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Could a Saharan Super-Skyscraper Be the Future of Urban Living?

How self-contained vertical cities can put our utopian ideals into action.

Artistic rendering on the Sand Tower

Earlier this year, the innovative French architectural design firms Nicholas Laisné Associés and OXO Architectes released conceptual plans for something called La Tour des Sables (The Sand Tower). The proposed project is a massive, self-contained, self-sustaining 1,400-foot tall city-tower to be constructed in the heart of Morocco’s slice of the Sahara desert. A mixture of 600 housing units, an equal amount of public green and recreational space, and even more office units (not to mention the hotel, restaurants, bars, and meteorological observatory on top of the tower), it could contain well over a thousand people. While the Sand Tower may be uniquely ambitious, the concept of a self-contained city-structure is a longtime utopian dream, and one that is becoming increasingly more relevant as the pressures of urbanization and environmental degradation become increasingly dire.

Plans for the Sand Tower include a ground-to-roof vertical farm in the atrium to provide food. They also outline a recyclable rainwater collection system, created to capture 45,000 cubic meters of liquid per year using an adaptive façade. The flexible system is designed to react to weather patterns, providing optimum shade, sun exposure to solar cells, and rain collection. Ultimately, the architects believe they can pump that water into drinking reservoirs, geothermal wells (to generate sustainable steam power), and irrigation for the vertical farm. The result, ideally, will be a post-modern, man-made perpetual oasis, sustaining a bastion of luxurious, self-contained civilization in the heart of a desolate wasteland.

It’s a project that sounds simultaneously utopian (a sustainable future of stylish, urban living) and dystopian (trapping humanity within self-contained cells in a hostile world), which makes it hard to know how to feel about the plans. Quite a few people (take this Reddit thread, for example) seem disturbed or bemused by the project, throwing out references to the megacities of a post-apocalyptic Judge Dredd world and the hive mind autocracy of a termite mound. For those who do fear the Sand Tower’s reality, there’s no need to worry immediately. Although the designers did include a project start date of 2025 (and a 50 year construction timeline) on their proposal, there are no real orders to build the structure just yet. For now at least, it’s just a thought experiment in high-density, sustainable living in extreme environments.

Shared living space in the proposed Sand Tower

But this Saharan monstrosity isn’t entirely a pipe dream either. The longstanding movement to build self-contained city-structures dates back over a hundred years and has actually seen some prototypes put into the works recently. It’s also a continuation of the quest to create fully self-sustaining communities, adding a little technological advancement and flourish on top of previous efforts. Given the ever-growing demand for vertical, low-impact cities, it seems likely that the trends the Sand Tower builds upon will continue, generating real-life projects in the future that incorporate elements of this speculative project.

Visions of city-buildings go back to at least 1895. The concept blossomed in the mid-20th century with a series of projects that would cost billions of dollars and take hundreds of years to create, fueled by gumdrop visions of futuristic, sterile efficiency. These uniform plans, which often advocated bulldozing entire historic (but illogically built) cities, may essentially be at the root of much of our wariness of the building-city as something essentially dystopic and inhuman.

In recent years, however, the building-as-city movement has shifted from a robotic obsession with progress for the sake of progress to a dire concern with fitting exponentially growing populations into cities, while reducing the harm of greenhouse gasses, mass transit systems, and the threat of urban sprawl. There’s been more space, from this perspective, to examine and recreate the things that make life livable—without a sense of organic fluidity and movement between spaces, living in one of these compounds could feel like living in a cage. To this end, most new proposals for vertical city projects involve irregular shapes, idiosyncratic green spaces, and complexes of interconnected (yet still highly efficient and united) buildings, rather than one massive structure.

Close-up of the Sand Tower's helicopter landing pads

The urgent environmental and civic prompts behind these new projects, as well as their focus on livability, has resulted in the construction of a few prototypes, like Sky City, which began construction on the outskirts of Changsha, China in 2013. Sky City is being made to host at least 4,450 families, containing everything one would need in one energy-efficient, 220-story complex (featuring 90 percent parkland). Unfortunately, the Sky City plans seem a little over-ambitious to be completed in their current state.

Like Sky City, most self-sustaining and self-contained building-city projects have been limited to date in their scale and success. But the escalation of urbanization (by 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population will live in cities) and the need to fit all of these people into existing cities with minimal smoggy sprawl seems likely to increase demand for these kinds of ideas. China has already signaled their willingness to explore what people are now calling “sustainable, vertical cities” through the Sky Tower and other similar projects. As the pressure builds, they may lead the charge in solving the flaws of these city-structures, producing something more akin to what the Sand Tower envisions in the heart of high-demand, high-density centers like Beijing or Shanghai.

Some urban planners, like Anthony Wood of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, see the escalation of sustainable, vertical cities as inevitable given the world’s trajectory. In 2014, he explained to The Guardian that he sees proof of his theories all over pop culture, saying:

“It is no accident that every science-fiction film, from Metropolis to Blade Runner through to Star Wars, envisages the dense, multi-city of the future. The reason is because it completely makes sense.”

Even if the Sand Tower never gets built, it’s another step in the quest to make sustainable building-cities a reality. It builds on previous, more modest sustainable towers in its mimicry of nature and organic forms, as well as its rainwater collection and recycling systems. It’s a thought experiment that will likely be realized in piecemeal and dispersed forms, and in increasingly viable and desirable projects through the coming decades. And who knows? If environmental and demographic factors push us far enough, we might see a version of the Sand Tower even sooner than that.

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