V for Visionary Series

Defying Boundaries at the Verge of Utopia

In the midst of the cultural and political ferment of 1960s France, a group of avant-garde architects, artists, writers, theorists, and critics known as “spatial urbanists” envisioned a series of urban utopias, phantom cities of a possible future.

In 1961 Henri Lefebvre published a short essay defending the concept of what he called “experimental utopia,” which he defined as “imaginary variations on themes and exigencies defined by the real understood in the broadest sense: by the problems posed by reality and by the virtualities held within it.” It was the exploration of human possibilities, with the help of the image and the imagination, accompanied by a ceaseless criticism and a ceaseless reference to the given problematic in the ‘real.’”

Eckhard Schulze-Fielitz | raumstadt (Spatial Urbanism) Urbanismo Espacial | 1959-1962

Henri Lefebvre had been thinking about cities since 1947, the time he published the first volume of his pioneering study, Critique of Everyday Life. He moved to Paris in the late 1950’s and eventually met several young, very attentive readers of his book, future members of the Situationist International: Constant Nieuwenhuis, Guy Debord, Michelle Bernstein, and Raoul Vaneigem — the Situationist concept of the ‘situation’ was closely related to the Lefebvrian concept of the ‘moment’. He’s book, The Right to the City (1967) is a result of such friendship. Lefebvre, decided to take up the issue of the city once more, and his decision came at an interesting time.

This is a period where Modernity begun to be categorized as an impoverished realm where the affective powers of the symbol. The city has been thoroughly commodified. It is a privileged space for the consumption of commodities and it is consumed as if it were one large commodity. “The city is no longer lived and it is no longer understood practically”[1], Lefebvre writes.

In the midst of the cultural and political ferment of 1960s France, a group of avant-garde architects, artists, writers, theorists, and critics known as “spatial urbanists” envisioned a series of urban utopias, phantom cities of a possible future.

The scene is set. Born out of a crisis in classical modernity, Constant and Friedman exemplars of what radical architecture can be. Debord’s Situationism makes it impossible to conceive of architecture without people, movement or desire. For ten years and more, architects ferverishly reinvented the city to be variously; spiritual (Székely), instant (Archigram), crater (Chanéac), floating (Kurokawa and Kikutake), compact (Pichler), oblique (Architecture Principle) and continuous (Archizoom and Superstudio).[2]

Constant Nieuwnhuys

In 1956, the Marxist, one-time CoBrA group artist, Constant Nieuwnhuys and the Parisian and provocateur, Guy Debord meet; the year in which Constant begins an architectural global utopia, New Babylon. Entirely speculative, Constant described it as ‘another city for another life’. [3] It is with Debord and his band of revolutionaries drifting through the streets of Paris, calling for a new psychological understanding of the city and with Constant’s vast network of zones made up of voids and buildings, constructions and deconstructions.

Yona Friedman

The super-imposition of one city over the other, Spatial City (1958-60), presents another critical starting point. In looking at the urban situation, Friedman championed mobility over stasis, complexity over formalism. Above all, and unlike Constant, Friedman embraced the unpredictable and the chaotic growth of urban situation in which the inhabitant is an active player.

Yona Friedman around the Ville Spatiale

Taking up where Friedman and Constant left off, architects such as Hans Hollein and Huth & Domenig imagined vast floated structures made up of capsules and ‘plug-ins’, so called ‘megastructures’. The Japanese Metabolists were hugely influential in taking the metaphor of growth and applying it to the buildings and the city of the future.

In late 1960’s Italy, Archizoom’s No-Stop City (1962-72) and Superstudio’s The continuous Monument (1969) offered a merciless critique of society Exodus or the voluntary Prisoners of Architecture (1972), Rem Koolhaas along with his OMA colleagues, draw in celebration of an urban congestion – Delirious New York (1976), as examples. [4]

The revolutionary utopias and dystopias of the period 1956 to 1976 period give way in the 1980’s to the deconstructivist work of Bernard Tschumi, Eisenman, Libeskind and Morphosis among others. Since 1990, contemporary practice has been dominated by the revolution in digital technology. In practice this means architects have the capacity to design even more complex forms and to realize these with specialized computer driven tools.  Computer generated data can be used to inform the very fabric of buildings and possibly to re-think our future cities.

The boundaries between conceptual and installation based art and architecture continue to blur. Have each challenged our preconceptions of what architecture can and should be. Architects must continue to reclaim the city, even if it is only on paper. But, when computer-aided design can lead to an obsession with formal complexity at the expense of an engagement with society, what constitutes the truly radical?

Finishing note,

“Unlike utopias of the past, present ones are almost all immediately achievable.” — Michael Rogon, 1960

Today, 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. Adaptivity is the keyword. But who can argue with the goal, and since the very word socialism has become an insult, who would dare to?

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. One can say that Information is the ideal capitalist product. Then we come to architects themselves. Let us concentrate on avant-garde architects who have some visible profile, we don’t find work that envisions a social world widely improved by architecture.

Have we reached the end of utopia as well as the end of history?

credits: [1] Henri Lefebvre, “Utopie expérimentale: Pour un nouvel urbanisme,” Revue française de sociologie 2, no.3 (July-September 1961), p.192.  [2] Edited by Jane Alison, Future City experiments and utopia in architecture, Thames & Hudson.  [3]Abraham Robison, ‘Non-standard Analysis’, in Proceedings of the International Congress of Mathematicians, Amsterdam, North Holland Publishing Co., 1961, pp. 432-440. Abraham Robison, Non-standard Analysis, Amsterdam, North Holland Publishing Co., 1966.  [4] Edited by Jane Alison, Future City experiments and utopia in architecture, Thames & Hudson.
further readings: Edited by Jane Alison, Future City experiments and utopia in architecture, Thames & Hudson; Baudrillard, Jean. Utopia Deferred writings from utopie (1967-(1978), Semiotext <e> 2006; Lang, Michael H. Designing Utopia: John Ruskin’s urban vision for Britain and America, Montreal; New York: Black Rose Books, 1999; Edited by Martin van Schaik. Exit Utopia: architectural provocations, 1956-76, Munich; London; New York: Prestel, 2005; Scott, Felicity Dale Elliston. Architecture or Techno-utopia, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007; Edited by George Slusser, Paul Alkon. Transformations of Utopia: changing views of the perfect society, New York: AMS Press, 1999; Tafuri, Manfredo. Projecto e Utopia arquitectura e desenvolvimento do capitalismo, Coleccao Dimensoens, Editorial Presenca, Vila de Feira, 1985; Weisbrod, Carol. The Boundaries of Utopia, New York: Pantheon Books, 1980; Wild, Bavid. Fragments of Utopia: collage reflections of heroic modernism, London: Hyphen, 1998

Defying Boundaries at the Verge of Utopia