Plywood, acrylic mirror, museum board, spray paint, 3D-printed resin

Industrialization fundamentally transformed the constitutive elements of urban form while carbon energy magnified the scale, speed, and impact of those changes. From the rise of productive urban centers in the eighteenth century to the vast consumer landscapes of contemporary capitalism, there are specific urban patterns unique to this era. The following models identify five common archetypes of carbon form at the urban scale.

Each model is based on an architectural drawing by a well-known architect or planner and mirrored within its box to indicate the archetype’s capacity to replicate. Furthermore, the model is accompanied by a series of satellite images, showing the repetition of that archetype in the physical world. This pairing between a hypothetical project archetype, imagined by a specific author, and the proliferation of its instances, not only reveals carbon form’s disposition towards multiplication, but also shows how an architect or planner’s capacity to generate new ideas and models has an impact, even when the specific proposal is not built.

The archetypes are:

INFINITE GRID. Based on Ildefonso Cerda's grid for Barcelona.
Gridded cities can be found deep in the archeological record, and as such, gridded space is certainly not unique to carbon modernity. However, one could argue that the nature of the grid changed once mechanized locomotion became common.

In 1844, Spanish engineer Ildefons Cerdà traveled by train for the first time. Years later, in his preface to General Theory of Urbanization, he described that train leaving the impression of “an entire town on the move, rapidly transported from one place to another.” He continued, “I realized that the applications of steam power for travel had signaled the end of an era for humanity and the beginning of another. It became clear to me, then, that we are in the throes of a true transition. . .The coming era…will radically transform how humanity lives and works…and it will eventually take possession of the entirety of the globe.”(1)

Cerdà’s life’s work from then on was dedicated to reimagining urban form in the service of mechanized mobility, and the grid was his primary instrument. The grid, then, is not a neutral geometry. As architect and scholar Ross Exo Adams writes, it is a “spatial machine embodying
and specifying economic, legal, administrative and political frameworks through which to restructure the basis on which humanity is to organize itself.”(2) The ability of the grid to spread across the landscape was of particular importance to Cerdà, for it presented the opportunity to integrate the city and the countryside into a singular, organizational logic.

Today, the grid is often portrayed as a neutral urban organization, prized for its efficiency and ability to create density. However, its deployment not only continues Cerdà’s legacy of prioritizing mechanized locomotion in the contemporary city, but it also serves as a real estate device whereby land is treated first and foremost as property, infinitely parcelized in the name of development. An unbounded grid offers unlimited growth, which in turn perpetuates our current energy paradigm. As such, if not the grid itself, at least the concept of an infinite grid can be cataloged as a carbon form.

(1) Ildefons Cerdà, General Theory of Urbanization 1867 (New York : Actar Publishers 2018), 49-50.
(2) Ross Exo Adams, Circulation and Urbanization, (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2018), 24.

LINEAR CITY. Based on Ivan Leonidov's design for Magnitogorsk.
This model shows Ivan Leonidov’s design for Magnitogorsk, USSR. Part of the first state-run Five-Year Plan, the project’s goal was to change the rural landscape of Magnitogorsk into a fully industrialized zone. The competition to design the new socialist city was launched in December 1929, amid fervent debates on the future of territorial organization. Architecture historian Christina E. Crawford notes how Magnitogorsk was seen more as a conceptual exercise by Muscovite planners and architects, rather than as a physical place.(1) For them, the site of Magnitogorsk was a blank slate on which to express ideals of what living in a socialist world should be like.

The idea of a linear city, however, was not new; it can be traced back to the 1880s. Spanish urban planner Arturo Soria y Mata was, according to architecture historian Martino Stierli, the first to “consistently espouse the idea that the form of the modern city would have to follow the demands of locomotion.”(2) In 1910, American writer Edgar Chambless published Roadtown, an urban treatise that proposed a highway with continuous housing under it, spanning hundreds of miles across the countryside. In the 1930s, Italian futurist architects proposed a “single Great City of continuous lines, to be looked upon while in flight.”(3) The excitement around the spatial and urban possibilities enabled by fossil fuel-powered locomotion had captured the imagination of architects and thinkers across the US, Europe, and the Soviet Union in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Today, there are few examples of linear cities executed in this ideal form. However, given that mechanized mobility remains a dominant organizing force within the built environment, linear organizations are nonetheless very common. One such example is the commercial strip. In the suburbs, these become extremely distended, often arraying strip malls and big box stores along a single road for many miles.

