What Happened to MN's Experimental City? New Doc Tells Forgotten Story
A new film uncovers the true story of the Minnesota Experimental City, which almost covered the north woods in a "Jetsons"-style dome, screening at St. Anthony Main Theatre March 16
The Minnesota Experimental City dome, image Courtesy of Chad Freidrichs
It might be the most epic Minnesota-spun fable you’ve never heard, and entirely true: In the 1960s, the North Star State was to become an urban-planning lodestar for communities across the country—even around the world—thanks to a metropolis-size experiment planned for Aitkin County, just north of Lake Mille Lacs.
Near the small settlement of Swatara—in this swampy, lake-strewn region of the north woods—a new city would rise up out of nothing and solve the day’s urban problems. Cities back then were bywords for decay, congestion, and crime. Residents fled to the suburbs. But this one, designed by polymath and University of Minnesota dean Athelstan Spilhaus, would transform the typical hovel of close-quartered living into a self-contained bastion of recycled waste, streamlined transportation, computerized social and commercial activity (think: today’s smartphones and eStores, but midcentury-clunky), and other technological advancements. They would equal the decade’s sleek confidence—a type of post-Manhattan Project, nuclear rocket-brandishing, moon-man faith in science and expertise that has proven unique to the ’60s. And all this cutting-edge technocracy would fit under a dome-like bubble, Jetsons-style. (To stress: in Aitkin County, best known today for ice fishing.)
It sounds like science fiction. Even the Bond-villain name of Athelstan Spilhaus—an oceanographer, meteorologist, atomic scientist, mechanical engineer, and comic-book artist—feels suited to H.G. Wells. And that’s part of what drew director Chad Freidrichs to the tale. His documentary, The Experimental City, tells the true story of the failed project, and it makes its Minnesota debut March 16 at St. Anthony Main Theatre.
The front half of the film cuts archival images with chipper '60s marketing, embracing the optimistic zeitgeist that allowed the Minnesota Experimental City (MXC) to gather momentum—albeit a bit quixotically. Interviews with those involved, along with audio almost miraculously recorded during their tense meetings, make the stakes felt. In fact, it feels like a spoiler to write that the film's second half outlines the city’s crushing defeat following protests by “Not In My Backyard” Aitkin residents and environmentalist Luddites (although I’m sure you realize it didn’t pan out).
Don't feel bad if you haven’t heard the story before. Neither had Freidrichs, a Minnesota native. Known for his award-winning documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, about a public-housing complex in St. Louis that was ultimately destroyed, Freidrichs stumbled onto the history of MXC while searching for a particular “milieu” he wanted to cover in his next documentary. He describes it as “retrofuturistic”—the future as imagined by the past.
Spilhaus’s visionary comics caught his attention. The syndicated newspaper strip illustrates sparkling, environmentally friendly utopias emerging out of social chaos. A Wikipedia search of Spilhaus introduced Freidrichs to a cursorily written page on MXC. He reached out to Spilhaus's longtime friend Louise O’Connor, who had recorded hours of interviews with Spilhaus before he died in 1998. Plus archival troves from the University of Minnesota and other institutions, the strange story, with its strangely foreboding lesson, took shape.
It includes a parable-like roundup of characters—from a stubborn, forward-looking Star Tribune publisher to the equally entrenched northern Minnesotans marching, mid-January, all the way to the capital in a passive, snow-buffetted show of resistance. It was maybe the only time Minnesota's geographic position, squarely at the center of North America, meant anything: The developers envisioned MXC as the heart of something better. And the project's disappearance from regional and national memory remains a sort of mystery.
It doesn't have to much longer, though. Freidrichs' film introduces Spilhaus as a hero working against public misunderstanding and his own hubris, although nonetheless clear of vision. And MXC is a startlingly prescient idea perhaps implemented 10 years too late.
I asked Freidrichs to reflect on the story, the '60s, Spilhaus, and the purpose of documentaries themselves. Catch screenings at St. Anthony Main Theatre, March 16, at various showtimes.
MnMo: Tell me about how you first came across the Minnesota Experimental City as an idea for a documentary.
