Towards a new utopia
By Kristin McIver
The city could best be described as a living organism. The natural evolution of a city is one of change, adaptation and rebirth. The city moulds itself in response to the experience and changing needs of its population. Architect Nigel Coates believes that “popular experience and culture are central to the experience of architecture”. Historical buildings make way for newer, more functional and more beautiful spaces to accommodate the current financial, social and political requirements of its population.
With 50% of world’s population now living in cities, never has there been a more appropriate time to re-evaluate our concept of what constitutes a city and to imagine how cities will adapt to embrace the changing needs of global citizens.
When considering an “organic” city such as Melbourne or London, one can observe a wide range of architectural styles, each of which are undeniably recognisable as being a response to an era. Cities are constantly remodelled as the collapse of one economy or social structure gives way to the next, and the city’s inhabitants strive to create a better environment. When we look at the laws of evolution as theorised by Darwin, this constant adaptation seems to be the natural order of things.
Why then, is there an inherent desire for humans to reject the organic evolution of a city, and plan the ideal city from the ground up? Architects and artists throughout history have designed plans for ideal cities which go beyond the scope of the human imagination - cities which embody the collective ideals of the human race, which provide a solution to our collective fantasy of order, rationality and spectacle.
From Constant’s plans for a New Babylon, Archigram’s Plug-in City, through to Le Corbusier’s plans to transform Paris into The Radiant City, these radical new cities always represented an “ideal other” to the cities or social structures they were rejecting. For the most part, these designs have been forever confined to paper.
These days however, utopia is being constructed before our very eyes. Global cities are modelled on utopian ideals and unlike their ideological counterparts – these utopian cities are actually being realised. Development in emerging economies such as the UAE and China (there are 400 new cities planned in China by 2020), is rejecting the evolutionary model of cities in favour of the construction of brand new cities – or what Shuman Basar aptly refers to as “cities from zero”.
The urge to find the ideal urban design suggests a desire for the human race to exercise control over their environment and create rational social order. But it could also relate to our need to aspire, to hope for a better tomorrow.
Given this, it is worth asking the question whether architectural planning can control and influence human behavior, and to examine whether our ideal future will be realised. Can we ever reach utopia?
Olafur Eliason, The Cubic Structural Evolution Project, 2004
Olafur Eliason highlights the evolutionary nature of organic cities with his interactive work, The Cubic Structural Evolution Project. Throughout his artistic practice, Eliason challenges the way humans interact with their environment, by challenging the way we view art. If the traditional notion of art was to view it passively, Eliason has followed the trend of the mid 90’s away from passivity and towards engagement.
In The Cubic Structural Evolution Project, Eliason invites viewers to participate in the construction, redesign and rebirth of a scale model city made of over 400,000 Lego Blocks. In doing so, Eliason prompts the viewer to consider their place in the urban environment and how each individual contributes toward the evolution of a city. Buildings are constructed, destroyed and reinvented in a similar manner to a naturally evolving urban environment.
The resulting miniature metropolis is constantly evolved towards the shifting visions of the participants, in contrast with the concept of a sole creative vision, or utopian city. Eliason’s The Cubic Structural Evolution Project represents a real city based on the needs and desires of real people.
As with his other artworks, Eliason invites his viewers to engage with the work as well as reflect on their role in the work. Through this experiential artwork, his participants are invited to explore the relationship between having an experience and simultaneously being aware that they are having this experience. This model of experience could be applied to urban living in the 21st century. Through the work, we are prompted to evaluate our own experience of living in a modern city, and at once be aware that our very act of being in the city changes that environment. Consequently, Eliason highlights that it is human presence which shapes our environment, not the design, architecture or town planning.
However, this natural evolution of ageing cities causes problems. City planners are constantly spending public money to remodel cities in response to increasing populations and changing lifestyles. How could a city which evolved out of the Middle Ages, accommodate the needs of a swelling, dynamic population driven by 21st Century technologies and ideals?
So it is not surprising that the idea of a brand new city, designed from the ground up to eliminate these problems from the outset is highly seductive. The United Arab Emirates and China are currently in the process of planning and constructing such ideal cities. In contrast to the organic nature of ageing cities, these planned cities begin with a single vision, and attempt to construct social order through this vision.
However before we examine the planned city, we must first attempt to understand the human fascination with utopia. As John Milner states:
“What differentiates fantasy from utopian speculation is the degree to which it incorporates and exemplifies a system that is organised and controlled to perfection, and is given a social and political expression….furthermore, a utopian construction may be just beyond the rim of feasibility in order to act as a model to be emulated and referred to.” 1
John Milner’s summation of utopia explains perhaps what drives the human race – it is an eternal aspiration towards a better future and social order which keeps us experimenting, inventing and surpassing ourselves, and therefore evolving as a species.
Utopian environments are a form of social & political expression – in other words, they suggest a model not only for architecture, but for social systems and ordered society. They are the catalyst for aspiration, and in the minds of their creators, utopian cities can shape human behaviour.
Le Corbusier, Le Ville Contemporaine 1922, La Ville Radieuse 1930
Inspired by the new social order in Russia following the revolution, and the International Style emerging out of Germany, Western Europe also looked towards a better future, resulting in a utopian outlook and a romantic modernist agenda. Art and architecture flourished during this time, with visionaries such as Le Corbusier, Bruno Taut and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe designing utopian cities that reflected the social ideals of the time. However unstable economic conditions prevented the majority of built commissions, resulting in many of these visions remaining as works on paper.
Le Corbusier’s plans for The Contemporary City and later The Radiant City, proposed the demolition of the centre of Paris, to be replaced by rows of towers standing in rational capitalist splendour. This new city would provide for increased sanitation, clean air, light, space and the prevail of visual order.
He justified his proposal by suggesting that the radical reconfiguration of the traditional city of Paris would result in a more stable social organisation. He believed that designing a city as a “machine for living” was the only way to impede a worker revolution. In light of the machine age and the influx of factory workers into the city, and with the constant “threat” of socialist revolution, Le Corbusier’s plans for an ideal city promoted pseudo-individual freedom for workers - defining when, where and how their leisure time activities took place.
The Radiant City was designed to the utmost detail, with distinct zones assigned for leisure, exercise, and social interaction. However residents were unable to exercise any governance over their own lives. They were able to behave, but not to act. There was no room for the individual within this environment – the residents would become a part of this machine. Le Corbusier proposed that human social order could actually be created through architecture. His designs for an ideal city suggested architecture would fundamentally change the way people interacted with their environment.
Despite his proposal which would supposedly encourage efficient business and sustain capitalist ideals, no one invested in Le Corbusier’s vision to transform Paris into a rational planned utopia which would satisfy and shape its population. Le Corbusier’s attempts at creating a new social order and model for city planning were, like many utopian designs, never realised.
Today however, totalitarian freedom in Dubai combined with private financing, international investment and cheap imported labour is allowing the ideal city to be realised – at a rate of development never before witnessed.
Like The Radiant City, the new global city of Dubai is planned to meticulous detail, with designated zones of industry and leisure which dictate how one would live in this ever-expanding city. It is the Emirates’ vision to transform Dubai into an international city designed by international architects, for international citizens.
In order to cope with the potential issue of various cultures residing alongside one another, Dubai is planned around “themed” cities or environments. One can buy a residence or shop in a mall which is themed in the style of Italy, Morocco, or Lower Manhattan. Themed real estate projects are established to control the emerging service economy, such Internet City, Knowledge City, Financial City, and Healthcare City. Controlled zones of liberalism such as alcoholic “wet” and “dry” areas, allow the merging of different cultures with differing value systems. City planners are even building slums into their plans, to create ordered divisions between the wealthy and lower class residents.
Dubai is fast becoming the consummate “machine for living” in the 21st Century, comprising all the elements required for the luxury lifestyle which the modern elite demand, and assigning each level of society its designated place.
