The Molten Mind Space

  • Nadia Davidson

Art and The Utopian Impulse

How is art utopian? And what does this mean for artists today?

Art of dystopia

Envisaging cities and architecture is of prime concern for the welfare not just of individuals but for society as a whole. Although some critics argue we have reached the end of utopian thought, the existence of a current Journal of Utopian Studies bears witness to the falsehood of this statement.

As an artist, I believe that art should be aspirational and hopeful, inspiring to others and imaginative. The most effective way to achieve this, not just in architecture, but in art as a whole, is, I believe, through a study of utopian models and a discussion of their influence on contemporary culture.

I see my work as being socially engaged as all utopian dreams have their origins in the social ills of their time and I see the exploration of utopian ideals through art as a valuable contribution to understanding the problems in contemporary culture and perhaps even as a long term means of rectifying them.

The indifference which defines the state of post-modern urbanism today, because the utopian model is too often feared as an unfulfilled promise, is worrying.

“For many…to talk of the city of the 21st century is to conjure up a dystopian nightmare” (Harvey 1996)

Post-modernism is the architecture of dystopia. It is the architecture of deconstruction and distortion. Every traditional quality in it is reduced to the level of the banal, posing in a seductive consumerist mask, empty, and devoid of historicism or any cohesive ideology which drives it.

No place

Ever since the publication of the communist manifesto in 1848, there has been a general move towards utopianism in architectural design. The Victorians looked back to the high ideals of the gothic, yet in attempting to emulate the style, they often fell short of the mark. However William Morris (1834-1896) was an exception.

With his strongly socialist and Romantic ideals he proposed first; the preservation, rather than the clumsy, tasteless restoration, of ancient gothic buildings; then, in his utopian romance News from Nowhere (the literal translation of utopia is ‘no place’) he advanced his views on what should be the ideal state. And finally, he put forward the notion of the garden city or suburb and the green belt, as a check on expansion, for all cities (which was revolutionary at the time).

The concept, that man could and should live in harmony with nature was a big change in perspective, since the massive growth of cities which took place during the industrial revolution.

An architect who specifically followed this policy was the American Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959), who believed in the coming emergence of a new egalitarian culture in early 20th century America, which he called ‘Usonia.’ His Usonian houses, the most famous of which is “Falling Water,” in Pennsylvania, used the most modern of materials (concrete and glass) and machine-made parts. Yet it is in harmony with the landscape, the small river flows directly under and through the building and so forms and inseparable part of it.

Falling water designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

Morris, in News from Nowhere, explains that there should be a:

“Gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country by a more equal distribution of the population over the land.” (Frampton 1992)

The idea that here would naturally be a dispersal of people away from cities, and that cities themselves would finally disappear, was also a view held by Wright. In fact:

“Wright declared that the future city will be everywhere and nowhere, and that “it will be a city so greatly different from the ancient city, or from any city of today, that we will probably fail to recognise its coming as a city at all.”” (Frampton 1992)

Technological utopia?

However, the city of tomorrow could take on a very different shape, that of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse (or Radiant City).

Le Corbusier or Charles Edouard Jeanneret (1887-1965), was greatly influenced by the notion of a ‘living commune.’ Throughout his architectural career he created many variations on this theme. However he believed in a purist aesthetic – that of the machine age, and stood largely in opposition to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

He saw houses as beautiful machines, rather in the way the futurists looked on machinery. They revered dynamism in all things and their love of machinery even went as far as to imbue trains and bridges with personalities:

“Bridges flashing like knifes in the sun, giant gymnasts that leap rivers…deep chested locomotives that paw the ground with their wheels, like stallions harnessed with steel tubing.” (Frampton 1992)

In the 1930’s, his faith in mechanization as the salvation of mankind, was lost. He moved away from his fabulous city projects and turned to rough stone work and timber, whilst building mainly private houses.

But, the Ville Radieuse was the culmination of all his socialist ideals. In 1920 he first developed his characteristic roof gardens, which, as part of his “5 points of ‘new’ architecture,” he claimed, restored the area of ground covered by the house.

He believed a city should be a wall-less ‘open’ city or a continuous park, with all structures raised on piles off the ground, so that the clear surface below would allow pedestrians to wander at will. There were no streets or city centre. Instead the city was zoned into parallel bands, with the head of the city as sixteen cruciform skyscrapers, above the cultural area or ‘heart’ which was situated between two ‘lungs’ (or residential areas). This biological ‘machine’ clearly demonstrates Le Corbusier’s obsession for creating order.

However this brings up the problem of realising such a vision. That a utopia is seen as a non-existent place has been one of the most difficult problems facing urban planners who have tried to visualise utopias.

Since “Cities are imaginary as well as real spaces; they are constituted by dreams and desires, conscious and unconscious longings and fears, along with material developments and practices.” (Pinder 2002)

Here we have the problem of dealing with the social aspect, which is a very necessary part of all architecture.

Unlike many utopias of the 20th century, Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse could have been realised, simply because of its absolute rationality. However, for his utopia to be lived, there had to be a dictatorial authority to enforce the ‘happiness’ of the inhabitants. the plan became more important than the residents. In this way, a utopia can soon become a dictatorship.

This is a dilemma faced by many utopias which fail to consider individual freedom. However, freedom and happiness are not necessarily identical; consider Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) in which enforced happiness is produced by the attainment of all desires.

Utopia as a process

Noted utopian theorist, Fredric Jameson, does not, however, consider utopia as simply a space. Following the premise of philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, he uses the concept of a utopia as a ‘machine’ for thought.

