing their own thing side by side rather than requiring and serving centralized control.

   We currently languish under centralized control. Very few people out of billions control most of the world's resources. Our economic and political systems serve the few who have wealth. Urban development reflects this with public policies designed to disrupt and displace "undesirables" - undesireable that is to those wishing to profit from market-rate development projects, and rent taking.

   How does a concept like the Ultima Tower become reality without centralized control? The Ultima Tower is a massive object, a single work of one visionary in search of funding which completely disregards the interests of all of the people living in San Francisco. A large portion of the city would need to be wiped out just to accommodate the footprint of this 2 mile high tower, and then the construction process would widen the foot print further, with staging areas for materials and equipment, traffic through the streets and ports for moving that stuff, housing for workers, the impact of dust and debris on the surrounding areas, etc.... All of that would not only impact the city but the entire Bay Area for decades. Doesn't the path to completion for something like this require appealing to a very rich and powerful individual or small group capable of directing public institutions to make it happen? And require that these rich people coerce the population into accepting the disruption to their lives? If the people who want this project are lucky, a charismatic leader bamboozles most of the population into unifying around this vision, but that has even more problems.

   Also given the realities of urban development and corruption in our late-stage capitalist system, a project like the Ultima Tower looks to me like a monument to gentrification - the planned and managed criminalization and displacement of the working poor in order to serve the interests of the wealthy few. Gentrification is the bread and butter of run of the mill high-rises now. Building a bigger one for an entire city in order to shrink the footprint of the city does not shrink all of the other problems inherent to such types of development. Instead it probably magnifies them.

   I am unimpressed with what I see.

   Perhaps I am wrong and thus mischaracterizing this project. Perhaps. But the tower also appears to be a fixed rather than dynamic structure just like any other contemporary high-rise, so there is little else besides its scale to differentiate it from every other, albeit smaller, tower. And yet within this rigid structure it locks an entire city. Setting aside all of my other criticisms, putting everyone in a single structure courts catastrophic failure.

   This post is just a bookmark on this thought. I have ideas about what our cities and buildings should look like, and I should get to formalizing my own thoughts on the high-rises/arcologies of the future. In summation, I think large buildings should be thought of as infrastructure like a public street arranged vertically rather than as a very large private enclosure. These are vast projects requiring many people to work on them; so they should entirely serve the public, and more importantly be controlled and managed by the public. In light of this their structure would probably better serve people if it acted as scaffolding for a collection of modular, semi-independent sub-structures rather than as one massive thing. It is far easier for small teams to manage and modify many small pieces independently than for an entire city of people to coordinate and focus all their efforts on one huge thing. Again a coral reef appears to be a better biological model than a termite mound. I wonder then how a massive structure built out of independent pieces could remain standing, or if the super structure itself would have to be designed to evolve over time, piecemeal, but still be a single albeit growing structure built through accretion. I would need to collaborate with engineers. But first I think the idea needs to be formalized and clarified, to become something that others could work with, and make their own. And in addition to the physical aspects of the structure there are issues of how to finance something which does not serve the rich. Public banking and finance is needed. I think worker run and owned enterprises structured around a public charter would also be required. But anyway... the concept is needed first. The how can follow, and I am sure there are many experts from their various fields more knowledgeable about how to implement such a thing than I. That is really the point of this post.

   Centralized control impoverishes us, restricts our genius, and coerces are work away from what we all agree needs to be done. Other patterns of organization which maximize the collective power of human potential are needed. And in a project like this, envisioning how to restructure our cities for example, many people already have expertise on a number of details. So working together in a collaborative process on a shared vision would be a good practice run. Rather than a bunch of interns cranking away on a single visionary's big idea - which in my opinion is not a radical idea at all, but simply going big, doubling down on the status quo.

This post was inspired by an article in the Express:
Architect Eugene Tssui Might Be the Most Interesting Man in the East Bay