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The Molten Mind Space

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.