Freidrichs: When you’re a documentary filmmaker, you’re always looking for an interesting new topic, and one strategy I’ve found particularly helpful when trying to narrow down topics is to pick a milieu—to pick a general place to be, discipline-wise. And the discipline I was really interested in was something called retrofuturism. This is the idea of what people in the past used to think the future would look like. The Jetsons is the iconic example. And so, while researching retrofuturism, I came across this comic-strip author named Athelstan Spilhaus, who had this comic called Our New Age, which was all about, in some senses, what the future would look like—how science and technology would bring about this grand new era. Spilhaus was instantly captivating because he was a such a diverse figure: He not only was a comic-strip author, but he was also a professor, an oceanographer, a meteorologist. His range was kind of astounding. So, I said, “There’s something here.” And when you’re looking for a documentary subject, you’re also looking for something with good visuals, and the Our New Age comic had that. But I was looking for some sort of story to unify it, too. I got on Athelstan Spilhaus’s Wikipedia, and there was just this brief entry mentioning the Minnesota Experimental City. It didn’t say much, but the name itself was so captivating. And I am originally from Minnesota, and had always been looking out for stories that I could tell about Minnesota. By the time I heard that name, I was like, “Oh, my goodness, this sounds crazy.” And then you begin to do more research, dig a little deeper, and you find out the scale of this thing, and how no one’s even heard of it. It’s so exciting. You could be the first one to tell this story.
But there had been someone who told that story, and that was an academic named Todd Wildermuth. He wrote a dissertation on the Minnesota Experimental City. So, I read that, and by that time, I was hooked. It had all of these elements in it: It was about the environment, and trying to improve it with technology, and how that confronted a kind of environmentalism that was suspicious of technology, and all these changes that were going on in society that led to MXC’s downfall.
MnMo: Even on Wikipedia, why do you think MXC isn’t that well-known?
Freidrichs: I don’t know—I mean, it kind of disappeared off people’s radars pretty quick. It was a news item in the early 1970s, and it flashed onto people’s radars relatively fast, and then, almost equally as fast, it kind of went away. And I think part of that has something to do with how the project seemed to be out of step with the way things were heading by the mid- to late-1970s, and that kind of large-scale, top-down technological approach wasn’t really the way that things were going to go down. And so, part of it was that it was a relic, it was out of fashion, in terms of how to solve these kinds of problems. It just kind of got buried very quickly after it went down. That’s my hunch. But who knows why certain historical things become sticky and are memorable, and people dig them up over and over again, and other things are just forgotten. You would’ve thought that, with the scale of something like this, it would’ve been remembered much more. But pretty much everybody I talked to, who’s seen the film for the first time, always says, “I can’t believe I haven’t heard of this.”
MnMo: You mentioned MXC’s top-down technological approach falling out of step by the mid-’70s. What happened?
Freidrichs: It’s two things: Number one, in the late-1960s, there was a lot of activism going on, a lot of grassroots movements, and there was a lot of suspicion of these big top-down projects that were usually coming either from some large government or corporate agency that was attempting to solve a grand issue. And so, that was the expert-driven approach of the 1960s. That’s how we put a person on the moon, with that kind of mentality and approach. And with the Vietnam War, and other cultural changes that were going on, there was a growing suspicion of that kind of project. So, that’s number one, the global view. But then the environmentalism piece, no doubt related, is more focused on technology and its impact on the environment. People weren’t under any illusions beforehand that technology was causing problems in the environment in the 1960s. But I think that call became much louder, especially as the environmental movement and environmentalism became much more mainstream. In the late-1960s and early ’70s, you have things like Earth Day, you know, publicized throughout the United States and worldwide, where people are becoming much more aware of these kinds of technological impacts on the environment.
It’s to paint with a very broad brush, but one could say that the mood or atmosphere of the country was a little bit more receptive to this kind of technological approach to environmental issues in the mid-1960s whereas, by the early 1970s, it wasn’t so in-fashion. And that’s the kind of environmentalism I grew up with, the one that was largely suspicious, in many cases, of technology. I think we’re seeing that change a little bit. I think that people are looking toward these bigger solutions in some cases. People are talking about geo-engineering, and those kinds of things, which are a little bit scary. Those kinds of topics are coming up again today. But still, I think there are many environmentalists who maintain a kind of deep belief that the hand of man and technology are corrupting influences.
