The History of UtopiaIs utopian architecture a doomed quest to build human progress with bricks and mortar?

The History of UtopiaIs utopian architecture a doomed quest to build human progress with bricks and mortar?

Issue 31



Is it possible to build heaven on earth? The word “utopia” was coined back in 1516 by Thomas More in his seminal book of the same title. More depicted in detail a fictional island with (what he considered to be) a perfect way of life. Derived from Greek, the word is portentously ambiguous, meaning either “a good place” or “no place.” Too often, ambitions to achieve the former have resulted in something closer to the latter: Good places in theory frequently turn out to be no places to call home.

In history, utopias have often been associated with attempts by leaders with god complexes to assert power and control. Dictators aside, however, our quest for utopia is more commonly linked with our innate desire as humans for progress. In his anarchic essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891), Oscar Wilde stated: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”

What classifies an architectural project as utopian? Broadly, the word is used to describe attempts to—quite literally—build social progress. By virtue of this ambition, utopian projects are fundamentally concerned with new ways of living and sit toward the philosophical and political end of the architectural spectrum. This might mean dreaming up the single-family home of the future or building a new city from scratch.

Brazil’s grand capital Brasilia was built in just 41 months between 1956 and 1960. It was President Juscelino Kubitschek’s aim to build a city that represented a new future for the country, promising 50 years of progress in five. Oscar Niemeyer, together with urban planner Lúcio Costa, was commissioned to create a new capital city replacing the former seaside capital of Rio de Janeiro. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the human endeavor of creativity, engineering and construction behind Brasilia is literally monumental. Niemeyer designed everything: from the magnificent Alvorada presidential palace to the government buildings, to the apartment blocks, right down to the bus conductors’ uniforms. Brasilia had a clear utopian vision writ large in concrete: It represented a clean break from the corrupt, crime-ridden capital of Rio, presenting the population and the world with a modern capital city for a modern nation. However, Brasilia is a grim place to live. And herein lies a fundamental problem with so much utopian architecture: It doesn’t leave room for people to live their own lives.

Shaped like an airplane, Brasilia is beautiful in plan. Individual buildings are impressive in photographs. Yet the city feels oddly distorted and uncomfortable at human scale. Wide planted boulevards and sidewalks, so generous in theory, are dusty and windswept, like an epic film set built more for camera angles than daily existence. The quality of life at street level is dire, with high rates of crime and unemployment. It is an urbanism case study for the dangers of designing with a bird’s-eye view.

As an exercise in utopian architecture, the city stands as a stark warning of how difficult it is to build habitable progress at scale from scratch, too. In an interview with The Guardian on his 100th birthday, Niemeyer conceded: “It seemed as if a new society was being born, with all the traditional barriers cast aside. It didn’t work. Now, Brasilia is too big. The developers, the capitalists are there, dividing society and spoiling the city. Brasilia should stop.” But when urbanists criticized Niemeyer’s top-down vision, he hit back: Most cities take centuries or even millennia to build up layers of life, he pointed out. Niemeyer believed that he had designed the conditions for a city to develop over time, though notably, he kept his own penthouse studio in Rio, overlooking Copacabana beach.

Time might well be kind to Brasilia, but the same cannot be said for Robin Hood Gardens (1972) in Poplar, east London. The brutalist housing project by Alison and Peter Smithson was a utopian vision at a different scale from Brasilia, though no less didactic in its theoretical intent of using architecture to effect social mobility. It is currently under demolition, despite numerous attempts to save it in the decade since Tower Hamlets Council revealed it would cost £70,000 to bring each of the 214 apartments in line with modern living standards. As with Brasilia, the main problem lay with the disparity between the utopian vision and the built reality: People struggled to make their homes in Robin Hood Gardens.

The Smithsons were part of Team 10, a collective of left-wing, radical theorists that sought to redefine architecture and urbanism beyond modernism. After rigorous research into the future of housing, Robin Hood Gardens was their only realized social housing project. (Incidentally, they also won the commission for the British Embassy in Brasilia, though this was never built.) It had several successful elements, principally the domestic layout, beautiful and clever design details and the landscaping, which reduced the roar from the busy roads between which the buildings were wedged. It was their pioneering elevated walkways—“streets in the sky”—that brought about its downfall. These communal areas were intended to foster social cohesion among inhabitants as public spaces where people could come together, building a strong community. The streets in the sky became hot spots for vandalism and crime, and the project’s reputation got trapped in a depressing cycle that perpetuated its demise.

