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In the 1960s, a former University professor hoped to model a city after a machine

The Minnesota Experimental Project would have created a self-sustaining city that would have produced almost no waste.
In the 1960s, a former University professor hoped to model a city after a machine
Image by Image courtesy of University of Minnesota Archives

A geodesic dome, atomic power and pretzel-flavored beer cans were all figments of a University of Minnesota professor’s failed experimental city.

In the early 1960s, Athelstan Spilhaus — a world-renowned scientist, futurist and dean of the Institute of Technology — began tinkering with the novel idea of creating a completely self-automated city, later to become the Minnesota Experimental City (MXC) project.

The MXC was conceived after Spilhaus visited the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962. The project aimed to consciously re-create systems of city infrastructure and administration, said Sharon Moen, the author of a biography on the since-deceased scientist.

“[The MXC] is an attempt to find out what kind of city can be built that will guarantee a decent life for those who live in it,” Spilhaus said, according to University records.

Moen said Spilhaus, who had connections in academia and with several media outlets, was able to garner support quickly for the project.

The MXC Authority, a board overseeing the project, included Spilhaus, Otto Silha — then publisher of the Minneapolis Star and the Minneapolis Tribune — and University architecture professor Walter Vivrett, among others.

Within a few years, $248,000 worth of federal money had been pledged to support the MXC project’s construction.

Spilhaus left the University in 1967, but he remained outspoken in his critique of modern cities, likening them to organisms plagued by urban decay, poverty and pollution.

“I was particularly concerned with the problem of waste and pollution,” he said in an interview to the Minneapolis Star and Tribune in 1967. Spilhaus conceptualized the MXC as a machine where replaceable sections of buildings could be easily dissembled and pollution could be managed with a system of “air sewers” which would gather and recycle fumes.

“The essence of the experiment is that everything in the city must be recycled … what we need are more containers like ice cream cones … beer cans that taste like pretzels,” Spilhaus told the paper in 1967.

Everything in the city, from televisions to bank accounts, would be computerized and managed with a multi-purpose identification card, Spilhaus said. As for energy, an atomic power plant at the center of the city would provide electric energy and would also power the transit system — a network of six-passenger pods traveling on intricate track systems.

About 250,000 people would populate the futuristic city, Spilhaus said in newspaper articles. Every citizen of the MXC would have to undergo an application process, though Spilhaus told the Minneapolis Star and Tribune that selection committees would not take into account race or ethnicity when choosing applicants.

“With such a ‘mix’ of population … the concept of segregation, racial strife … and all other melancholy ills of our cities would die a natural and overdue death,” he said in the article. “Properly executed, the [MXC] would spare its people the festering cancer of slums and the almost equally distasteful sprawl of jerry-built chronically troubled suburbs.”

Near the end of the 1960s, there was a growing clamor that the MXC and its modern technology could intrude on the privacy of the city’s inhabitants.

“We can foresee problems involving individual rights and freedoms … but keep in mind that this will be a laboratory of continuous experiment,” Walter Vivrett said, according to University records.

By the early 1970s, the MXC Authority finally landed upon a proposed location for the project — a piece of land near Swatara in Aitkin County, an area of wetlands and marshes. However, according to Moen, there was growing opposition from the residents of Swatara about the MXC.

With the rise of environmental groups in the 70s, Moen said, and the creation of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the MXC faced further scrutiny. Environmental groups were keen on protecting the site chosen for the MXC, she said.

At a congressional committee meeting that would have allocated more resources to the experimental city, several residents protested by wearing red armbands that read “Stop MXC,” according University records.

In 1973, the MPCA voted eight to one to abandon the project. Later that year, federal funding for the project died.

Even after the MXC failed, Spilhaus kept pushing for experimental cities; later in his life, he dreamed of a city built beneath the sea, Moen said.

Moen recalls that Spilhaus was quoted to have said, “The future is where my concern lies.”

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