Debate: are utopian ideas good for architecture?

Published 11 November 2016

Can utopian ideals help architects to build better futures? Or are these efforts doomed to be too rigid, over-simplified and suppressive? Ian Ritchie RA and Hugh Pearman go head to head. Vote on the winner below.

  • Yes...

    We need utopian visions to wake us up from the slumber of the status quo, argues architect Ian Ritchie RA.

    “Utopia” derives from the Greek ou (no) and topos (place), meaning “no place”. Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) depicted a perfect society on an imaginary island. His was a literary vision, as were Plato’s Republic (4th century BCE) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

    In a world devastated by war, the Russian Revolution of 1917 set out to create a real utopia. As the RA’s show of Soviet art reveals, architecture, art and design, integrated as part of everyday life, were to beget human progress. Technology would be extended to its limits and the earth, under mankind’s dominion, be subservient to human needs. Avant-garde architects and artists across Europe joined the modernist effort. A torrent of new ideas, theories and institutions resulted, including two lasting phenomena: Suprematism and Constructivism.

    Subsequent disillusionment with utopian thinking after the war was linked to parallels between utopian thinking and revolutionary ideology, and because utopian architects may have had little trouble imagining a desirable goal, but few had any idea how to get there or the unintended consequences.

    Architecture is often quoted as a reflection of our society (Mies van der Rohe: “Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space”). In fact, we are the first animal on the planet capable of imagining and realising new environments that in turn shape us and evolve as we evolve. Architecture can thus be defined as a neuro-design learning loop.

    We now live in built spaces resulting from the realisation of another kind of utopia: the capitalist vision of individualism, consumerism, materialism and an insatiable appetite for the “new and different”, fuelled by advertising, that drives an unsustainable world economy. It is a utopia that has woven a seductive web of habit, inertia and automatism around the world’s cultures, which commerce exploits – and this particular loop is destructive.

    Sometimes there are paradigm shifts that move society forward. The developments of current technology give us the means to create a global society, which is why, in socio-political and economic terms, utopian thinking in architecture has never been more important, whether it be poetically polemical or philosophically believable and implementable. A utopian vision is about escaping the status quo – waking up.

  • Current technology gives us the means to create a global society, which is why utopian thinking in architecture has never been more important

    Ian Ritchie RA

  • I believe in the value of utopian thinking, and as an architect I am driven by an ambition to synthesise poetic and philosophical thinking to realise my dreams and visions of a better future. To have shared in the invention of structural glazing in the early 1980s – which gave credence to Mies van der Rohe’s utopian transparent skyscraper – is an example.

    My measures of a utopian vision are: does it have value, can it be built and will it change lives for the better? But it is the questions we ask about a city’s relationships, networks and flows – including the flow of money – and the true costs of buildings that govern architectural and urban projects and design strategies.

    Architecture can begin to describe spaces that link private and public domains in ways that are not solely dictated by divisive economic perceptions and consumerism. Architects can engage with technology and the biological and neurosciences to create buildings on the basis of scientific knowledge – not ego, ideology or fashion – to enhance the well-being of their users.

    But there is no point in creating these piecemeal without knowing what you want your city to become. What engages are the ideas: optimism, hope, a new process and a set of principles to guide an exploration of architecture – a committed plea for a lived reality using social understanding, innovation and technology that can lead to better futures for societies worldwide.

  • No...

    Architects are idealists, but they can also be control freaks, writes critic Hugh Pearman.

    “Behold Celesteville! The elephants have just finished building it and are now resting or bathing. Babar, with Arthur and Zephir, is sailing round it in his boat, admiring his new Capital. Each elephant has a house of his own… All the windows look out over the big lake. The Palace of Work is next to the Palace of Pleasure, which is very convenient.”

    Behold also the mighty king-elephant Babar himself, seemingly so clever and concerned for the good of his people. But he is in fact an absolute monarch, requested to become king by a council of elephants who neglected to put a time limit on his tenure. His home at the top of the town looks out over the regimented rows of houses, just as the mill-owners’ mansions in Industrial-Revolution Britain looked out past their own palaces of work to the terraces they had so kindly provided for their workers. It’s all about surveillance and control, of course. It’s more than a little creepy, this utopia malarkey.

    Opinions are divided on the intentions of Babar’s French author, Jean de Brunhoff, back in the 1930s. As Babar brings his newly learned metropolitan ways back to Africa, wearing his dandy green suit and establishing his elite settlement, they look a lot like French neo-colonialism. But was De Brunhoff championing colonialism (neo or actual) in these otherwise charming children’s stories, or satirising it?

    The same question, of course, is constantly asked of Thomas More’s original Utopia as he delineated it 500 years ago. His model is a compact country with 54 cities. Note the isolationist tendency: its builders have dug a 14-mile wide channel to separate it from the mainland, so making it into an island as hard to escape as to invade. Even on the island, movement is restricted and passes must be shown at all times. It is a slave society with an elected monarch-for-life. Punishments meted out for sexual misconduct there would be familiar to those living in today’s Saudi Arabia. There are, of course, also sumptuary laws, governing the way people must dress. Everyone must do certain kinds of work, especially manual labour. To keep the population absolutely stable, it is forcibly moved around the cities or sent off to mainland colonies. It is all very prophetic of Mao’s catastrophic Cultural Revolution.

  • The problem with utopia is the obsession with symmetry and perfection and its suppression of any individual impulse.

    Hugh Pearman

  • The problem with the concept of utopia is obvious: the obsession with symmetry and perfection, and its inevitable suppression of any individual impulse by the will of rulers always prone to over-simplification and tyranny. To achieve such an idealised society is to force people into ways of living and behaving that brooks no denial, admits of no alternative. Architecturally, exactly the same applies. Architects are idealists: they want to make the world better and they have the skills and imagination to do so. But some architects can also be control freaks who like everything to be in its proper designated space, preferably geometrically arranged on a grid plan. It’s the same mindset, which is why historically every tyrant has a squad of helpful architects in tow. And of course, some great buildings can result.

    But there is always a Resistance, as fictionally celebrated in films ranging from Logan’s Run to The Lego Movie. Utopias are doomed to crumble because their straitjacket – political and physical – is too rigid, too brittle. Too perfect, resistant to further development. There is nothing wrong with dreaming of a better and fairer society, and making efforts to implement it. We should never give up on that. But don’t over-think or over-control either the system or the place. Everything will not be awesome. Eventually, the people will rise against you.

  • Who wins the argument? Cast your vote


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