(1) Christina E. Crawford, Spatial Revolution: Architecture and Planning in the Early Soviet Union (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2022), 49-50.
(2) Martino Stierli, Las Vegas in the Rearview Mirror: The City in Theory, Photography, and Film (Los Angeles, Calif: Getty Research Institute, 2013), 195.
(3) Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Angiolo Mazzoni, Mino Somenzi, “Manifesto Futurista dell'Architettura aerea,” 1934 in Manifesti, proclami, interventi e documenti teorici del futurismo, 1909–1944, ed. Luciano Caruso (Florence: Coedizioni SPES-Salimbeni, 1980), 263–64.

TOWERS IN THE PARK. Based on Ville Radieuse by Le Corbusier.
Described by Le Corbusier as “a new city to replace the old,” the Ville Radieuse was an unprecedented spatial order that would unleash the power of the new age. When it comes to carbon form, Le Corbusier’s position on the car is an obvious target. He writes, “The age of the automobile has arrived…Human biology is now in the grip of a new speed. Our legs (alternating movement) have been replaced by the wheel (continuous movement)...the horse has become a horsepower unit…So? Our city authorities think that everything will work itself out in the end. It won't. Nothing will work itself out. We have to build new cities.”(1) However, the network of streets is only one of many components of this new city. All the ways in which Le Corbusier wanted to use architecture as an instrument to restructure society are as important to understanding this project as carbon form. The new city would accommodate machines, machines would change the length of the workday, a shorter workday would require that the city provide spaces of leisure and consumption. The street would be totally rethought, with cars on elevated highways running across the city in an enormous grid. The scale of the city, the distances traversed, the juxtapositions between people and places, were all to be reimagined.
The Ville Radieuse was, of course, never built. But its impact on contemporary urban form is unquestionable. Towers in the park became a model that multiplied widely, the legacy of twentieth century architectural thought that sought to neatly separate the city into four distinct functions—living, working, circulation, and recreation.

(1) Le Corbusier, The Radiant City, (New York: Orion Press, 1964), 120.

MANHATTANISM. Based on The City of the Captive Globe by Rem Koolhaas and Madelon Vriesendorp.
Manhattan is often praised for its density and efficiency since its reduced spatial footprint makes mobility less energy intensive. Manhattanism as an ideology, however, is built on a foundation of unlimited energy consumption. Most famously imagined by Madelon Vriesendorp and Rem Koolhaas as The City of the Captive Globe, the gridiron array of architectural icons is a fantasy of endless form-making. Translated into the physical world, it becomes an indispensable spatial instrument for neoliberal real estate: the only regulation is the delineation of the grid, the only limit is the architectural imagination. Manhattanism is not specific to Manhattan. It is the logic of private property, crystallized and geometrically perfected: closed perimeters organize a city that grows through the endless build-up of exclusive spaces, each perfectly quantifiable and legible, despite the variation. The grid offers both the unrestricted interior of the parcel as well as endless replication: infinity in both directions.

This “freedom,” however, comes at a cost: all other relationships to the earth’s surface are erased and denied. Showing both the tendency towards infinite territorialization and the reduction of ecological space—two common attributes of carbon form—Manhattanism operates both ideologically and spatially. Here, the grid is not just geometry, it is a spatial order. While the possibilities it offers for architectural expression are undeniably rich, it has—perhaps ironically—limited the architectural imagination in other ways: under the regime of Manhattanism, it becomes difficult to think of land as anything other than property, architecture as anything other than objects, and cities as anything other than a human realm apart from the ecosystems that define the wider world.

SUBURBAN SPRAWL. Based on Victor Gruen's Southdale Shopping Center in Edina, Minnesota.
Architect and planner Victor Gruen had good intentions. He envisioned pedestrian centers, freed from the tyranny of the car. Shopping malls—as they came to be known—would create cultural and commercial hubs within the suburban landscape, providing structure to a new spatial archetype that was otherwise sprawling wildly. At the end of his life, Gruen disavowed shopping malls, and today they are enshrined as one of the quintessential elements of an energy-intensive suburban life.

This model shows a suburban settlement pattern originally drawn by Gruen. The mall is a focal point, but the parking lot, the ancillary commercial buildings, the wide arterial roads, the residential subdivision, and the highway come together to reveal the constituent elements of a settlement pattern that is specific to and definitive of the carbon age.

Of all the urban archetypes of carbon form, it is the suburb that has proliferated the most, and it is a common target for those fighting for energy reform. The villain in this narrative is often the car, and the antidote, electrification. Equally problematic, however, is the role consumption plays in shaping this landscape. Through the exclusionary logic of both property and zoning, a human inhabitant of this settlement pattern is kept apart from the labor, production, and extraction that sustain their biological life. A vast integrated network of energy and infrastructure keep this separation in place. Without it, the suburb would become uninhabitable and collapse. Even as electric cars and domestic solar panels become more common, the suburb remains a carbon form.