Minnesota Experimental City: the 1960s town based on a comic strip

It had cars on rails, 100% recycling and a nuclear power station in the centre, all covered by a massive dome. So what went wrong with Athelstan Spilhaus’s vision of the future?

If Minnesota Experimental City had been a roaring success, you’d probably have heard of it. Perhaps you’d even be living there. You’d also have heard of its chief designer: Athelstan Spilhaus. The sci-fi name sounds too on-the-nose to be true, but Spilhaus was real and so, for a time, was his utopian brainchild – at least on paper. Originally from South Africa, by way of MIT, Spilhaus was a postwar polymath in the vein of Buckminster Fuller.

He seems to have been an expert in everything from engineering to urban planning to atmospheric science to oceanography. And, like Fuller, he believed that science and technology could solve most of humankind’s problems. If we could send a human into space, we could do anything. Spilhaus proposed such solutions weekly in his future-science comic-strip series Our New Age, which was widely syndicated in US newspapers from 1957 to 1973. Getting such visions off the paper turned out to be a different story, but an instructive one, as told in new documentary The Experimental City, directed by Chad Freidrichs.

South African-American geophysicist and oceanographer Athelstan Spilhaus in 1962. Photograph: CBS via Getty Images

Spilhaus loved the mechanics of systems – but he was no architect. Photographs: Ron Galella/WireImage/Unicorn Stencil Doc Films

At one point, the MXC was to be covered in a giant glass geodesic dome. Image: Unicorn Stencil Doc Films

Clockwise from top : the futuristic city logo; a protest by Swatara residents and the isolated woodland location chosen for the city. Photographs: Unicorn Stencil Doc Films

Related: How to build a city from scratch: the handy step-by-step DIY guide

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