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This article examines the concept of Utopia, the ideal society. Utopianism was a central motivation for the Modern Movement in architecture and design: it was the source of Modernism’s tremendous ambition, but also it colossal failures. The article explores some of the Utopian cities built during the 20th century, including Modernist ‘ideal’ cities.
The concept of Utopia was devised by the philosopher Sir Thomas More in a book published in 1516. In the book, Utopia is the name of a fictional island in the Atlantic which supports an ideal community with a seemingly perfect social, political and legal system. It is significant that Utopia was conceived as an island; the perfect society had to be isolated from the rest of the world to avoid being corrupted by it. Crucially, More did not believe that such an ideal society was possible - it was a purely philosophical concept. In fact, the word Utopia comes from the Greek term ‘no place’, indicating that for More Utopia was an impossible dream.
Thomas More’s map of Utopia
However, many architects and town planners have been preoccupied with the idea of the perfect society and devised hugely ambitious schemes, believing that a rationally planned environment could create a more rational, more efficient society. In particular, Modernism was fueled by utopian optimism for the future. However, history has proved that it is misguided, even dangerous, to build such grandiose schemes.
Modernist architects of the 20th century devised ‘ideal’ cities – completely new environments based on new social theories. They tried to create the environment of the future. An example is Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse – the Radiant City (1927). This was Le Corbusier’s Utopian dream. It consists of identical monolithic blocks located in vast greenbelts. The blocks are linked up by high speed expressways. This is a supremely rational environment, but the anonymous blocks are repetitive; they deny individuality.
The Ville Radieuse was never fully implemented, but Le Corbusier did manage to construct the Unité d’habitation in Marseilles, which embodies his concept of communal living. This is a monolithic block raised off the ground on stilts and elevated above the decay and disorder of the city. The block houses an indoor market, a school and communal recreation areas all in one building. Again, this seems ultra-efficient, but it is overly rational. It is dangerous for an architect to think he can anticipate the needs of all users. Even the name habitation unit is dehumanising.
Utopian schemes were an attempt to improve on the conventional city. Modernists disliked like real cities – they thought they were chaotic and uncoordinated. Modernists were obsessed with order and rationality, so they devised schemes to simplify the city. In particular, they separated it out according to function. For example, they believed that people should live in residential areas that were separate from the business areas. The blocks were to be linked up by a road network. It was believed that this would make society more rational.
The problem is that a space designed for only one purpose can become sterile. Cities need variety, diversity and interaction. In the 1960s and 70s there was a crticial backlash against Modernism. The American writer Jane Jacobs published a book called The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), which was a brilliant critique of Modernist architecture. Jacobs examined Modernist planning schemes and argued that they were dehumanising because they denied individuality. People can’t relate to the environment, and that leads to alienation. In contrast, she cited her own neighbourhood of Greenwich Village in New York as a better model. Greenwich Village is a space of varied use. It has social and ethnic diversity and it’s characterised by vigorous life. It was part of a real, organic city, not an artificial Modernist one.
Few of the utopian cities were fully realised, but Brasilia in South America is a rare example of Modernist ‘utopia’ that actually was built. The original capital of Brazil was Rio de Janeiro, but in 1956 the government decided to build a new capital in the centre of the country. The site was a wasteland; so they built an artificial city in the middle of nowhere. It was completed in only 41 months. This is the closest thing we have to a Modernist Utopia, although the art critic Robert Hughes calls it a ‘utopian horror’.
Much of it was designed by Oscar Neimeyer, a Modernist architect who was born in South America but studied under Le Corbusier. Like the Ville Radieuse it consists of monolithic housing buildings located in the suburbs and separated from the city by huge distances. The road network links up the separate areas, but as you can see it also acts as a barrier unless you have a car.
Like Paris, Brasilia was designed to prevent revolution. It has been described as a city without crowds because the planners abolished all the spaces where people could gather. The streets were replaced by high speed expressways, so there is no real public space in the entire city. Public space is important; it is the arena in which we represent ourselves as a public. Public space can be used as a platform for political action. In fact, revolutions are often referred to as a ‘taking to the streets’. Public space is crucial for democracy. The Brazilian government tried to abolish public space. Without it, people had nowhere to congregate, nowhere to express their views. The design has been interpreted as a ‘counter-revolutionary strategy’.
This is the government centre, a sleek Modernist edifice with oversized abstract sculpture.
This is the cathedral by Oscar Niemeyer, consisting of bold parabolic arches reminiscent of the crown of thorns.
The central problem is that an ideal society is a logical impossibility: societies are made up of millions of individuals and individuals will never agree on what constitutes an ideal society. To try to create an ‘ideal’ society would mean suppressing individuality. For that reason, one person’s utopia inevitably becomes a dystopia. The utopian cities of the 20th century are megalomanical nightmares for everyone but their creators.
There have been many attempts to create the ideal environment for the ideal society. Modernist architects devised ideal cities and some of these were partially realised. However, the concept of a planned city is dangerous because no single plan can anticipate the needs of millions. Real cities have grown organically; they reflect the variety and complexity of society.
Please see the following articles for further information on Modernist architecture: