The idea of utopia has all but vanished. The avant-garde architects of earlier generations rarely used the term—its meaning can cut both ways—but still proposed ‘ideal’ urban designs that were, in effect, utopian. Now the avant-garde, such as it is, is focused on pragmatic matters, from innovative computer techniques of form-making to issues such as sustainability. Utopian ideas are conspicuously absent. Why is this so?
The reasons, I think, are complexly interwoven. Foremost, the widely accepted feeling is that we have reached “the end of history” (Fukuyama) and the global triumph of capitalism and ‘liberal democracy.’ While the former is manifestly not the case, it is true that the demise of socialism as a human ideal has left no credible alternative to capitalism’s global dominance. All utopian projects reach not only for formal or technical improvements, but social ones, as well. So, in the current climate, the only possible utopias are those perfecting capitalism and its present, consumerist, forms of order. We can think of Rem Koolhaas as the visionary of consumerist utopias, celebrating its virtues and vices in equal measure. But we can also see shopping mall designers in nearly the same way, regardless or even because of their lack of design originality—very liberally democratic. In one sense, utopia has already been realized. Anyone can get a credit card, everyone can buy and be happy, at least until they max out their cards. So, where is the inspiration to envision ‘another’ utopia? Certainly, the present leaders in the field of architecture have not found it.
Then, there is the ‘green’ movement. Who can argue with its premises? Our priority is no longer to improve human society but to save the planet from human society. Changes to be made to the social system are more remedial than systemic: reducing air pollution and carbon footprints, recycling, refitting, redesign, and the like. Capitalist enterprise, far from being curtailed, is encouraged through tax-incentives and government subsidies of new, green industries to expand its dominant role. Adaptivity is its keyword: anything can be turned to a profit. But who can argue with the goal, and since the very word socialism has become an insult, who would dare to? The green movement is important and necessary, but whether capitalism is really to be trusted with its fate remains to be seen. The lack of green utopias in a time increasingly obsessed with green issues may be due to capitalism’s success and unchallenged dominance.
This idea is certainly reinforced by the ubiquity of information. The instant accessibility from anywhere of information about anything seems in itself a utopian achievement. Information has been radically democratized and with it comes a belief that knowledge has, too. However, information is not knowledge (see the post Ars Brevis, Vita Longa) and indeed it takes knowledge not present in the information to put it to any use. There is a continual stream of new information, with the result of keeping its recipients continually off-balance—we never have enough and must continually return to the sellers to get more: internet sites that in one way or another are in the business of making money. Information is the ideal capitalist product. There is a cheap, inexhaustible supply of it and an insatiable market of consumers who believes it empowers them, and keep buying. How much closer to utopia can we get? We might say that capitalism is a utopia of self-satisfaction and restlessness. Who, then, needs a better society? Alternative utopias would be out-of-date as soon as they would be written or drawn. Ideals and idealism can only slow us down. Utopias can only get in the way.
Then we come to architects themselves. Let us not consider the usual, even intelligent and talented practitioner. He and she have never, historically speaking, been interested in the hypothetical ‘what if?’ as much as the down-to-earth ‘what now?’ Instead, if we think about avant-garde architects who have some visible profile, we don’t find work that envisions a social world widely improved by architecture. No utopias of the sort that dot the map of architectural history up through the post-Modern era of the 70s and 80s of the last century. Today, their aspirations seem to have retreated before the advance of capitalism and liberal democracy.
Have we reached the end of utopia as well as the end of history?
Let us listen to, and watch, the more ambitious and idealistic of the coming generation. Only they have the answer.
(top) Ideal Square of a City by Francesco di Giogio (often attributed to Piero della Francesca), c. 1470
View of New Babylon by Constant, late 1950s:
City of Towers by Peter Cook, c. 1984:
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- October 11, 2009 / 2:09 pm
- Lebbeus Woods