The Importance of Imaginative Urban Design

In my view, humanity has a lot of work ahead to create more wonderful, sustainable and environmentally just cities. 

In 1988 I worked for General Motors Advanced Concepts Center in California. While I enjoyed the vehicle design assignments, I retained an interest in new prefab housings concepts that leveraged the automobile manufacturing technology to create inexpensive, efficient, and wonderful dwellings. One day I went to SCI-Arc, the leading architecture school based in Los Angeles, and sought out a professor with experience/interest in this area. I was told to speak with a professor there: Glen Small.

I met with Small in his studio in Venice California. While we initially talked about prefab housing designs, he then began to show me his many amazing concepts for new green cities, and I was completely blown away. I would come to have a number of meetings with Glen, and every time I left his studio to drive home, Los Angeles never looked more ugly, dirty, corrupt and frankly sad after seeing Glen’s visions of how it all could be much better.

Glen’s signature project is called “Biomorphic Biosphere.” I don’t know of anything proposed or built like the scale of this project. The design for a new city is a megastructure that looks like it was completely formed by nature, has a footprint as large as Los Angeles, and rises to 5,000 feet high. It’s a complete system with energy, food, water and transportation integrated into the design. It could be built in stages and “grow” as needed. The transportation element consists of soft-skinned round “balls” people travel in—something like a big beach ball designed for safety. It’s remarkably different than our cities today, but it could be realized.

Closer to reality, Glen created another project that was ahead of its time, the Green Machine. This was to be a vertical trailer park for LA. He devised a structure roughly 6-stories high that would hold Airstream trailers on multiple levels. At the base was a park and playground, and he even designed in a slide for the people on the higher floors to have a quick and fun way to get to the ground level. This project was close to being built, but national politics changed during the development of the project, and ultimately killed the funding for it.

In 2015, when I was teaching at College for Creative Studies in Detroit and living downtown, I thought more about Glen’s bold visionary green ideas for that city. Glen had attended the Cranbrook Academy of Art in the metro Detroit area for architecture school and came to work on Detroit’s future for a number of years. There he created his Vertical City concepts, and one iteration envisioned covering all the tall buildings in downtown Detroit under a massive greenhouse. (Glen points to the Frei Otto Exhibit Tent in Germany as proof this idea is feasible.)

It’s clear Glen Small thinks too big in order to have a large architecture practice and lots of fame. He really let himself dream as openly as possible, for a more ecological and just future. But he also has opinions and would always say exactly what he thought. This was not a good approach for being political and lobbying for his projects.

In my view, humanity has a lot of work ahead to create more wonderful, sustainable and environmentally just cities. There is so much to learn from Glen’s tireless pushing of the envelope. Big design firms, such as AECOM, ARUP, or the numerous consulting firms such as McKinsey, all present themselves as smart city experts; they completely lack the vision that Glen Small has had for so many years.

Do yourself a favor, and spend some time on Glen’s website (smallatlarge.com). Although Glen tends to have a sour attitude at times, given that society has not embraced his bold ideas, it’s a bit deserved in my opinion.