From cities on wheels to self-sufficient shelters, populations have always yearned for buildings on the move


This year will see the release of the movie version of one of my favourite childhood books. If you haven’t read it or seen it; Mortal Engines is a brilliant example of young adult dystopia but with a bit more heart than average. There’s a hero who’s a coward, a heroin who’s ugly, a future where humans have bombed the planet into a series of deserts and – the best bit – a society living in cities on wheels. 

Better Shelter housing units in Kawergosk, Iraq.

Many of these cities can join together to create a moving metropolis, and then separate again when the need arises. Shocking and exciting, these images were more like science fiction than average design works.

The experiment was also social. A constantly roving population would lessen the need for countries, borders and boundaries. Cultures could be shared globally, passed on from conjoined city to city. If we could put our whole modern life onto a moving structure we could become nomads again; seeing the world and constantly travelling, all whilst never leaving home. 

Unsurprisingly this is an idea which designers have toyed with again and again. The romance of the gypsy lifestyle but the practicality of city living is irresistible. But can it ever be practical? The main problem is resources. How can you produce whilst moving? Modern sustainable technologies can go towards answering these – many modern interpretations of the walking city include solar panels, rainwater harvesting and algae farms. Modern cruise liners are not far away from the moving cities Herron imagined. They include almost everything a person could need for modern life, shops, restaurants, accommodation, entertainment, recreation, exercise. The thousands of inhabitants could go for a very long time without needing to touch land. But eventually they would have to, as they would have to refuel and restock.

There are so many examples where nomadic architecture can work in the small scale. There have been some whacky designs, like the N55 Walking House which looks like a black Smarties tube with pneumatic legs and little yellow feet. It has a wood burning fire, solar panels and a composting toilet. There is even a greenhouse ‘attachment’. It could probably be called a high end caravan, but one that walks instead of rolls. 

Projects like Better Shelter (pictured) and the SURI system also take on the challenge of nomadic living, but in a much more practical way. They are solutions for displaced people, which are designed to be as portable as possible, whilst also being as comfortable and sheltering as possible. The Better Shelter is flat-pack. In theory it can be put up in only four hours by four people with nothing more complex than a hammer. 

The SURI system (or Shelter Unit for Rapid Installation) is a lightweight modular structure which can concertina open, or attach to a series of other units, creating a wide variety of different configurations. This flexibility means it can be changed over and over to adapt to its surroundings and inhabitants. Some self-sufficiency is achieved from the built in solar panel producing power and the rooftop rainwater collection, which is filtered for drinking water. These structures are basic, and no doubt the design is less interesting if you have just had to flee from your home. But they are important developments in nomadic living.

So if the nomadic lifestyle has piqued your interest, but you’re still looking for your creature comforts; then why not check out the Seasteading Institute? An organisation engaged in trying to promote the creation of floating cities. They envision the future ‘seasteads’ as “a community living at sea and largely responsible for setting its own rules and culture.” 

A place free from existing laws and doctrines, able to experiment with new governments and ways of life. This is a familiar echo of the ideas influencing Archigram over 50 years ago. Much like the view from a Walking City’s window – everything changes and yet also stays the same. EJ


Words by Róisín Hanlon
Image Credits by Better Shelter