MnMo: Some you interviewed describe the ’60s as a time of greater optimism for the future, which has since been replaced by a kind of cynicism…
Freidrichs: Yeah, I totally agree. When I first learned about the Minnesota Experimental City, there was this kind of yearning that took place deep inside me for a time and place that believes something like this was not only possible but something that some people felt should happen—or would happen. You know? Like, it was almost inevitable, for people on the project, that this was going to be the future—while at the same time recognizing that these things are far more complicated than the pretty pictures. I still respond to that kind of can-do, optimistic approach that was driving the people behind this project. I don’t think I would have made this film had I not responded to that optimism in a very real way.
MnMo: Has that sort of optimistic attitude always driven you in your work? Or is it recently that you’ve been yearning for something like that?
Freidrichs: I don’t know; that’s a good question. Overall, I’m a pretty optimistic fellow. There are so many ups and downs in the making in a documentary—and more downs than ups, honestly. In many lines of work, I’m sure, if you want to keep at it, you have to put things behind you and say, “I’m going to get it done. I’m going to find a new way.” I suppose, yeah, I’m probably more cheery or sunny than many. But at the same time, I can be sort of gloomy as well. I suppose it depends on the subject matter of my documentary. I think there’s a way in which that kind of infects my personality, at least when I’m making it. So, talk to me in three or four years when I’m in the midst of another one, with a more gloomy past, and you never know—I might have a completely different outlook.
MnMo: But in a way, isn’t the result of MXC somewhat gloomy, in that it failed?
Freidrichs: Yeah. And that was the hard thing about ending this movie. Because it certainly did—it not only failed but just kind of disappeared. There was really not much to fall out of this. So, that was always a struggle, because you have this kind of cheery story, and you don’t want to end it too…It would almost feel grotesque to end it in a way that was sad. But, I mean, it’s true. Not much came out of it. It was a lot of extended effort, and it is a sad story in many respects. But at the same time, it’s the try. The ending that we resolved on—and my take on the film—ultimately is about the heroism in trying something like that. There’s nobility in that. But, at the same time, knowing that this was going to displace people, this was potentially going to cost $10 billion. Plenty of downsides here to consider. But I like that they tried it. And there’s something about the era, that thought it was OK to try something like this, that I really appreciate.
MnMo: This might be a stretch, but in considering MXC’s relevance today, one reviewer pointed to the recurrence of this kind of forward-looking optimism in the phrase “Make America Great Again.” How do you feel the story and outlook of MXC might feel especially relevant to a modern audience?
Freidrichs: Everybody always asks what the relevancy is. With documentaries, we’re expected to be relevant. I will always point out that no one asks a narrative filmmaker, “How is your film relevant?” No one expects that. They accept a good story. So, number one, I always say that, when I’m making this film, I’m thinking, number one, about telling a good story, and not necessarily trying to make it relevant to us today. And in many cases, I think that obsession people have with relevancy kind of distorts history, because it tends to pick out things that we care about right now and tends to project on those historical actors, who are complex individuals with their own interests that don’t necessarily align with ours. We’re trying to slot them into the kind of stereotypes that we have.
So, with that preface said, I do believe that this is probably most relevant in the field of urban design and urban planning, where a lot of these kinds of ideas are coming up again. If you look at [Google parent company] Alphabet’s neighborhood in Toronto—they started this neighborhood that’s going to be this fully wired city. It’s going to have this underground utility corridor, very similar-sounding to MXC—maybe not as expansive, but still, the idea is there, that you don’t have to dig up the streets, and you don’t have to disrupt the street life by having utilities dealt with, and those kinds of things. That’s one example, and there are many examples of these kinds of eco-cities, or green cities, they’re sometimes called, or smart cities, or some sort of hybrids between those that are very reminiscent of not only the goals of MXC, but also the strategies they’re attempting to use to achieve those goals. For example, South Korea has a city with this waste-management system that is very reminiscent of MXC’s system. Elon Musk’s proposal for the transit system underneath Los Angeles is essentially a dual-mode guideway system that was proposed by the Ford Motor Company for MXC. So, a lot of these ideas that were really current in the 1960s are starting, in some senses, to become current again. So, how many resources do we want to devote to planning out cities in this kind of technological way—or, some might say, technocratic way? I think that’s a very relevant question as populations continue to expand, and cities continue to grow, as their impact on the environment continues to worsen.
