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Urban blueprints

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Ideal Cities: Utopianism and the (Un)built Environment By Ruth Eaton.Thames & Hudson, 2002. 256pp. £39.95

In 2001, for the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Ruth Eaton co-curated an exquisite exhibition on utopian city plans - 'The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World'. This follow-on book is itself rather like an exhibition: it has beautifully reproduced images of landmarks in utopian theory, design and planning (both familiar and obscure), with a text brief enough to serve as plaques on a museum wall.

That text seems to be constructed around the book's images, rather than develop its own compelling narrative, or convey the true complexity of the subject. In, for example, her discussion of utopian thought in 20th century Western society, Eaton says: 'As every aspect of life became mechanised, human beings increasingly resembled cogs in a massive machine aimed at achieving maximum productivity and guaranteeing future material well-being.'

This might be an acceptable introduction for a public new to the topic, but it is fairly lightweight. This was, after all, a period when the ideal of 'utopianism' thoroughly saturated architecture and urban planning. Since the Modernist critique of Manfredo Tafuri and others, it is hard not to think that utopianism was as much responsible for the mechanisation of daily life as it was a product of the period, but this is never mentioned in Ideal Cities.

In fact, Eaton's survey of 20th-century utopias before 1940 is little more than a cursory glance at the highlights of the period:

Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Hilberseimer, etc. There are, however, movements that she favours, and when she writes about them, the book comes to life with fresh research, observations and insights.

One of these is Russian Constructivism, to which (along with Suprematism and Rationalism) she devotes nearly the same number of words as to the rest of the first half of the 20th century. She presents interesting perspectives on the influence of Fordism and Taylorism on the artists, architects, and even Lenin, during the period. In addition, she details the plans of Alexei Gastev, inventor of the term 'social engineering', for a super-urbanised, industrialised territory of geometrically shaped megalopolises that would spread across Siberia to North America in a single continuous continent.

Here Eaton uses little-known but seductive utopian drawings by Kontsatin Youon and Nathan Altman to bring her story to life, and highlights many figures usually thought to be peripheral to the movement, including Georgy Krutikov and Yakov Chernikov.

Ideal Cities not only details visual explorations but literary attempts to imagine perfected landscapes. Eaton naturally devotes many pages to Thomas More and to the influential writings of Edward Bellamy, and marks the historic change in utopian thought with Sébastien Mercier's L'An 2440.

Rêve s'il en fut jamais (1771). This, she points out, was the first 'uchronic' work - one that places an ideal society elsewhere in time than in space.

In one of the book's most interesting chapters, 'Exporting the Ideal to the New World', Eaton methodically links the intellectual concept of utopia to built settlements. She describes how Spanish conquistadors and religious leaders (especially the Jesuits) imported their ideas and utopian dreams from Europe to the Americas, which they considered an untouched land reminis cent of an earlier golden age. They buil gridded compounds that rejected vernacula models, with their deep spiritual and cultur al significance for the indigenou population, to impose European rules and religion.Utopian spatial and social planning were partners in crime once more.

Eaton claims that American planning in the first half of the 20th century 'was charac terised by an almost unadulterated enthusiasm for the material benefit brought about by technological break throughs and industrialisation'. Sh supports this with a discussion of Wright' brilliant Broadacre City scheme and with Hugh Ferris' seductive drawings. But sh never mentions the Regional Planning Asso ciation and Lewis Mumford's idea suburban plans that lead to Radburn, th green-belt towns and, perhaps most impor tantly, the Tennessee Valley Authority.

In fact, Mumford and other members o the RPA eventually became critical of tech nology, and their critique represents an important utopian strain in American thinking abou cities. Eaton's version o American events is simply too superficial.

Ideal Cities concludes in a most unexpected manner 'Almost all the urban blue prints we have reviewed represent examples o humankind's quest to dom inate nature, and in this way have all contributed to ou increasing divorce from it says Eaton - who goes on to promote her own utopian vision of the future.

Based on the declaration of Rio, she proposes a new utopia based on sustainabl development. She argue that a new model of utopian ideal cities mus recognise that it cannot impose a single idea across the globe but be one of modulated local initiatives and solutions. But she neve describes how this notion of developmen and planning at the local level will make any difference, as long as leaders like Georg Bush say 'no' to the Kyoto agreement and turn a blind eye to the melting polar ice cap Ideal Cities is a perfect book for someon teaching a university course on utopias o ideal cities, but it is too basic to be of interes to scholars, and its narrative lacks the pas sion to engage the general public.

William Menking is an architectural historian

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