Monika Sosnowska, 1:1, 2007
Monika Sosnowska is among Poland’s prominent contemporary artists, and her concern with architecture, space and the breakdown of such utopian systems is particularly relevant when examining the ideal city. Sosnowska’s works are concerned with the experience of post-war modernisation - the typical Eastern Europe landscape of grey concrete housing blocks, service pavilions, train stations and shopping centres.
This type of socialist architecture was a bleak mutation of the International Style, which reduced structures to their bare functional necessities so as to provide equality and social organisation. It is interesting to compare these structures with those proposed by Le Corbusier. Despite arriving at these designs from opposing political agendas, they embody the same ideals - socialist architecture, like the capitalist planning proposed in The Radiant City, had its foundations based on the quest for social control.
Sosnowska’s 2007 work 1:1 comprises a full-scale steel skeleton of a housing block, the type which, concrete clad, dominated the Polish landscape during the 60s. During the Peoples’ Poland movement, progress was restricted to rash modernisation. The enormous steel framework is squeezed and crushed into the Poland pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The massive structure becomes a twisted, contorted pile of metal which moulds itself to fit within the confines of its new environment. The forced juxtaposition of these two architectural structures becomes a model of conformity and adaptation. One structure gives in to the other, and conforms to the boundaries placed upon it.
The work highlights the oppression and loss of individual freedom faced by people living under socialist rule. The bleak socialist architecture became a metaphor for the social system it embodied, into which the population was forced to adapt - oppressed by strict physical, environmental and social structures. Through 1:1, Sosnowska insists that “Utilitarianism is architecture's fundamental attribute”. Socialist architecture achieves its objective of equality, and through doing so achieves its hidden objective of social control through oppression.
Sosnowska's project fits both the local context and comments also on the current global discourse towards the search for control through architecture. Alongside the luxurious mega-projects of Dubai, public housing is being built on a mass-scale for the working class, which resembles socialist housing in its reduction to the bare essentials. Stretching for kilometres into the desert, and hidden from the tourist eye, labour camps and cheap housing for the working class offer no quality of life, and force workers to conform to their roles as virtual slaves. This bleak environment, and its harsh desert surrounds, adds to the oppression and exploitation already felt by the lower socio-economic component of this “ideal city”.
Callum Morton, Habitat, 2000
In his work Habitat, Callum Morton exposes the difference between an idealised architectural vision, and the way that urban development projects are utilised. He examines how social planning can be overturned by profiteers, resulting in further imbalance between socio-economic groups.
Habitat comprises of a scaled down version of a utopian housing project envisaged by Moshe Safdie for the 1967 Montreal Expo. Habitat developed out of Safdie’s 1961 thesis and responded, like many utopian environments, to the communitarian ethics of the time.
Public housing projects worldwide had predominantly been loosely based on modernist design principles, but as time passed the designs were compromised through the reduced use of architects, to create bleak, characterless, unliveable structures, as referenced by Sosnowska.
Determined to succeed where previous idealist attempts at condensed urban planning had failed, Safdie proposed a unique, attractive community urban environment, using public money to better the lives of lower income families. Each unit provided close but private quarters, each equipped with a garden. Prefabricated modules could be varied systematically to suit various lifestyle requirements, with housing for large families sitting alongside single bedroom apartments.
In contrast with Le Corbusier’s Radiant City which relied on an identical and orderly structure, Safdie’s Habitat ‘67 welcomed uniqueness and this became a part of the overall aesthetic. The complex proposed a way in which people could live comfortably in close quarters, in increasingly populated cities. If successful it could provide a blueprint for public housing around the world. The Habitat ‘67 housing project was partially realised, however high production costs made it unsuitable for affordable public housing. The units were eventually sold off as exclusive, “architect-designed” waterfront apartments for the wealthy, thus failing the poorer community for whom the public asset was intended.