“For Jameson, utopia is not a place, but a process.” (Buchanan 1998)

This process Jameson uses to diagnose the health of contemporary society.

His process is based on his theory of the Utopian Impulse, which drives us all to envisage utopias. Jameson claims that the Utopian Impulse is repressed within all culture and mass culture.

“Resistance to utopia [is] the ailment he finally diagnoses our culture as suffering from.” (Buchanan 1998).

The conclusion he reaches is that:

“the Utopian Machine presents itself by not presenting that which it in fact represents…Utopia is the act of promising.” (Buchanan 1998)

This makes sense when you realise that the fulfilment of the promise (what it represents) cannot be experienced at the same time as the expectation of the fulfilment of the promise (what is not presented).

This leads to the notion of a utopia as a performative action, and utopia as a ‘promising-machine.’

Therefore, no-one can fully realise a utopia successfully, since it defies presentation (because it is the act of promising). For Jameson a utopia is

“an immanent dimension…because it never rises above the realm in which it is and can be thought.” (Buchanan 1998)

In this way he uses it simply as a mode of thought.

Utopian character of art

But, to use utopias artistically we must return to Deleuze and Guattari, who call art a ‘desiring-machine,’ (which could easily define a utopia as well). Art theorist and philosopher Theodor Adorno also talks of

“Art as a promise, as the promise of another world.”

Adorno believes that art, which is utopian in character, shows up that which is lacking in current society, and that this kind of art can set itself up in opposition to the present and hence, open up the present to the future – which he calls the realm of hope.

Adorno’s critique of art is that: the happiness art promises acts both as a means of criticising society, and as an ideal for creating a better one.

However, how can one represent that which, even Adorno says, in unable to be represented – utopia?


Deleuze and Guattari provide a solution to this in their theory of the simulacrum. Deleuze and Guattari claim that

“’real’ entities are in fact undercover simulacra that have consented to feign being copies.” (Massumi 1987)

They have requisitioned reality in order to produce new reality. Deleuze and Guattari then treat both model and copy as secondary productions.

The distinction now is no longer one of reality or fantasy, but instead that of two types of simulacrum. Simulation which creates surface systems for itself, and is seen as ‘reality.’ The other type of simulation is art.

Deleuze and Guattari invent a language for talking about simulation without mentioning representation. This, they call “double becoming.” Related specifically to art, they explain that: “Through the strategic mimicry of double becoming [we can] combine as many potentials as possible.” (O’Sullivan 2006) This Deleuze and Guattari call the “eternal return,” since the process is virtually endless. Hence through the combination of unlikely and unrelated objects and ideas one can produce an entirely new ‘reality’ – which is art.

Desiring machine

Yet, I wonder is a utopia possible within our current society?

Well, perhaps the realisation of an, physical utopia may not be, but, I would posit that, through art it is possible to envisage some of the solutions to our present day ills; ills caused by this society.

Deleuze and Guattari, in their consideration of art as a ‘desiring-machine’ say that:

“sometimes (individual) desiring-production can work to destabilise social production as a whole” (O’Sullivan 2006)

Hence I believe that by desiring utopia, even simply as an individual artist, can create interference in some of the commonly held social ‘codes’ and inspires others to see these differently.

I believe that art is the most specifically utopian imaginative practice. A work of art should be life enhancing as well as life affirming.

Promise of a better world

As architecture moves into dystopia, we continue to dream of utopia. Also, with the very real threats to our environment, the emergence of ‘green’ architecture, which may be wholly utopian, will not be long in coming.

Since reality is all about movement and change, and utopias are generally seen as a static vision of perfection, it has been posited that:

“only a utopia based on movement could possibly work” (Kampen 2010).

That a utopia should be one of constant change has been explored by other architects, most spectacularly by David Fisher, a conceptual architect who has created a dynamic architecture in which the buildings themselves should move in a gentle spiral so that the inhabitants can have the benefits of constantly changing scenery.

moving skyscrapers designed by David Fisher

Many other wholly computer-generated architecture shows that this is the future we can look forward to, if only there will be the social environment for it to flourish in.

Meanwhile artists must show that there is the promise of a better world, if we have the courage to change. Utopia has broken the fetters of its static mould as Jameson and other contemporary utopian theorists show, and we can unleash it as a potent force once more, through art that believes in the future – the realm of hope.


Frampton K. (1992) Modern Architecture: a critical history, Thames & Hudson

O’Sullivan, S (2006) Art Encounters: Deleuze and Guattari thoughts beyond representation, Palgrave Macmillan

Pindar D. (2002) ‘In Defence of Utopian Urbanism: Imagining Cities after the “End of Utopia”’ [online] Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography, Vol. 84, No. 3/4, Special Issue: The Dialectics of Utopia and Dystopia (2002), pp. 229-241

Buchanan, I (1998) ‘Metacommentary on Utopia, or Jameson's dialectic of hope,’ Utopian Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2 (1998), pp. 18-30

Kampen A. V. (2010) Here Comes the Sun – Utopian Architecture in Le Corbusier’s Cite Radieuse [online]

Massumi B. (1987) Realer than the Real: The Simulacrum According to Deleuze and Guattari [online]

Harvey D. (1996) Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference Oxford, Blackwell

#art #philosophy #utopia #architecture

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • YouTube
  • Pinterest
  • Tumblr Social Icon
  • Instagram

Copyright Nadia Davidson 2019