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UNCERTAIN  UTOPIA

WORDS BY Tom Morgan

Utopia is a dirty word.

They get you coming and going. Utopia – decried for its association with the excesses of modern planning – paradise at any cost. And utopia – the impossible – the preserve of dreamers – a site of escape when serious work needs to be done.

The idea of utopia is implicitly integrated with the act of dislocation. Prototypical utopia – that of the early modern – was displaced out; to other lands, to the edges of the map. Through violence, the mutable and mysterious was assimilated – the mapping completed. And a new violence was visited upon these territories. Now, rather than being somewhere that could be ‘discovered,’ utopia became a space that could be written into being; through force and coercion. Could be planned. Could be built.

It is the moment that inextricably links utopia with the future. With a site yet to be. This is where the problems begin. A utopia in time is even more terrifying than a utopia in place. It implies control – order – structure; the qualities necessary to lead it into actuality. A model. A plan. A blueprint.

No wonder architects gravitate toward it.

It also shuts down plurality, complexity; silences the peripheral, the dissenting. And these urban utopias – broadacre, ville radiuse – remain fantastical – inasmuch as they predicate a tumultuous shift in the built and the urban without a corresponding shift in the social or the political.

Post-war, a series of groups engaged in a critical re-appraisal and a reaction to these ‘blueprint’ utopias. Operating between, as Beatriz Colomina would term it, the years of 196x-7x, these groups produced ambiguous, critical models of potential urban and utopian conditions. Narrative cities – meditations on control and power – on liberation and incarceration. Despite their cynicism, they retained an optimism – a way of reframing the current, identifying boundaries – suggesting ways out of the trap. They were necessarily impossible – but you could see their approaches and structures in the contemporary setting – and a corresponding sketch of a way out. It’s a quixotic process, and ultimately futile.

At the start of the ‘80s, as the world enters the tail end of the cold-war, it all deteriorates. The landscape of the future becomes the now – capital, force projection, identity politics. Utopia is automatically suspect – framed in its old excesses – unsuited, now, to the hard-nosed aspects of reality. We have ships burning off the Malvinas, lasers in the jungle, weapons in space, revolt and revolution beyond the iron curtain. In the face of all that, utopia seems positively childish.

You know. Because we just get it now.

The first decade of the 21st century saw a resurgence of interest in these radical, utopian architectures. The fascination with systems of control exhibited by groups like Superstudio and Utopie gelled with a world encountering the blowback from globalisation – the WTO protests, the existential threat of climate (in)action, the razing of the WTC – these darkly ironic moments that repudiated Fukayama’s triumphal ‘end of history.’

More profound – the synergistic economic crises of ’07 and ‘08 – an echoing catastrophe. It maps, in a particular negative light, the kind of end-game of capitalism forecast in the mid-nineteenth century. Even as economies ‘recover,’ the old connections between labour and capital have been severed, old class certainties dissolved, old power relationships shifting and inverting.

The varying modes of reacting to this state, and the myriad potentials embedded within these acts, stress, more than ever, that the future is in flux.

The real insight is that the position that events will continue to unfold as they always have is equally utopian – in the fantastical sense. The contemporary mode is flagging. Shoehorning moderate changes and adaptations into the current order will not suffice.

 

The models from the midcentury – the landscape of 196x- 7x practitioners – continue to be useful in unpacking this space; they stressed an understanding of systems, and an understanding that, while we could never be entirely free of them, could never escape, that there was merit in understanding our implicated position within these structures. They were suspicious of the grand utopian models that suggested rupture and difference – instead focusing on ways in which practice could actively subvert and re-frame systems. Yet the corpus is etiolated; limited to examples and practitioners from the US and Western Europe – constrained by the peculiarities and politics of the period, and of their authors. Their projects presage technological shifts, but fall short of their aspirations to present plurality, multiplicity. We can return to their works, but with the admission that these are the voices and insights of a privileged minority.

We can also acknowledge, as they had, that technology is not automatically liberative. That the real shifts occur in relation to the social, to the political. That the real issues facing architecture and urbanism need to be addressed through the bleed and shift in regards to class and to race and to gender and sexuality – rather than the interrogation of autopoetic formal and technical practice.

A real, plural utopia – a real future – requires the recording of the answering, absent immensity of everything outside of the accepted here-and-now.

In whatever way we can, we try to structure a pathway out of the current condition. This is an inevitable consequence of thinking of the future, of utopia, as an active and mutable space – a plural space. The moves differ in scale and scope, but ultimately our images of the future require the dismantling, and re-assembly, of larger, binding structures.

Or, at least, a fervent attempt to do so.

This edition of AV will examine this kind of utopian future and the modes and models that lead to it. The contributors are all engaged in study, or are in their first year post-graduation – a position which ought present an unvarnished attitude toward the future. These are the practitioners who will be facing, forming, and negating future territories – utopian or no. They are trying to position themselves, understand their place and connection to broader structures – to problematised issues and systems of control.

These future practitioners are conversant in the attitudes and aspirations of the 196x-7x era, but they possess a quality that is generally absent from all but the tail-end of that broad utopian project; a pervasive uncertainty. Uncertainty around their careers, the environment, their identities. You can gauge this – a sense of things slipping – a sense of events spiralling out of control. This is the first generation in the modern era who will, on balance, fare worse than their parents. Education is harder to access – old issues of access and equity subsumed by market drivers. The latent ecological crisis has become normalised – and current university students can look forward to retirement in a world that is four degrees warmer. If they can retire at all.

So you cannot blame them for this omnipresent uncertainty. However, I would suggest that it be read as active – that it represents a kind of positioning against the world, rather than as indecision or absented control. Their uncertainty manifests as a kind of critical, aware uncertainty. They still present and push pathways forward, but with an understanding of complicity, complication, and contingency. And, most importantly, they are unwilling to integrate into what is quickly becoming an unsustainable status-quo. Uncertainty is an admission of the hyper-plurality of the future – the capacity in waiting.

The future is in flux, and the future is dangerous.

Perfect for uncertain utopias.

www.unprintablearchitecture.org