Johns Hopkins University

Fall 2008
Vol. 6, No.1


Student Research from the Field

Worth A Surf


Expert Opinion

Research Briefs

Classroom Encounters

>Techno Roots of Urban Edens

Student Playwright Finds Success in Failure

Music from the Material World

Research Rewarded

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Techno Roots of Urban Edens

The Industrial Revolution modernized many aspects of daily life, provided jobs for millions, and made people rich. But it was not kind to cities nor to many of their citizens. By the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had ushered in urban pollution and poverty in cities throughout the world. Surely, something needed to be done.

The solution, for some thinkers, was a new kind of city, one that combined the best of town and country. An outgrowth of a utopian "garden city" envisioned by Ebenezer Howard in 1898, these new 20th-century planned cities were designed in conjunction with large technological projects—such as the creation of the atomic bomb (Oak Ridge, Tenn.) or the manufacturing of rayon (Torviscosa, Italy). As the idea took off, these urban Edens sprang up across the world in places as far-flung as Bomber City, Mich., and Ciudad Guayana, Venezuela.

Robert Kargon, a Hopkins history of science professor who has long been interested in the study of technology and modernity, explores their evolution in Invented Edens: Techno-Cities in the Twentieth Century (MIT Press, 2008).

"The idea was in part to remedy the evils of big technology in cities," says Kargon, who co-wrote the book with Arthur P. Molella of the Smithsonian Institution. But paradoxically, "Their solution was more technology or a different kind of technology."

While the reasons for building these new cities varied, some were created as a way of upholding a government's idea of the ideal citizen, says Kargon. He notes Norris, Tenn., envisioned by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and built by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1934, as a way to combat the Great Depression and get people "out of dead cities and into the country." Other examples: Saltzgitter, Germany, which was built around steel factories in Nazi Germany, and Italy's Torviscosa, created by the fascist government with a rayon factory at its core. "They felt that building new cities would, in a sense, be a step toward rebuilding their population along lines that they approved of," Kargon explains.

Researching and writing the book took the pair about eight years. They traveled to many of the cities they describe, or to where they once stood, and reviewed city plans, correspondence, and photographs.

Kargon recalls an initially disappointing trip to the archives in Torviscosa, when no one answered the bell. Driving away, they noticed a man working outside and started talking to him. "He knew the guy at the archives and told us the bell didn't work," Kargon says. "We ended up going in and getting a really marvelous film from the 1940s on the opening of Torviscosa." The footage was taken by Mussolini's own cameraman, and at the end was a short film by noted Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni.

"It was research by accident, in a sense," Kargon says. "We got lucky that day."