Imagine for a moment the 260,000+ population of Buffalo, N.Y., living in one massive building. For each meal, its residents swarm to one of the building’s 21 gigantic cafeterias, the food supply coming entirely from the city’s neighboring agricultural fields. People move from place to place not by planes, trains and automobiles, but by monorail and elevators built to a capacity of 500 people. The city is formed by a series of identical buildings, all connected as one and towering as high as the Empire State Building.Such was Orville Simpson’s vision for “Victory City,” a utopian model city he “built” in the form of hundreds of colorful sketches. The untrained artist spent six decades detailing a concept that would become a model of efficiency and sustainability for urban planners worldwide. Then, he passed the torch.
From Dream to Reality
If the concept for Victory City sounds like a dream, it’s because that’s where the idea originated. After repeated visualizations of a giant city confined within one single building, Simpson recalls waking up one morning and thinking, “I’d better put that on paper before I forget it.”
Simpson went to work in his early twenties, producing dozens of sketches that detailed Victory City and all its moving parts. His drawings counteracted suburban development’s stark invasion of rural farmland, which he had witnessed growing up between Cincinnati and Dayton.
He began with a 102-story tower that bore a slight resemblance to the era’s most recent architectural phenomenon, the Empire State Building. Over time, his concept grew to anticipate and offer solutions to many of the unforeseen consequences of urban sprawl – things like air pollution, traffic jams, resource scarcity, energy inefficiency, ecological loss and lack of sustainability. With each drawing, Simpson added a new component to correct a realized deficiency and maximize the residents’ overall standard of living.
“Each time I added a new layer to Victory City, another challenge would present itself,” recalls Simpson. “I constantly assessed the relationships between each of the city’s components. How would the agricultural farms transport food most efficiently to the cafeterias? How would residents visit their families in other cities? These are the questions I challenged myself to answer with every new sketch.”
Planning for Victory City eventually became a full-time job for Simpson. Despite never graduating from high school, his early survival depended on the shoestring income of several labor-intensive jobs. Eventually, his frugal lifestyle paired with a few savvy investments provided him the means to live comfortably and pour all his energy into Victory City.
The result of Simpson’s artistry is an abundant collection of colorful concepts. His drawings detail everything from the museum-like murals on the main building’s walls to the specially designed, 500-person capacity elevators.
Finding a Home for Victory City
Now 89, Simpson acknowledges that his dream to build what would be one of the largest and most complex construction projects ever attempted won’t likely become a reality during his lifetime.
Even so, Simpson decided his vision would prevail best through the mission of an educational research institution – and for that, he placed his trust in the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) at the University of Cincinnati. He decided the college’s interdisciplinary academic approach to sustainability through architecture and urban planning curriculums offered the perfect environment for his life’s work to be studied, appreciated and used productively.
“More than anything, he wanted to find a place for his idea to germinate,” says Aaron Cowan, director of DAAP Galleries. “For its entire lifespan, Victory City has been an ever-changing model of perfection for future cities. Mr. Simpson knew that a research institute like UC would be the kind of place to keep his vision moving forward.”
“We will use his work as a classroom model for sustainable urban living solutions,” adds William Williams, director for the School of Architecture and Interior Design.
In the summer of 2011, Simpson’s collection was transferred in three jam-packed truckloads from his modest studio apartment in Cincinnati’s Hyde Park neighborhood to UC’s campus. A team of researchers – led by Cowan – immediately began the intensive three-month process of interpreting and sorting the artist’s “personal filing system.”
The Future of Victory City
To the average person, the layers of detail comprising Victory City are mind-boggling, but for educators, researchers and students, it’s an open textbook. For that reason, Simpson decided to build upon his in-kind gift and give $10 million in the form of a bequest to endow the Simpson Center for Urban Futures at DAAP. When realized, his financial gift will allow students and faculty even greater access to his Victory City materials.
“When it comes to fruition, the new Center will allow the college to fully leverage Simpson’s design collection for teaching and research,” explains DAAP Dean Robert Probst. The Center will ideally provide for a range of opportunities to further the urban planning and architecture programs at DAAP, including a potentially permanent space for Simpson’s work to be on display. In addition, new scholarships and fellowships supported by the Center will attract more talented faculty and students to Cincinnati to study urban issues and implement what they learn from the work of Simpson and others.”
In the meantime, even as Cowan’s team continues to catalog Simpson’s work for easy access, several DAAP faculty members are already making immediate use of it in their classrooms. Urban Design professor Udo Greinacher believes Simpson has set the bar high for professors and students alike. Greinacher has integrated Simpson’s vision into a scenario-based studio this spring called ’[future]+living’. Simpson’s collections have sparked the prompt for the studio —What will change in the next 20 years?— in which students are developing structured urban scenarios and designs for the year 2030.
“My diverse groups of students bring a variety ideas and experiences to the table, but Simpson’s forward thinking has truly challenged them to step outside their own comfort zones,” notes Greinacher. “If I can encourage my students to be more like Simpson, I will have accomplished something great as a professor.”
Simpson’s desire to see future urban planners, architects and designers implement aspects of his work dovetails perfectly with UC’s own vision. The university, which is in the midst of a $1 billion Proudly Cincinnati fundraising campaign, recognizes the transformative power private support can have on students, their education and their contributions to society post-graduation.
“Mr. Simpson’s ingenuity and generosity will encourage our students to think creatively and explore new ways to address the challenges our world faces,” says UC’s President Gregory H. Williams. We are truly grateful for his insights and his willingness to enhance the experiences of our students and faculty.”
Ultimately, the Center’s mission will be built around Simpson’s dream to make Victory City – or some form of it – come alive in cities worldwide where sustainable living is the only way of the future. As Simpson himself says, “The world needs it.”