In Callum Morton’s model of Habitat, he fastidiously reproduced this modular urban environment according to Safdie’s plans for a “liveable” utopian housing development. Lighting and sound effects of everyday domestic life suggest the personal lives and dreams of its inhabitants set against a distant utopian dream of community living. Over a period of 28 minutes, a wash of light moves over the sculpture as the sun passes over the sky, to represent a 24-hour period in the life of the inhabitants. The residents are prisoners of their environment in a constant cycle of domestic conflict – unable to escape. They are apparently living in utopia, yet the dreams of Habitat 67’s inhabitants are ultimately eroded by the monotony of everyday life and the agendas local government bureaucrats.
Through this work, Morton comments on the contrast between the architect’s schemata for social transformation and the inevitable outcome of community planning. Morton highlights the stark contrast between the dreams of utopian community living against the reality of urban evolution. While architecture promises to deliver a better future for the community, if successful it will ultimately fall into the hands of the privileged few who can afford it. Even in a supposed housing complex for the “every man”, this ideal urban environment fails to provide the utopian vision sought by the architect.
By referencing the 1967 housing project in his work, Morton draws comparison with current urban evolution as cities swell to their highest ever density. Public money is increasingly used to redevelop defunct areas of cities. Melbourne, where Morton resides, is a typical example of the changing nature of cities due to increased automation and the moving of labour offshore.
Inner city areas such as the Docklands, Port Melbourne, Footscray and Richmond which previously housed factories and affordable housing for blue collar workers, are now being redeveloped to cater for the increasing numbers of white collar workers wishing to live close to the predominant service and technology based industries in the CBD.
As is evidenced by the Habitat housing project, utopian public developments eventually end up in the hands of the privileged few, while lower class families are being forced to the outer fringe, away from schools, services and amenities. City planning inevitably becomes subject to organic evolution, which favours the wealthy at the expense of the poor.
Tobias Putrih, Venetian Atmospheric, 2007
In light of increasing hardship faced by families, it is not surprising that people look towards entertainment as a means of escape.
Slovenian artist Tobias Putrih’s fascination with cinema, modernist architecture and science has been translated into much of his artistic practice. It is cinema’s ability to transport the viewer into another space and time, and blur the line between reality and fiction which interests the artist. Putrih describes cinemas as “transitional territories” between this world and the fantasy realms projected onto their screens. Film projects a form of utopia which transports the viewer into a better place.
Coming from an Eastern European country still scarred by the collapse of socialist utopia, Putrih demonstrates why socialism became out of touch with ordinary people. As Putrih explains, “You can’t force people to think your way; you have to give them what they want and manipulate the content”.
Putrih saw one of the failings of the socialist propaganda machine their inability to see the potential of film to manipulate the minds of the people. In the west it was quickly learned that cinema could be much more than simply a money-making machine. Delivering socio-political agendas disguised in the form of entertainment proved a much more successful use of the medium.
In his archi-sculpture Venetian Atmospheric, Tobias Putrih creates a futuristic cinema comprising of exterior and interior environments. The interior of the cinema looks like the set of a science fiction film, which emphasises the futuristic and utopian subject matter which is screened in the cinema. His use of lighting throughout the structure is a recurring motif within utopian designs. The resulting environment has a strangely other-worldly quality which blends the organic with the man-made. Further to this, scaffolding surrounds the temporary cinema, indicating that cinema is not based in reality, but is a constructed tool of manipulation which blurs the lines between reality and fiction.
Throughout the duration of the exhibition, he screens a series of films and documentaries which include films and documentaries based around utopian visionary architecture, including Constant, Rem Koolhaus and Buckminster Fuller.
Through the work Venetian Atmospheric, Putrih highlights that cinema, like architecture, can be a form of cultural and psychological control. Cinema can be a highly influential medium which can suggest ideas and designs which then become a prototype for the future. If a compelling idea is proposed in film, it becomes something toward which the human race aspires.
Putrih highlights that current global dreams are based on Hollywood ideals, and our perception of what constitutes “normal” life is being shaped through film, advertising and the media. Technological advances in recent decades have allowed fantasy to seemingly blend with reality, and this pseudo-reality is becoming our model of the future.
