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Utopias, 'Sustainism' and architecture: between the possible and the impossible

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Two new books – and fear of climate change – make James Pallister reconsider architecture’s relationship with utopian thought

Searching for Utopia: The History of an Idea by Gregory Claeys, Thames & Hudson, March 2011, £24.95

Sustainism is the new Modernism: A Cultural Manifesto for the Sustainist Era by Michiel Schwarz and Joost Elffers, D.A.P., December 2010, £16.95

Utopia or oblivion. For Buckminster Fuller, the future was clear. The human race was going to have to plump for one of them, and to ignore the former was to ensure the latter. That was in 1969. How do we square up to Bucky’s binary choice now? Well, we know a bit about oblivion. Globally we’re facing imminent peak oil production, retracting glaciers, nine billion mouths to feed and irreversible climate change. Oblivion, we can do.

But utopia? That’s trickier. As Gregory Claeys puts it in his new book Searching for Utopia: The History of an Idea, ‘utopia [is] perceived as possessing too much Sparta and too little carnival, too much celibacy and too little celebration … the idea [has] became tawdry, grim and humourless’. Until the financial collapse came along and ruined everything, we were happy in our post-political world. Utopias were for wackos and clapped-out Trots.

Within architecture, twentieth-century utopianism found its most clear articulation in Modernism, where good design begot human progress. ‘The architect could stipulate an intrinsic connection between the form of his buildings and the condition of society,’ wrote Colin Rowe in The Architecture of Good Intentions. According to Rowe, the architect had an ability – a duty even – to transform society for the better, and he was encouraged and compelled to assume an aggressive role to do so. Here is the progenitor to Ayn Rand’s objectionable Übermensch Howard Roark and the iconography of Modernism’s ‘crimes’: the Ronan Point tower collapse, innumerable city routs, forced rehousing and rashes of hated tower blocks. If this is architectural utopia, then oblivion doesn’t look so bad.

Gary Cooper as Howard Roark in the film of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead

Gary Cooper as Howard Roark in the film of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead

Distrust of linear human progress underpins Rowe’s argument, a view he shares with John Gray, LSE professor of political thought and author of Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. For Gray, utopias are based on a false teleological world view (one with its roots in Christianity, but one enthusiastically adopted by the Enlightenment) and are by definition flawed, and invariably have destructive results.

Gray’s lecture at the Architectural Association last year, Science and Magic – What Technology Can and Can’t Fix, explored the place of what he calls ‘magical thinking’ in society. Gray argued that rather than disappearing from society, as Enlightenment values of rationalism proliferate, the magical impulse – that is, ‘the human will that elides by trickery the natural chaos of the world’ – shifts elsewhere, to technology, science and the utopian strands of environmentalism.

Poster for a sporting event in Fuhlsbüttel, Germany 1930. John Gray Cites Nazism as a failed utopia

Poster for a sporting event in Fuhlsbüttel, Germany 1930. John Gray Cites Nazism as a failed utopia

Though man caused abrupt climate change (which Gray believes is the case), the idea that technology can stop it is illusory, he argues. His prognosis for the future goes as follows: man’s behavioural changes in energy consumption will do nothing to prevent the inevitable wars of resources and attempts to control the weather (China already has its own weather modification bureau) that will characterise the 21st century. Hobbesian behaviour will triumph over treading lightly on the Earth. In other words, ‘A high-tech green utopia is scientifically feasible, but humanly unimaginable’.

Claeys’ book offers a more hopeful version of utopia: one that sees it as the space between the possible and the impossible.In the chapter ‘Ideal Cities’, Claeys briskly takes us through the role city planning played in utopian plans, from the putative 1,500 mile-sided cube that would house the resurrected dead after the Last Judgement, to the cities in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) – flat-roofed houses built of stone or brick to a height of three stories, with luxurious gardens behind.

Along the way the usual suspects feature: John Ruskin, William Morris, Ebenezer Howard, Albert Speer, as well as sketches of lesser-known – but excellently eccentric – places, like the land of Cockayne. In this mythological city of the medieval period, edible food grows wild, and cooked animals present themselves for feasting. Working is a punishable offence.

