Written in 1921 as a response to the Russian revolution of 1917, ‘We’ is generally recognised as the genesis point of the futuristic dystopia genre. It takes the totalitarian and conformative aspects of modern industrial society to an extreme conclusion, depicting a state that believes that free will and independent thought is the root of all unhappiness, and therefore all citizens' lives should be centrally controlled with mathematical precision based on a system of industrial efficiency. The novel is both a tragedy of a conflicted modern man struggling to conform within his society, as well as an account of the same said flawed utopia. Over the intervening decades since its original release, We has become alarmingly relevant once more, in our age of political and cultural upheaval.
> A Dystopian Urban Allegory?
The plot follows the main character, D-503, who is a mathematician and chief engineer working on the ‘Integral’ project, which involves the conquest of space by the One State, following its conquest of earth. Throughout the course of the novel he develops the ultimate evil, a soul, and begins a rebellious relationship with a woman, I-330. She, it transpires, is involved in a revolutionary group, the Mephi, who are working to overthrow the One State. Together they make numerous visits to the ‘Ancient House’ [the last remaining opaque structure] and over the Green Wall to gather support from the ‘outsiders’. As the novel reaches its climax, the rebellion is in full swing. A portion of the Green Wall has been destroyed and outsiders are streaming forth into the One State. In response, the One State sanctions the mandatory mass lobotomising of the population, the so-called ‘Great Operation’. The novel ends with the repeated mantra that there is no final revolution, human society will always, ultimately function like a human, and utopia, however well-intentioned, will always breed dystopia. The central issues of We could be assimilated by any member of contemporary society, especially considering the disenchantment with urban life that is prevalent in the modern city. Perhaps we should take heed from Zamyatin’s forewarning concerning a ruling caste’s attempts to remain in power through a heady mixture of coercion, psychological conditioning and architectural subjugation, and the possible ramifications when they begin to lose their grip over the individual.
> Architecture as Utopian Vehicle?
The One State’s ideology, represented by the Integral project, is often seen as corresponding to the ideal of a global communist state held by early Marxists, but it may be more broadly understood as a representation of the predisposition of all modernising, industrial societies toward empire and colonisation under the guise of civilising development for "primitive peoples”. This is, fundamentally, a materialist view that reduces society to physical laws and processes that can be comprehended and manipulated for utilitarian purposes. It was a world view that Zamyatin detested, and We embellishes this conflict between a free society and a mass-deception-controlled, industrialised societal order.
These themes have found increasing resonance within contemporary society. The Green Wall in particular has come to represent all manner of evils within our post-industrial age, namely the poverty, political and religious divides. The fact that this literary metaphor is architectural in nature speaks volumes of the present urban condition – one infected with mass segregation and division. Of course, these divides require a political solution first and foremost, but they will also eventually require an architectural manifestation, and our 'Green Walls' will ultimately need redesigning so that architecture can be mobilised as a vehicle for societal emancipation and egalitarianism rather than elitism and societal subjugation.