Due to our exposure to digitally created futuristic films, our expectations have risen beyond this world. Science fiction cinema has become the stage of utopian ideals. And the concurrent technologies in architectural modelling means that fantasy architecture and technology is now being emulated in real life.
Our expectations have risen, as has our desire for the spectacular. Human aspiration combined with the capability to realise these visions is propelling us toward utopia at a faster rate than ever in cities such as Dubai and Las Vegas.
Carsten Höller, Test Site, 2007
The human desire for entertainment and spectacle goes beyond film, but extends to experience at every level. As we are exposed to more art and architecture than ever before due to increased access to information, our appetite for the new is escalated.
Carsten Höller’s Test Site is a series of 6 slides which snake their way through the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern museum. Like Eliason’s work, this is an experiential work in which the viewer becomes an essential part of the work. In the artist’s words, the act of using the slides instils “voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind”. Höller is concerned with the visual spectacle of watching people sliding and also the “inner spectacle” experienced by the sliders. The experience of the slide induces child-like elation and excitement, which in some way satisfies our desire for spectacle.
No longer content with simply viewing art, or participating in creating the artwork as in Eliason’s case, viewers are able to engage their senses and satisfy their burgeoning appetite for the spectacular by participating in this artwork.
Höller suggests that his environment can change its inhabitants emotionally. The title Test Site refers to his plan to use the museum as a testing ground for larger scale models in the city. Höller plans to create larger his slides which function within cities as as an efficient, cost effective means of transport. People could move within or between buildings through a network of slides which connect the city. Slides could change our perception of time through travel, just as cars have changed our perception of time. If successful Höller insists they could provide a model for future cities, and may alter the planning of future cities.
Unlike The Radiant City, which uses visual organisation as the basis for creating social order, Holler suggests that in the 21st Century it is spectacle which will attract the crowds, and once the population is engaged then social order can be achieved. As Tobias Putrih suggests, give the people what they want, and they are yours for manipulation. One suspects this is occurring in Dubai, whose spectacular landscapes and mega-projects are designed to compel and create a new social system through its use of spectacle.
It is this desire for the spectacular which drives the human race to create cities which are bigger, shinier, taller and exciting – modern day playgrounds. Dubai’s fantasy architecture is providing a space which will supposedly satisfy the modern day appetite for aspiration, consumption and spectacle. Unfolding before our eyes in the Middle East is a utopian city free of borders which is a shining vision of the future for the global elite.
Reminiscent of Bruno Taut’s Alpine Architecture of 1917, Dubai proposes a fantasy playground which spans beyond the imagination. Buildings that twist around one another; underwater hotels; islands shaped like the world; buildings which stretch kilometres into the sky; and even a floating cloud city. Dubai presents not only a model for social order and control, but also an inspirational fantasy world.
Tomas Saraceno, Airport City Project, Dubai cloud city
Tomas Saraceno’s Airport City projects propose an alternative solution to unify the world and create a spectacular global city. Inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Domes, these works comprise of habitable inflatable cells which join together to create cloud-like cities that float in the air.
In creating Airport City, his utopia is a truly international city which based loosely on the rules governing an Airport. An airport consist of land-side zone, falls under the jurisdiction of the country in which it resides; and air-side zone, which falls into international territory and is governed under international regulations. With his Airport City Project, Saraceno proposes a city without cultural, political or economic borders. His geodesic domes offer a sustainable alternative to land-based cities which are bleeding the earth of its resources.
These city clusters would float through the atmosphere according to weather patterns, and join together like clouds to form larger cities. Airport City proposes a form of mobile migration – where everyone is an immigrant, and borders are non-existent. His floating cities propose a return to a nomadic or tribal lifestyle, whereby humans become a part of nature - less an imposition on the environment than apart of the overall natural balance.
Saraceno’s Airport City project transcends utopian visions, by adhering to practical principals of engineering, chemistry, physics, architecture and aeronautics to propose a logistical solution to the floating habitation. He enlists the help of research organisations, and uses latest technology materials used in the aerospace industry to ensure that his floating cities are theoretically possible.