MnMo: What would you say was your biggest challenge making this?
Freidrichs: I think there were two. It’s always, number one, story—just trying to figure out, from a straight storytelling perspective, how to structure the film for the greatest audience impact as well as just basic intelligibility, so people understand what’s going on. That’s always the thing that I probably spend 75 percent of my time tinkering on. I think the second real challenge with this film was that there really wasn’t a lot of imagery that was MXC-specific. So, there were drawings. We were fortunate enough to meet with the urban planner of the Minnesota Experimental City Authority—the urban designer of it. And he shared with us his original drawings, so we had maybe 100 drawings there, and some photos and images over at the Historical Society and a couple of other archives. But that’s usually not enough to make a movie. And there wasn’t really enough moving imagery until [MXC] became contentious. Once it became contentious, then there were news reports, and we had news footage of that. And so, visualizing what this city would look like, what this city would be like, giving audiences a chance to inhabit it in a certain way—that was a real challenge. Our solution to that was to try to find like-minded projects, especially things like World Fairs, that had this futuristic theme going throughout them, and try to create, out of all of those old recordings, a sense of what MXC might have been like. And that took a long time, because you have to go through all of those visuals, looking for just the right things. We found some amazing, crazy-looking things from the 1960s, that really do give a sense of that vibe, but that was something I was concerned with from the beginning. You have to just dive in on faith and figure it out.
MnMo: Even with those struggles, you really wanted to push forward with this project. Assuming you could have found that milieu of retrofuturism in a more accessible subject, what made you stick with MXC?
Freidrichs: I was so hooked on this story. It has a great character in Spilhaus, and a great secondary character in Otto Silha, who was the publisher of the Star Tribune and the second-in-command on this project. I very rarely doubted whether we were doing the right thing. I always figured we would find enough. I have a fair amount of experience working with archival materials, and I’ve made enough archival-based documentaries to understand that you will find it eventually. Or, you’ll find some solution. It may not be the solution you had initially intended, but you will find something that works if you keep on digging. Honestly, the audio kept on rolling in so quickly—Louise O’Connor’s audio, as well as the stuff at Northwest Architectural Archives. That stuff came in so quick and rapid, right at the beginning of the project, that we already had hundreds of hours of audio. I figured, if we can find audio, we can certainly find the visuals to make it work.
MnMo: Has anything surprised you so far about reception?
Freidrichs: Not really. I knew they would love Spilhaus. I knew it as soon as I was reading Todd’s manuscript, that people are gonna love this guy. I mean, I loved him.
MnMo: What do you find lovable about him?
Freidrichs: He does not hold back. He tells it like he feels it is. Whether or not you would want to spend time with him, maybe that’s debatable—but I certainly would. I really enjoyed his foresight.
Let me give you an example: There are so many things that people predict in the past that kind of vaguely come true. But Spilhaus really, really, really knew his stuff. If you look at his very first comic, from 1958—Our New Age, the very first one—it’s about climate change. It’s about carbon-dioxide emitted from chimneys and tail pipes leading to the greenhouse gas effect, and then the last panel is of New York City underwater. When I first saw that, I was just like, “Oh, my god.” It’s not like people just came up with this idea in the past 10, 20 years—this is a relatively old idea—but it wasn’t a popular idea at the time at all. Now, there was a lot of discussion among scientists about whether particulates from factories would, in fact, cool the climate, as it would block the sun—and he was kind of on the fence about that. But he understood this stuff really, really well.
So, I appreciate his depth, and I appreciate his range at the same time. And then you combine those with his really interesting personality, where he just does not hold back. He’s extraordinarily optimistic, but he also can be rough around the edges in terms of getting along with people. He wants it his way. And then, of course, he’s drinking through most of the audio recordings. It’s a very informal interview, so you get a good sense of his character. Put all those together, along with his variety of interests—that he’s into robots, climate change, and this mélange of things he thinks the future will be like—and he’s just fascinating.