King Camp Gillette, the guy most of you only know for his razor company, was one hell of an individual. He was a craftsman and salesman that travelled the world off of a self made fortune; he also was a Utopian Socialist who believed all government should be run by a single corporation. He wrote several books which became guidelines to building perfect cities where the entire population of a country could live. His first city was to span the 60 miles from Buffalo to Rochester and harness the power of Niagara Falls. He called it simply “Metropolis”
While creating a perfectly structured city controlled by a single corporation reeks of turning into an Orwellian disaster, Gillette does raise some valid solutions to problems faced by any city. Although the novels were published in 1894, his discussions about infrastructure, architecture, and public space are still very relevant today.
Gillette believed in order to make a city fully habitable you needed to focus on providing five things very well. You needed to prefect proper sewage disposal, water distribution, heating and cooling, public transportation, and electronic communication. After studying various regions by their water access, topography, and resources, he settled on the Buffalo-Rochester area as the best location to build his master piece.
His writings stressed that a city could not work efficiently without a sound foundation. The foundation would be comprised of three levels of steel frames before the principle architecture was built. Each would be built above ground with a strong steel foundation built deep into the bed rock.
The first level, at ground level, would house all of the sewage, water pipes, HVAC, and electrical lines, of each building. Gillette stressed keeping public utilities in an open space instead of burying them so each utility could be easily inspected and repaired without unnecessary work. The natural slope of the land would help move fresh water in from Lake Ontario and the city’s sewage down into Lake Erie.
Level Two was the cities public transportation. The goal was to build a public rail system that connected each of the thirty-plus thousand buildings in Metropolis. By building an effective rail system, you would eliminate the need for cars (or in Gillette’s time, carriages), cutting back on pollution as well as space needed for roads.
The last level, closest to the surface, was meant to act as underground walkways that would connect the surrounding buildings, as well as storage space for food delivery, and building maintenance supplies. This level would become invaluable when the poor weather made it undesirable to travel above ground.
The foundation would run the entire plot of land 60 miles east to west and 30 miles north to south encompassing Buffalo, Rochester, and all of the land in between. Its on this foundation that over three thousand buildings would be built, large cylindrical buildings that alternated between housing, educational buildings (A), Amusement buildings (B), and building where food is stored and prepped (C). This layout would make sure every citizen is within walking distance of any service they might need.
Though his plans are impractical, especially to retrofit a modern day city. The plans he created was a direct response to Gillette traveling and seeing people without proper living conditions and access to government services such as education, food, shelter, and healthcare. He stressed public rail as a way to reduce pollution and crowded streets, and open utilities for repair and easy upgrades after seeing dirty slums around the world.
Harnessing the Power of Niagara Falls
All of the infrastructure and planning in the world means nothing if there is not a way to power the project. Gillette believed that all the problems for power could be fixed by harnessing Niagara Falls with turbines:
“The possibility of utilizing the enormous natural power resulting from the fall, from the level of Lake Erie to the level of Lake Ontario, some 330 feet is no longer the dream of enthusiasts, but is a demonstrated fact. Here is a power, which, if brought under control, is capable of keeping in continuous operation even manufacturing industry for centuries to come, and, in addition supply all the lighting;, facilities, run all the elevators, and furnish the power necessary for the transportation system of the great central city….”
Unlike the current hydraulic stations that build canals off of the portions of the falls, Gillette had an idea to work with Canada and the U.S. to build enormous turbines across the entire falls. Hundreds of pipes would be laid across 25 to thirty miles of falls, all channeling water into one of two large power stations of either side of the falls.
Gillette preferred using these large hydraulic stations rather than coal or any other form of power for two reasons. For one it the power is completely renewable energy and could operate with little work done by city citizens. It was also clean, Gillette hated how dirty and unsanitary cities had become in his time and preferred water power to coal, which produced smoke and soot.
The primary goal when designing the architecture for Metropolis was to make each public space as beautiful as possible. When building a city of such large undertaking Gillette estimated that world renowned architects would fight for the chance to build a structure that would house an entire nation. Architects would each submit their designs to a bureau of architecture then the plans would be voted on based on their beauty and uniqueness as well as there practicality and longevity. Of all the thirty to forty thousand buildings in the city, no two need be alike in artistic treatment.
“Each and every building of “Metropolis” would be a complete and distinct world of art in itself. Every color and every shade of color would be found in their ceramic treatment. In some instances, there would be a gradual dissolving from a dark shade of color at the base to an almost white at the top of the buildings. In others, the general dissolving of one tint into another would give an effect that would combine all the prismatic tints of the rainbow. In others, a single delicate tint would be the predominating feature. Here, one would look as though chiseled from a block of emerald, another from jet, another from turquoise, and another from amethyst.”
Imagine a city sprawled over three counties with massive buildings each with their own unique world renowned architecture. This would become a world wonder in itself, and encourage people to move and live in the city. Coupled with effective infrastructure and an open public space, city living not only becomes a preferable option it became the only logical residence.
While covering our city in multi colored tiles or jade and emerald is a little far fetched the basic principle of his idea remains the same, city building should be unique and beautiful, adding to the city’s environment instead of subtracting from it.
Gillette stressed ample public space between buildings, requiring at least 600 feet between each building. Because of the public transportation system, the city would not require large roads for cars, leaving the space open for small walkways, gardens, and open public space. This creates the effect of a beautiful park through the entire city.
The plans specified 150 feet of lawn around each building for open public use including sports, picnics, etc… The left over 300 feet would be filled with glass and porcelain walkways, gardens with flowers that would bloom at every season of the year. Gillette wanted to commission statues, fountains, and works of art to be distributed across the entire city for the population’s enjoyment. The goal was to engage the population of the city, as well as eliminate the dirty, closed in feeling of a typical city.
Turning all of the roads in the city into park space is by no ways feasible for an average city, but Gillette’s ideas on a public space can still be applied to modern development. The goal of any open area in the city limits should promote engagement. Blank walls, torn up parks and endless concrete only take away from the experience of a city. By stressing art, open space, and parks, you keep citizens of the city engaged.
Gillette’s proposal for these metropolis super cities seems quirky and far fetched, especially when you take into consideration his love for an all powerful government/corporation. But you have to remember that these books were written in 1894, Gillette’s extreme views were a direct response to seeing dirty, poor, unsupported cities and although our cities are in a much better place today, we can still use his books as a foundation to continue to further progress.