In the late 1960s, a group of scientists, city planners, architects, and inventors proposed a new city of 250,000 people who would fix urban problems through technology. Overcrowding, pollution, and sprawl would be addressed through self-driving roads, waste management reprocessing, modular housing, and underground tunnels for utilities, while a huge geodesic dome could regulate climate. Land was selected in a woodsy part of northern Minnesota, federal funding was acquired, and a 10-year construction timeline was drawn up. The idea was to start fresh with the American city, and then implement proven innovations on urban design in metropolitan areas around the country.
This is not a spoiler for the new feature-length documentary The Experimental City, but the Minnesota Experimental City (MXC) was never built. Optimistic dreams of the 1960s waned, and the people of Swatara, Minnesota, were not thrilled about having their local landscapes dug up for a space age metropolis and its nuclear power plant. Even in Minnesota, it became a footnote in midcentury history.
Experimental City director Chad Freidrichs delved into archives of audio recordings, film reels, photographs, and conceptual drawings to revisit MXC, and interviewed its participants and protestors. The documentary premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival in October 2017.
“I discovered MXC’s inventor, Athelstan Spilhaus, while researching the topic of retrofuturism — the study of what people in the past felt the future would be like,” Freidrichs told Hyperallergic. Spilhaus was the visionary behind MXC, and something of a retrofuture polymath, working in oceanography, meteorology, geophysics, comic illustration, and as the Dean of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology. Born in South Africa, he became an American citizen in 1946. His interest in improving life through technology went back to when he was a student at MIT in the 1930s and invented a “comfortometer” that would measure if you were comfortable or not. Throughout the film are panels from his midcentury Our New Age comic strip, which vibrantly predicted flying cars and accessible space travel, and illustrated how inventions of the past were often just as fantastic when first introduced.
“Shortly after discovering Spilhaus, I found this largely unknown project that he dreamed up called the Minnesota Experimental City,” Freidrichs said. And the project intrigued him in its personalities and ambitions.