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Visions of the sci-fi city seem to be characterised by one particular image: a skyline of towers with an array of flying vehicles threading between them. In the earliest days of film and in the complex drawings that appeared in popular science magazines, there were always biplanes and rocket-ships, blimps and balloons punctuating the gothic towers and skybridges connecting the buildings.

In Metropolis (1927) the towers form deep canyons and tiny planes fly between them to give scale to this new fantasy megacity. They are like the little figures portrayed by Piranesi in his etchings of Roman ruins, present only to testify to the huge shift in scale between the work of the ancients and our own puny age — only here deployed to make our own urban future suitably gargantuan and our corporeal presence insignificant. The world of Metropolis is one in which the wealthy live in penthouses with gardens and the proletarians live in the darkness below. The streets have been left to the workers while the wealthy colonise the clouds.

In Just Imagine (1930), the future city — a projection of how New York might be in 1980 — is a more recognisable (though super-sized) Manhattan, with streamlined little fishlike personal planes swimming through the skyline. In Things to Come (1936, on which Bauhaus’s László Moholy-Nagy worked as an art director) it’s tiny fat helicopters. In more modern times there was the dark, rainy cocktail of Los Angeles and Tokyo, its flying police cars and floating advertising blimps in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), which made a dramatic return in this year’s sequel. In Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) the canyons between skyscrapers are crammed with vehicles and aerial traffic jams build up at the intersections.

The more fantastical the worlds, the more likely they are to feature vehicles flying between the towers. The future was never meant to be earthbound.

Even Le Corbusier, the great visionary of modern architecture, drew his 1920s towers with biplanes weaving between them. There were some attempts to make these visions a reality. The Empire State Building was built with a mooring mast, which was used exactly once.

In reality, aircraft were forced to fly high in the sky and towers were given red flashing lights on top so aircraft could keep clear. Only helicopters began to address the issue of landing on buildings with helipads; São Paulo’s centre being the starkest example of a city where the wealthy often commute by chopper to avoid the gridlocked traffic. There are still a few strange but wonderful designs which promise to address the issue of aerial commuting, like the rather cool Slovak-made AeroMobil and Lilium’s new electric jet, designed to replace ride-sharing services.

Still from ‘Metropolis’ (1927) © Image supplied by Capital Pictures

It’s an entirely different technology that is now addressing how we might move around the 3D city: drones.

The way we consume has dramatically changed over the past few years. The street outside my window is now animated by a succession of delivery vans fulfilling food orders from supermarkets, parcels from Amazon and packages from odd corners of the internet. Traffic has increased and cities have so far failed to adapt. And the waste of millions of journeys delivering single small packages seems shockingly inefficient and unsustainable.

Last year Amazon trialled its drone delivery service in Cambridge and Dubai is experimenting with passenger drones. Even though obstacles (especially commercial flights) remain, this is no longer only a hypothetical future. The question is not just how drones might make our lives more convenient but how might they change our cities and our architecture?

First, there is a price for convenience. We might well find that the sheer ease and speed of drone delivery makes us less inclined to go to the shops. If the supermarkets are worried about Amazon’s takeover of Whole Foods, corner shops need to get nervous about drone deliveries. Once the labour costs of drivers, expense of vehicles and unpredictability of traffic are stripped out, it suddenly becomes feasible to have your milk, bread or bottle of wine dropped in by air. It could be devastating for small businesses and, equally important, for the mix of our urban fabric. Small shops might disappear, making drearier streets and concentrating the retail market in yet fewer hands. You might get a bigger choice of goods but you get them from fewer places.

Scene from ‘Things to Come’ (1936) © London Films/United Artists/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

And how about the buildings? How might architecture react to a system in which things could arrive at any minute in the 24-hour cycle? How can it help deal with absentee customers? It could go two ways. The first is the arrival of local depots, a new building type and a kind of reverse post office. The other is the addition of delivery platforms on our dwellings. High-rise architecture has already begun to granulate, buildings like Herzog & De Meuron’s 56 Leonard in New York and Ole Scheeren’s MahaNakhon in Bangkok see a kind of pixelated, fragmented design and this could become the urban architecture of the future. Apartments will require sheltered landing pads for aerial drones. At street level we will require secure storage for deliveries, perhaps accessed by codes. Basically, high-tech bin stores. Milk on the doorstep never required this treatment. A new iPhone probably does. And how about people? Could they not also be deposited at their doorstep, even if they live on the 20th floor? Front doors may appear at balcony level.

I know of only one piece of dedicated drone architecture so far, but that one work seems significant. The Norman Foster Foundation’s droneport, proposed for Rwanda, presents a taste of a low-tech architecture designed for a high-tech revolution. The structure, a prototype of which was built in Venice last year, is based on a Catalan vault, a traditional and extremely robust structure which is designed to be easy to build using locally made but standardised bricks. It looks, in many ways, like a piece of vernacular, but there is also something very modern about its complex curves, an echo of something like Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at JFK airport. The vaulted shelters are designed to be linked together to create a larger structure which could itself be used not only as a droneport but also as a market, a distribution centre or a public space. Is it possible that remote villages could leapfrog technologies in the same way they have done with mobile phones, bypassing traditional infrastructure? Drones will certainly have an impact on the physical form of cities of the global north but in the global south the technology which enables the north’s laziness might be transformative, delivering medicines, components, aid and trade.

‘Just Imagine’ (1930) © 20th Century Fox, TM & Copyright/Courtesy: Everett Collection

This is just the beginning. What about privacy? Residents are currently nervous about new towers overlooking their apartments or gardens; what about drones? The ability to spy on anything, anywhere? Or what about armed drones? Those with small guns or explosives, a terrorist’s or assassin’s dream. The future is often presented as a utopia but it comes with its own new dilemmas.

Drones will change the way we see the city. The now familiar establishing shot of so many Hollywood movies, that aerial perspective of towers and freeways, the canyons becoming like streets, will be our new view. Perhaps the streets will be left to the poor while the wealthy occupy the upper levels or perhaps drones will simply remind us that not only are we being watched with every keystroke or phone scroll we make, but in every step we take in the privacy of our own homes. The 3D city has been a long time coming. It is almost here.

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Photographs: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock; Image supplied by Capital Pictures; London Films/United Artists/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock; 20th Century Fox, TM & Copyright/Courtesy: Everett Collection

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