What’s a Megastructure in Architecture?

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Megastructures are large, man-made, self-supporting structures. They can be city-sized or made up of smaller modular units. They were once seen as a solution to inefficient cities but are now built on a smaller scale. Examples include the Great Wall of China, the USS Ronald Reagan, the Sears Tower, and the English Channel Tunnel. Fantasy megastructures are found in literature, games, and movies, while conceptual megastructures like space elevators and space stations may one day become reality.

A megastructure, a concept that first entered the architectural discussion in the late 1950s and 1960s, has an evolving definition. The basic and modern definition is that a megastructure is simply an exceptionally large, man-made, self-supporting structure. Although true city-sized megastructures are still only found in science fiction, a number of existing structures can be counted under this definition, including the Great Wall of China and some extremely large skyscrapers.

In 1968, architect Ralph Wilcoxon defined a megastructure as a grouping of modular units that could be built upon and expanded almost indefinitely. Smaller prefabricated units could be added within the superstructure above, suited to the specific needs of its occupants. The adaptability of the megastructure would allow the “hardware” of everyday life, such as utilities, to be traversed in easily accessible conduits.

Some architects, such as Reyner Banham, saw the megastructure as a way to combine the vision of planners and architects. His book Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past has been the essential guide to the movement. Like-minded planners and architects believed that planning should be considered on a much larger scale, and that megastructures could provide real solutions to sprawling, disorganized and inefficient cities.

Today, megastructures follow less utopian ideals and are built on a smaller scale than some of the previous megastructure proposals. However, a megastructure is typically a large man-made free-standing structure or building. The definition often includes structures made up of many smaller structures grouped together, a city housed within a single structure, or a bridge. There are no definitive requirements for a structure to be considered a megastructure; only that it is unique in size and engineering.

Due to the growing number of megastructures under construction, public interest has spurred television programs exploring these awe-inspiring structures. Among the megastructures profiled are the USS Ronald Reagan, the Sears Tower, the English Channel Tunnel (or “Chunnel”) and the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge in Japan. The Great Wall of China is also considered a megastructure, stretching nearly 4,000 miles (6,352 km) in length.

The United States Ronald Reagan, which has been called a “floating city,” can house three months’ worth of supplies and serve over 18,000 meals a day. The canal is 32 miles (50km) long, of which 25 (40km) is under water. The Sears Tower is another famous megastructure, standing 1,454 feet (443 m) tall.
While the human imagination is limited only by current engineering and construction technology, fantasy megastructures abound in literature, games and movies. The Death Star in the Star Wars film series is a well-known fictional megastructure, and many others are found in games such as Halo and various science fiction stories. Many conceptual megastructures, such as space elevators and space stations, may one day become reality.

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