09/10/2010

// DATABANK - 'VISIONS OF THE CITY' [D. PINDER, 2006]


Utopia is envisioned to be an ideal place, where love and joy is felt by all its citizens, and a sense of community and a shared goal dominate the social structure. Utopia can be understood as an expression of a desire for a better way of being and living, the ideal condition or blueprint for a perfect future. The word utopia refers simultaneously to ‘somewhere good’ and to ‘nowhere’; the double meaning is found in the Greek compounds eu-topos [a happy or fortunate place] and ou-topos [no place]. Interestingly, all visions of utopia focus upon the city, so much so that it can be argued that utopia and the image of the city are inseparable. Utopian ideas vary depending on the ideological basis upon which they were formed. There are those who argue both that utopia is a fantasy which should be left to the pages of history, and others who believe it is a necessary element to the creative process of design. The main characteristic of the visions discussed in this book is that, for the most part, the instigators of the utopian plans insisted that they were not utopian in an unrealistic or impractical, belonging to a distant future or to the realm of fantasy, but rather they asserted that the transformation they imagined could be realised if certain changes to society and space were set in motion.

> The Demise of Utopia
During the 20th Century, utopia has played a vital role in social and political thought and activism across the spectrum. For the S.I. and their avant-garde associates, a key task for radical political action lay in changing cities and social space.  Urbanism was not reducible to planning, but incorporated political questions about everyday life and urban culture.  They critiqued the alienating and image-saturated conditions of the post war era, the ‘society of the spectacle’ and advocated autonomous struggles against hierarchical power in all its manifestations. Many urban commentators have pointed out the numerous catastrophes and horrors to which utopian plans have lead arguing that utopian ideals have been too often driven by authoritarian principles, and too closely associated with totalitarianism, and that its demise should be welcomed. Perhaps, as urban designers, we should be looking upon the recent collapse of utopia as a reflective and long-term crisis of the city and of urbanity generally.  After all, utopia was the collective dream that drove the modernisation process in, by its capitalist and socialist forms.

> Utopia = Dystopia
In Thomas More’s so-called Utopia, and later in George Orwell’s 1984, harmonious social and moral order are maintained via surveillance; overriding traditional utopian values and confronting disordered spaces thus establishing a new order.  Has today’s surveillance society’ fallen victim to these dystopian characteristics? Also the question arises as to the validity of utopian principles when one man’s dream-world is another man’s nightmare. Due to the diversity of opinion about what is a desirable state, utopia can be rendered completely worthless at best or deeply oppressive at worst. Chtcheglov believes utopia has been suppressed by dominant social relations and ideological apparatuses.  He argues that the realm of production and conveniences has overstepped an initial aim of alleviating material cares, and the urban landscape, a once charged and poetic realm, has become drained of mystery and passion, in what he describes as the “banalisation of city space”.

> Post-Utopia?
Our imaginations, haunted by the old archetypes, have remained far behind the sophistication of machines in the information age. With the rise of relativity in all spheres of life, and with the establishment of an increasingly mobile and machine-based society, architecture represents the means of experimenting with a myriad ways of transforming life, with a view to a secure synthesis of inhabitant and environment. There is a sense that any discussion of utopianism today is occurring ‘after utopia’.  There is a widespread feeling that utopian urban projects belong to a previous age, as remnants of hopeful but na├»ve thought, as depleted husks unable to respond to current social demands. The central paradox inherent in utopian thought for the would-be urban designer is just how to we set about attempting to reconcile the fact that utopia equates to dystopia, whilst simultaneously a lack of utopia amounts to the same?


> A Brave New World?
Utopia is a transformation of our urban consciousness. Fredric Jameson, the political theorist, argued that the question of utopia would seem to be a crucial test of our collective capacity to imagine change at all. Renowned sociologist Karl Mannheim once pointed out that the representatives of a given order will label utopian all conceptions of existence, which from their ideological/social/political point of view, can in principal never be realised.  If this is the case then surely utopia is completely inconceivable.  However, pursuing the inconceivable can still bring about positive change, and as the S.I. succinctly put it, “the transformation of everyday life requires the transformation of everyday space and vice versa”. So, what has become of the ‘utopian search’?  Whether such a thing exists is entirely down to an interpretation of what is utopia, and as Lefebvre argues, “Although utopia might be discredited, it should not be abandoned.” It is our responsibility as architects and urban designers to strive beyond the banal.  Utopian or not, we must plan the ideal city instead of settling upon the ‘good enough’ city, if the banalisation of the city is to cease its cancerous conquest of the urban domain.