Speaking of rumors, Texas Monthly spread the word that Silicon Valley billionaire visionary Elon Musk may be locating facilities for two of his future-looking companies in the Lone Star State. Musk’s SpaceX has been buying up land in Cameron County in South Texas with the implicit purpose of building a space facility on the site to launch an expedition to Mars. In more terrestrial affairs, the South Africa native is also considering building a battery factory in the state for his electric car company, Tesla Motors.
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“This thing is real,” architect Craig Hodgetts said in an email about the Hyperloop, Elon Musk’s proposal for a high-speed transit system somewhere between a train and a human-scale pneumatique. Hodgetts would know: next year, he’ll direct a studio on the urban implications of the technology for SUPRASTUDIO, UCLA Architecture and Urban Design’s Master of Architecture II program. The partnership between SUPRASTUDIO, part of UCLA’s IDEAS laboratory, and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, the startup company formed to make Musk’s concept a reality, is part of a strategy to crowd-source much of the research and development behind the Hyperloop. For a full year beginning in the summer of 2014, post-professional students admitted to Hodgetts’s studio will research the social and spatial potential of the Hyperloop, in close cooperation with the engineers at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. The physics of the system, Hodgetts said, are relatively straightforward. For him, the more interesting questions have to do with the passenger experience—with normalizing a new type of travel and counteracting the claustrophobic effects of the tightly-configured, windowless cars. Then there is the impact the Hyperloop will have on the cities it connects. In his studio, Hodgetts said, students will “start looking at new urban networks, at different priorities in terms of urban design. These are really exciting ideas from an urban design and architectural point of view.” Hodgetts, who is a principal at Hodgetts + Fung in Culver City, is no stranger to revolutionary ideas about urban transit. In 1969 he and Lester Walker introduced the Landliner, a straddle-bus that promised to turn sprawling metropolitan regions into continuous “Strip Cities.” Then, in 1978, Hodgetts produced drawings for an unmade movie version of the novel Ecotopia in which the primary form of transport was a network of mag-lev trains. (Like Musk’s Hyperloop, Hodgetts’s Ecotopia trains were propelled forward by pulses of solar-generated electricity.) Today, he’s not afraid to express his enthusiasm for the Hyperloop. After describing the basic principles of the system, he said, “I trust [Musk] totally on that, because we have a Tesla and it’s pretty much anything anybody said about it.” Hodgetts sees in the Hyperloop an “absolutely profound level of change.” It may do for transit, he said, what social media has done for communication. “The main thing that’s exciting to me is that one of the things that has made the biggest social changes is the relative lack of any friction whatsoever in social media...To have something in the physical world that leans in that direction is what I think is really profound.”
When Elon Musk makes plans he makes no little ones. And he feels California shouldn’t either. This is the rationale behind Hyperloop Alpha, a supersonic, solar-powered, air-cushioned transit system (and future “Never Built”?) he views as the bolder alternative to conventional high-speed rail. It’s not a train, exactly. It’s more a hybrid between high-speed rail and the Concord. It’s Mr. Musk’s answer to the ever-delayed and increasingly expensive bullet train being proposed by the California High-Speed Rail Project that was supposed to be “shovel ready” in 2012. Turns out it’s more complicated and expensive to build high-speed rail than anybody in the state ever thought. Could Hyperloop, more bullet and less train, be the answer? If it’s true it could be built for less than one-tenth the cost of the $70 billion high-speed rail system, then perhaps yes. For a mere $20 (He’s really thought this out) you would be able to strap yourself into a thin aluminum tube and get shot (at speeds of up to 750 mph) to San Francisco in about 35 minutes. The design doesn’t feature any windows, so hopefully there will at least be some video monitors or soothing ambient lighting to relax passengers who are essentially locked inside a jet engine hurtling itself through an elevated steel pipeline. In a conference call following the release of the 57-page PDF outline of the project, Musk said there could be a prototype ready for testing within the next four years. Perhaps it’s time for the California High-Speed Rail Project to hire Mr. Musk and his team of engineers and optimists. At least then California could have some form of 21st-century transit underway before 2020.
On Monday, members of LA’s design and architecture cognoscenti descended on the Tesla store on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade to celebrate the official relaunch of KCRW’s DnA (Design and Architecture). The event featured a discussion between DnA host and executive producer Frances Anderton and Elon Musk, the visionary founder-CEO of Tesla and Space X. Those present included Michael Rotondi, Ray Kappe, Thom Mayne, developer Tom Gilmore, and Getty architecture curators Wim de Wit and Christopher Alexander. After ten years as a monthly on-air program, DnA will re-emerge as a more comprehensive weekly podcast and blog. To help curate what’s being billed as “DnA 2.0", Anderton is enlisting the talents of local design journalists—or “DJs”—that she has hand-picked. “I’m thrilled that we will increase our coverage of, and participation in this creative community and the work that shapes our lives,” said Anderton. In the discussion Ms. Anderton honed in on Mr. Musk’s hands-on approach to design and innovation and how his operations are solidly based in California. “I like to be close enough to be involved,” he said. “With outsourcing, something we at one time considered, you lose the potential for innovation in the process.” Questions from the audience ranged from whether science fiction played a role in his work—“Definitely Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and Heinlein”— to if he could solve LA’s traffic problem. “I’ve got a design for a double-decker freeway worked out,” he said. When a young member of the audience asked about flying cars, he thoughtfully responded that he thought the challenge wasn’t getting the cars to fly but in preventing them from crashing into everything. When asked if he had any advice for architects about getting more visionary buildings erected in Los Angeles, Mr. Musk demurred, saying “I wouldn’t presume to give advice. The problem isn’t the architects. We just need more clients here who want to put up visionary buildings.”