Cities from science fiction films are often presented as comprehensive and self-contained structures, but how feasible is it to build an entire city in a building? Closed cities have become narrative shorthand for futuristic settlements in science fiction.
They are self-contained habitats, possessing all basic infrastructure, including energy production, food production, waste management, and water.
The concept of arcology – a term that combines architecture and ecology – was proposed by the architect Paolo Soleri in 1969, as he sought to combine construction with ecological philosophy.
A year later, Soleri began work on Arcosanti, an experimental city in America that demonstrated his concepts. Science fiction, in turn, may have inspired some real-world variants. The Line proposed by Saudi Arabia is presented as a huge smart city that could house nine million people inside a single building 200 meters wide, stretching 170 km and 500 meters high.
The Line would be powered by solar energy and wind turbines, but would not be fully self-sufficient, as food and other supplies would still be needed by the residents and would have to be provided from outside sources. Some arcology-like structures already exist.
For example, Antarctic research bases are relatively self-sufficient communities, largely due to their remoteness. Environmental protection also means that they must be self-sustaining. McMurdo Station provides housing for approximately 3,000 researchers and support staff.
However, the station still requires significant supplies of food and fuel each year.
Can we actually build an arcology?
The size of such a structure would require massive foundations to support its weight. "You can build almost anything within reason," says structural engineer Monika Anszperger of BSP Consulting.
"The loadings would be massive, but nothing is unachievable. It will just cost more to build the foundations for it." The biggest challenge caused by the height of the building is the effect of wind. Wind loads are of little concern for a typical house, but colossal towers, such as the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, must take into account wind flow and the resulting eddies.
It is hard to imagine how arcologies could be economically viable
As the effects of climate change become more apparent, the materials from which cities are built could change. Carbon emissions from the cement industry exceed those from the aviation sector.
One of the alternative building materials can be solid wood: an engineered product made of layered wood panels that are bonded together. While building an arcology is theoretically possible, at least from a structural perspective, it would require inventive engineering to ensure the sustainability of the required energy production, food production and waste recovery.