Perspective view of one Charles Fourier's Phalanstères

Perspective view of one Charles Fourier’s Phalanstères


You may remember French socialist Charles Fourier’s Phalanstère townships from architecture school, but what about some of the more fruity arrangements of his semi-rural idylls? Like his ‘sexual courts’, which would guarantee a minimum of carnal gratification (regularity of, and variety within, all duly considered). Fourier was also the man who wrote that the Mediterranean would turn to lemonade and that ‘new species would emerge, better suited to Harmony: an anti-lion, a docile beast and most serviceable; an anti-whale, which could be harnessed to ships.’

While Claeys’ book focuses on the history of utopia, Michiel Schwarz and Joost Elffers’ Sustainism is the new Modernism: A Cultural Manifesto for the Sustainist Era is relentlessly upbeat about our future. A new ‘paradigm’ has taken hold and their book heralds a new ‘worldwide twenty-first century cultural movement >> and cultural era’. So are Schwarz and Elffers exactly the type of quacks, cranks and hucksters that emerge in times of crisis which both Gray and Claeys warn of? Probably no more than any other jobbing ‘cultural thinker and consultant’ or ‘creative producer “symbol-maker” and designer’ (as Schwarz and Elffers describe themselves) turning a buck in advanced information economies. Their theory is based on a mix of observations: of networked society, the open-source movements, cradle-to-grave design and environmentalism. These coalesce into a world view opposed to the top-down standardisation of Modernism. Their future is networked, digital and localist.

It’s a good time to publish this type of book. In 1848, when Karl Marx penned the Communist Manifesto pamphlet, he had revolutions across Europe to make the most of. Schwarz and Elffers have a consensus that man-made climate change is a fact which humanity needs to engage with; the spectre haunting Europe now is not Communism but environmentalism. Nevertheless, there is little chance their book will usher in dramatic changes in the manner of Marx. Furthermore Schwarz and Elffers’ eccentric typography and flabby aphorisms grate after a while, and leave a decent argument that deals with specifics frustratingly lacking.

Schwarz and Elffers’ argument is unpicked by failing to engage with tricky subjects. What to do about the planned obsolescence built into consumer products, the relentless way in which capitalism detourns potentially threatening protest movements as marketing collateral and the messy moral ambiguities that arise from a globally linked trade system?

Ultimately this limitation comes from its positioning as a post-political viewpoint. As in architecture – where to some it’s tempting to see it as an autonomous profession and jealously guard it as such, trying to return to the prelapsarian notion that were it not for the planners, the cost consultants, protracted procurement, building codes and the corrupting influence of politics, architecture could be ’pure’ – it’s unrealistic. Prometheus has stolen the fire, Adam and Eve have eaten from the tree of knowledge, they’re out of the Garden of Eden and there’s no going back.

The way forward cannot ignore politics. Since Thomas More, a consistent concern within utopian thought has been with poverty and unequal distribution of resources. This has accelerated over the last three centuries and now we are faced with a growing population which wants to ape the patently unsustainable consumption of first-world countries. China overtook Japan in GDP output a fortnight ago and will overtake the USA within a decade according to some analysts, yet per head its income is just $7,500 to the USA’s $47,123. Closing this gap upwards will require more resources than the Earth can afford – and downwards? This is definitely a problem that requires politics.

If Modernism couldn’t deliver, are we any better off investing our hope in a theory which claims to take its place? That approach hasn’t served humanity very well in the past. The answer rests on another question, which Claeys asks in his concluding chapter: ‘Can the quest for utopia be salvaged, or is the very proposition not merely futile, but doomed to repeat the atrocious follies of the 20th century?’ His answer is a guarded ‘yes’.

The act of design requires a suspension of disbelief. Claeys’ book documents this well. Perhaps architects, designers and politicians need to embrace this in their political lives and leave a little room for utopia. The task is to cautiously, gently, with a strong sense of humility and vigilance of folly, try to avoid – or postpone – oblivion by engaging upon fashioning a new utopia. As Claeys puts it, echoing Bucky, the trick is to ‘manage “progress”, rather than be driven by it: our ideal world must be very much our own creation, and a serious reckoning with the fate we face if we fail to create it.’

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