Utopia: imagined perfect places

Lilypad by Vicent Callebaut

Utopias are ‘invisible cities’, imagined perfect places, idealized states of possibility, envisioned in the minds of designers and writers like ltalo Calvino.

Illustration based on “Octavia” from Invisible Cities by Rebecca Chappell

The term was first used as the name of an imaginary island by Sir Thomas More in his book published in 1516. In More’s dream, Utopian islanders were governed by a perfect political and social system – a system later given a new and anatomical twist in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1949).

Utopia is a meaningful program for action that comes out of the thought that ‘transcends the immediate situation’ – something that can ‘break the bonds’ of established society. – Karl Mannheim

Utopian ideas make visible the invisible world of the ideal. They emerge from thoughts of consequential change; idealistic dreams that summon up images that may radically alter the world. Various utopias have been imagined in the form of ideal cities. For example, those emanating from the dreams of Ebenezer Howard, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the group is known as Archigram, although unbuilt, were influential and have been clearly documented to represent change. However, all realized that, if there was to be a radical change, their plans had to be attended by political and economic agendas.

Garden City by Ebenezer Howard

Based upon decentralization, with a communally owned land, suburban in nature, and with all needs accessible, Howard’s radially planned ‘garden city of tomorrow (1896) later inspired Le Corbusier’s La Ville Radieuse (1935). Unlike Howard, Le Corbusier proposed a vertical ‘garden city’ peppered with high-rise blocks. In the same year that Le Corbusier published his Radiant City, Wright’s vision of utopia was set out against a grid and called Broadacre City.

Radiant City by Le Corbusier

Like Howard’s Garden City, Broadacre City was anti-technology and promoted an agrarian way of life; it was concerned with universal ownership and presented a decentralized sprawl. On the other hand, drawing from 1960s pop culture with themes such as mass communication and mobility, Archigram renounced a static architecture in favour of a dramatized and choreographic technology expressed in their Walking City. Influenced by science fiction and NASA imagery, Archigram’s vision came in turn, to inspire the ‘high-tech’ imagery of Piano and Roger’s Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Walking City by Archigram

Meanwhile, Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti in ‘Aridzona’ is another attempt at realizing a form of utopia.

Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti in ‘Arizona’