“Architecture was, quite literally, a way to build something positive out of the destruction of war. The notion of utopia wasn’t just a welcome relief, it was an escape.”

Alison and Peter Smithson made their case in an extraordinary film for the BBC in 1970. They explained the ambition of their concept as: “A model, an exemplar of a new mode of urban organization… Its form will respond, we hope, to the way people want to live now. In a way, it will be like the first Georgian square in London. To the people who live in it, it offers a place with a special character, which will release them and change them and be capable of being lived in generation after generation.” The householders’ manual for inhabitants reads: “The Greater London Council and its architects have been working on Robin Hood Gardens since 1963; its builders since 1968; it is now your turn to try and make it a place you will be proud to live in.” Besides obvious vandalism, reports by residents revealed intense frustrations that they could not inhabit these modern boxes as they had their previous row houses. They were too prescriptive.

The Smithsons’ principled beliefs soon turned to indignation and dismay when they witnessed how their project was being treated: “It’s very depressing for the builders, the contractors and the architects to feel that all the effort they put in is going to be smashed up,” Peter sighs at one point in the documentary. While the architecture community rallied in favor of protecting Robin Hood Gardens as the embodiment of an important social housing experiment, an independent survey of residents claimed 75 percent supported plans for its demolition. The story of Robin Hood Gardens highlights the tense relationship architecture has between dogmatic doctrine and personal preference.

When we think of utopian architecture, we routinely return to the postwar period, homing in on grand attempts to fix social housing and establish modernity from the wasteland of war. Rory Hyde is the curator of contemporary architecture and urbanism at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, which saved a three-story section of Robin Hood Gardens for its permanent collection. He explains: “The history of social housing is tied up with utopian ambitions to improve life for people and by extension society. This was said without irony, or any feeling of patronization for decades.”

The postwar period—when there was a need for mass rebuilding—presented an opportunity to rethink how housing might be approached quickly, cheaply and efficiently, while meeting the needs and requirements of 20th-century family life. New materials, new industrial processes and new technologies gave birth to new ideas about what architecture could achieve. Architecture was, quite literally, a way to build something positive out of the destruction of war. The notion of utopia wasn’t just a welcome relief, it was an escape. And yet, the excitement at the opportunity for rapid progress frequently left real people out of the picture. Postwar building programs, by virtue of their scale and the speed at which they were required, considered people in abstract numbers, reducing needs and behaviors to generalizations. Housing was a solution, a policy and a process, catering for the common denominator that would suit the greatest number of people.

The Smithsons represented the culmination of a school of challenging thinkers in the field of architecture, that emerged in the postwar period and fizzled out in the 1970s. In their BBC documentary, Alison gives the impression that even she is growing cynical: “Society at the moment asks architects to build these new homes for [people],” she says. “This may be really stupid… We may be asking people to live in a way that is stupid. They maybe just want to be left alone.”

“Utopian housing projects in this period didn’t often work,” Hyde explains. “Looking back at what went wrong, it seems fair to say that a top-down singular vision was too rigid for reality. Life is more complex; people are not that straightforward.” In the realm of 20th-century social housing, as with the building of a monumental new capital city, utopian aspirations are too tidy for the awkward messiness of human life. Building progress at scale inherently denies our self-determination as independent people with individual identities. So is utopian architecture inevitably doomed? “If we give up on utopias then, in a way, we give up on hope,” Hyde says. “We just have to think a little differently from our postwar predecessors.”

Stefano Boeri’s Bosco Verticale (which translates to “vertical forests”) in the Porta Nuova district of Milan is a contemporary architectural vision of utopia. The buildings certainly look utopian and radically different from the all-pervading grayness of a typical urban topography. Boeri, the president of La Triennale of Milan, has introduced nature and the notion of healthy buildings (for people, plants and the city) into urban architecture at scale. Completed in 2014, the two towers are home to more than 100 apartments, as well as 800 trees, 5,000 shrubs and 11,000 plants. The design, engineering and landscaping might have been complex but the intention is simple: The forests and vegetation convert a staggering amount of carbon dioxide into oxygen, simultaneously filtering pollution, reducing noise and naturally cooling and screening the apartments within. Boeri is cautious when asked if his ambition was utopian: “Our mission is to combine living nature with architecture,” he explains. “I like to consider the trees as the tenants—the building supports life for the trees, as well as the people who live here. The plants are not an ornamental adornment. They are life for the building and the city.”

Boeri describes the importance for architects to cultivate their obsessions. His own obsession with trees has many origins, including Italo Calvino’s 1957 novel The Baron in the Trees, about a young boy who climbed up a tree and lived in the forest canopy for the rest of his life. His own vertical forests have certainly captured the imagination of planners and developers looking for a new model; he is working on 20 projects around the globe, from Cancun to China, São Paulo to Paris. There are even three forest cities in theoretical stages with sites in Mexico, Egypt and southwest China under discussion.

Boeri is careful to note that these are not cut-and-paste rollouts of the original blueprint that proved successful in Milan. Every subsequent vertical forest will be designed from scratch as a specific response to local social, natural and climatic environments. This elastic approach is, he believes, crucial in translating a big idea into a widespread reality. “When architecture is deterministic and presumptuous it becomes weak and does not work,” he explains. “Architecture can act as a metaphor for progress. It requires systems and rules. But there must always be space left for real people and real life to flourish. Architecture can try to shape social behavior, but it’s more likely that people will respond well to buildings if they feel they can evolve together.”

The idea of nature, architecture and people in a mutually supportive communion, evolving synergistically, sounds like a 21st-century utopian standard. It feels more responsible and less bombastic, recognizing impact and evolution as fundamental components of progressive architecture. In northern California, there is an interesting example of this relationship in action. The Sea Ranch is a 10-mile stretch of land on the Sonoma coastline, purchased in 1963 by an enlightened developer called Oceanic California Inc. Today it is an unincorporated community, comprising almost 2,800 lots on 3,500 acres that take in redwood forests, rolling hedgerows, fields and coastal sites. Development was planned and designed by Lawrence Halprin with architectural design prototypes originally established for condominium dwellings by Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull and Whitaker (MLTW) and hedgerow houses by Joseph Esherick. These were intended as guidelines, not blueprints, to inspire future dwellers to commission, design and build their own projects with respect for the land and their neighbors. A design review committee was established to catch any carbuncles.

As well as flexibility, what underpinned The Sea Ranch’s success was a “constitution and a covenant” that engages inhabitants in an almost cultlike commitment to the overarching philosophy. This document goes into detail about the “rights, duties, privileges and obligations of all owners” safeguarding building-to-nature and building-to-neighbor relationships. “Living lightly on the land” is a core tenet: Architecture enters into a “territorial partnership” with nature, local building materials are “rough and simple” and structures are placed “within the land, not upon it.” It sounds didactic but there has always been a fundamental understanding at The Sea Ranch that, in order to succeed, any guidelines have to be parameters more than rules. Inhabitants have to be able to design, build and inhabit their homes as individuals; personal homes are more likely than uniform housing to galvanize people around a common cause. The utopian vision requires people, as much as architecture, to build and shape it.

California photographer Leslie Williamson has made a career photographing the untouched homes of pioneering designers and architects. Her concern is to capture and reflect the soul of the inhabitant—not the aesthetic—of the home. She has photographed several homes in The Sea Ranch over the last decade and recognizes the careful balance here of the individual versus the entity. “The Sea Ranch is actually about homes, and that is why it works as a fairly utopian community; everyone might believe in the same ideals but everyone has their own unique home, too,” she explains. “The problem with utopias is they tend toward the intellectual, and we struggle to nurture ourselves as individuals with ideas imposed on us about how we should live and behave. Architects with utopian ambitions don’t tend to make easy homes to live in.”

Good homes are vital for progress. The social and architectural standardization inherent in so many utopian plans is often their stumbling block because it renders life and people in unrealistic two-dimensional tidiness. It neglects the importance of home as a concept and misunderstands the core idea of what home represents. Homes are about individual expression, identity, safety, security. In Parallel Utopias (1995), Richard Sexton’s rigorous study of The Sea Ranch, he notes: “A designer or architect can help you sort out your priorities but can never be a satisfactory surrogate inhabitant without you.” Homes are personal, not intellectual; they become meaningful and powerful when they come from within, not above. “Let’s not forget that for all of his grand visions,” Williamson remarks, “the only home Le Corbusier built for himself was his perfect little wooden cabin overlooking the Mediterranean. It’s a very different kind of utopia: more primal than modern.”

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