According to Saraceno, “Utopia exists until it is created . . . the idea of utopia is in constant mutation and changes according to the era”.
Airport City bears a strong resemblance to The Cloud of Dubai, a resort city in the Gulf Region suspended in the 300m in the sky. The Cloud is a splendid example of the visionary architecture which we can expect to grace our planet in the very near future. It embodies the insatiable appetite for control and aspiration and spectacle which is enveloping global cities in the 21st Century.
As Boris Groys stated, “Globalisation has replaced the future as the site of utopia”. In recent decades, impossible architecture is becoming possible. The digital revolution is allowing technical advances in architectural modelling and structural engineering.
For Dubai, it seems, nothing stands in the way of utopia. This ideal city combines the principles of social organisation as proposed by Le Corbusier, with inspirational fantasy architecture as envisioned by Taut.
So if we have achieved utopia on Earth, what happens next? Given that the human race relies on our aspiration to evolve, a new utopia will have to become even more spectacular in order to inspire. Ridiculously tall buildings and contorted futurist structures may not be enough.
It is aspiration which drives the human species, and the hope that around the corner is a better tomorrow. Aspiration is the driver behind consumerism - there is never enough. As wealth increases, so too does the appetite to consume – to acquire bigger, brighter, shinier, faster, taller and more luxurious objects. Adequate wealth, it seems, is never realised.
Without aspiration, the human race would fail to adapt and evolve. If our species realise utopia, then Darwin’s theory of evolution suggests that rather than enlightenment we will find further allusions of a brighter, more fantastic utopia which can be glimpsed just beyond the horizon.
If utopia is not found in Dubai, it will perhaps be realised in China, and if not there then possibly in India. Once buildings on earth have exceeded their structural and imaginative possibilities and the spectacular becomes banal, perhaps we will look beyond the boundaries of our planet and aim towards outer space as the location of the new utopian city.
1. Vladimir Tatlin And The Russian Avant-Garde / John Milner
Published Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1983
Vladimir Tatlin And The Russian Avant-Garde / John Milner
Published Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1983
Cities From Zero / Shumon Basar
Published: AA Publications, Roos en Roos, Arnhem NL, 2007
Callum Morton: More Talk About Buildings and Mood / Stuart Koop
Published: National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication Data, 2003
Rachel Whiteread: Shedding Life / Rosalind Krauss
Published: Tate Gallery Publishing Ltd, London 1996
Rachel Whiteread: House / Filmed by John Kelly and Helen Silverlock
Published: Artangel and Hackneyed Productions, London, 1995
Toward an architecture / Le Corbusier ; introduction by Jean-Louis Cohen
Published: Frances Lincoln, London 2008
Constructed Authenticity / Hisham S. Gabr et al.
Published: University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley CA, 2004
Fantasy Architecture: 1500-2046 / Neil Bingham et al.
Published: Hayward Gallery Publishing, London, 2004
Bruno Taut: Alpine Arkitektur / Matthias Schirren
Published: Prestel Publishing Ltd, 2004
The Endless City / Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic
Published: Phaidon, London, 2007
Global Cities: Mark Abrahamson
Published: Oxford University Press, New York, 2004
The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely / Anthony Vidler
Published: MIT Press, Cambridge 1999
Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of NeoLiberalism / Mike Davis
Published: New Press, New York, Distributed by W.W. Norton & Co., 2007
Art Power / Boris Groys
Published: MIT Press, Cambridge 2008
Olafur Eliason / Chris Gilbert
Published: Bomb Magazine, Issue 88, New York, 2004
Time and Space / Kirsty Bell
Published: Frieze Magazine, Issue 116, Durian Publishing England, 2008
Ideal City, Invisible Cities / European Art Projects
http://www.idealcity-invisiblecities.org/ Viewed 10/10/2008
Psycho Buildings / Hayward Gallery
http://www.haywardgallery.org.uk/ Viewed 10/10/2008