Norman Mailer may not be the last person one would imagine playing with Legos, but he’d probably be pretty far down on the list. Yet the hard-boiled author of The Naked and the Dead, The Executioner’s Song, and Harlot’s Ghost actually spent some time in 1965 building a quite beautiful futuristic city.
Mailer took his “City of The Future,” which he dubbed “Mile High City,” very seriously indeed. It was announced for the first time in the magazine Architectural Forum and in The New York Times Magazine. Mailer came to loathe the manner in which New York was growing, and wanted to come up with his own alternative. He looked up, rather than out, in contemplating how the enormous cities of the future might look: “the cities must climb, they must not spread, they must build up, not by increments, but by leaps, up and up, up to the heavens.”
Mailer turned over most of the actual construction of his Lego metropolis to his wife’s stepbrother Charlie Brown and his friend Eldred Mowery. To Mailer’s precise directions, they built the city on a four-by-eight-foot sheet of plywood, supported by five-foot legs. The final product, which incorporated some 20,000 Lego pieces, stood about seven feet tall.
Each Lego block was said to represent a prefabricated box girder, 50 by 25 by 12 feet, inside which a single apartment would be built. The actual building would be around 3,000 feet high, and could house 60,000 people. Even within such a mass-produced kind of structure, a lot of variety of form is possible, as is visible in the photos.
Mailer is quoted in an article at greg.org as saying, “It was very much opposed to Le Corbusier. I kept thinking of Mont Saint-Michel. Each Lego brick represents an apartment. There’d be something like twelve thousand apartments. The philosophers would live at the top. The call girls would live in the white bricks, and the corporate executives would live in the black.”
Mailer admitted to a few practical problems if this city were actually built. For instance, if you lived on one of the top floors, you might have to slide down a cable to get to the ground (steps and an elevator would be available for some). “Once it was cabled up, those who were adventurous could slide down. It would be great fun to start the day off. Put Starbucks out of business.”
A New Yorker article included a photo of the city by Simeon C. Marshall that was later used as the cover of Mailer’s 1966 collection of essays Cannibals and Christians. At one point, the Museum of Modern Art expressed an interest in displaying the model. But Mailer found that there was no practical way to move it short of disassembling it, which he refused to do.
For several decades the city remained on display in Mailer’s apartment. His wife Beverly noted, “It was a bitch to dust.” But there has been no word of its fate since his death in 2007. I hope that the city still exists.