One competing futurist sets the Windy City a-sail.
By Paula Feigum
If Frank Lloyd Wright had been asked to envision his Chicago 100 years later, what might he have described? Even as an adept futurist, could he have predicted the hastening effects of climate change—even amid the heady triumphs of the Industrial Revolution—then redesigned an entire infrastructure accordingly?
As impossible as such predictions might seem, this was exactly the competition brief recently presented to eight top Chicago firms by The History Channel to highlight its series Engineering An Empire. With a conviction that civilizations are transformed through architecture, the sponsors asked entrants to contemplate and design every aspect of life in the “City of the Future.”
Valerio Dewalt Train Associates, partnering with engineering group ARUP, received high marks for their innovative use of bio-fabrics and thermo-chromatic skins. For the allotted seven days, the team probed several alternate futures, with the transition from petroleum to bio-chemical as their first assumption. Ignited by this paradigm shift, they sought inspiration from the efficient structures of nature and focused on a scenario that essentially splits the metropolitan area in two: the narrowly defined “Central Area,” representing a sector slightly larger than today’s Loop District, and the “Decentralized City,” where most citizens work and reside within their homes.
Inside the Central Area, which is reserved exclusively for leisure and cultural experiences in this design solution, an augmented infrastructure relies on a network of transparent thermo-chromatic skins covering its full expanse to protect existing structures—a major step toward conservation—and to collect power for the metropolis. Depending on the location of the seasonal sun, this bioengineered material alternately vents heated air out of supporting wind collection towers while providing evaporative cooling, or traps and recirculates warmed air for increased heat transmission during colder months. Such bio-fabrics, referred to here as “skins” to reflect their natural predecessors, could elevate urban areas from gluttonous energy consumers to generous providers.
Similar innovations make daily life greener—literally—for residents of the Decentralized City, too. As simple as planting one’s garden in spring, the “Bio-Chem House” represents a new generation of kit homes. Like Jack’s famous beanstalk, hearty bio-engineered trees that grow a staggering 15m–18m in a single growing season are planted along a dwelling’s proposed footprint. An on-site crew levels off the encircling trees in autumn, lays a geothermal mat for radiant-style efficiency, and drapes a solar blanket of photovoltaic fabric over the entire structure. In a mere three days, this enveloping bio-fabric contracts in the sun to form a waterproof insulating barrier, much like plastic wrap shrinks with a hair dryer, and immediately provides electrical power to the family inside. The entirely reconfigurable floor plan is intended to adapt on a moment’s notice from home office to entertainment center to sleeping quarters.
Although Joe Valerio’s visionary team did not win the competition, its optimistic solution “to clothe, shelter and restore the planet” while providing essential social and economic structures to a thriving Chicago 2107 is as elegant as nature herself. For these contemporary futurists, further innovations in architectural fabrics are the mayoral key to the “City of the Future.”