Creating new urban areas from scratch may appear to be a utopian exercise, but more frequently it entrenches existing systems of power
It may seem that the design and creation of cities from scratch always has a strong element of utopian thought, in that it is an attempt to create the world afresh, as it should have been. But realised utopias cease to be utopian, both literally and in the colloquial sense of perfection. Five hundred years since the publication of Thomas More’s book, a survey of historical attempts to build the shining city on the hill reveals instead a panorama of almost total failure. The degree of this failure rests partly on the details of the plan and partly on the conditions of its realisation, for no two utopias are created equal, but it is also inherent in the nature of the enterprise.
We should not regard this with the same horror as Colin Rowe, who remarked that utopia ‘in any developed form’ was ‘always a monstrosity’ (but nevertheless insisted on its heuristic value). What Rowe obscures in clouds of linguistic flatulence is the fact that utopia cannot be built, and is always a heuristic tool. Its failure is thus a necessity; its perfection would be horror. A more pertinent distinction was made by Karl Mannheim: some dreams of a better world are utopian, but many others are ideological. The former sort ‘tend to shatter … the order of things prevailing at the time’, whereas the latter merely reinforce the already existent. But as Mannheim adds, parsing the two is not always so simple.
Most realised ideal cities have been examples of the ideological type, especially the projects of absolute rulers. The ancient Chinese capital of Chang’an was founded in 195 BCE as a grid of walled wards, representing the power of the emperor as lynchpin of the ordered cosmos. It was intended to demonstrate the legitimacy of a new dynasty, the Han, by assimilating it into the established order of the universe, and so can only be called ideological rather than utopian.
Lucio Costas plan for Brasilia
New capitals always have this state-making purpose, and range from the Malaysian dictatorship’s administrative centre Putrajaya to the relatively innocuous (some would say all too innocuous) Canberra. But the innocuousness of colonial capitals is only ever skin deep, as attested by the racially segregated new cities of the British Empire – among them Nairobi, Lusaka and Harare. Herbert Baker was unambiguously frank about the political basis of these when he remarked of his involvement in New Delhi, ‘hurrah for despotism!’
Empires also build new cities in order to realise their territorial ambitions, as with one of the first new cities of the modern era, Palmanova. This Venetian frontier town was intended to ward off the Ottomans, and was laid out like an immobile death star piercing the surrounding airspace with lines of sight. Rowe put it characteristically: ‘the configuration of the ideal city was “ideal” not only for the philosopher but also for the military engineer … “idealised” rather through an application to the laws of ballistics than through any devotion to the principle of Plato.’ This had also been the case (sans ballistics) for Roman coloniae, walled garrison towns thrown up on grids, and latterly Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, for all their disingenuous informality.
Brasilias central zone today
By way of contrast, Ezekiel’s dream of a new Jerusalem was an antidote to Babylonian captivity, and an example of the opposite type: a utopian ideal. Likewise when John sees: ‘the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’, it is an anti-Rome. Such true utopias recur in Thomas More, in William Penn’s Philadelphia plan and in Ebenezer Howard’s 1898 book Garden Cities of To-Morrow. As is well known, Howard’s utopia was intended as a cure for the evils of the overcrowded, polluted, sprawling city, but also for the dull, workless countryside. His remedy was an amalgamation of the two, which was to be manifested as a network of greenbelted, economically self-sufficient settlements.
The idea was enormously influential, albeit rarely realised in full. The crucial point that the land should be owned by the garden city corporation itself, the rents therefrom being ploughed back into its maintenance, lacked appeal for investors and was regarded with suspicion by governments – not without reason, since Howard intended nothing less than to remake the world of late 19th-century capital. Muddying the waters, the physical form of the garden city, as realised by Howard’s associates at Letchworth, Welwyn and Hampstead, was adopted by builders of decidedly non-utopian new cities, such as the racist garden cities of South Africa. In other words, it quickly became pure ideology.
The formal qualities of the garden city also influenced the Modernist cities dreamed by Tony Garnier and Le Corbusier, although the economic aspect was underdeveloped. Le Corbusier got his ideas built in Chandigarh, and also by his followers in Brasília. These are by no means perfect places, but they are not as bad as their critics claim: both have economic vigour, despite their lifeless central zones of administration. They are not, however, utopian: their informal accretions attest to the fact that they failed to address the contradictions of their societies.
Howard’s idea was equally popular in revolutionary Russia, partly because its emphasis on public ownership seemed to prefigure the socialisation of land (although as Tafuri points out, the latter rendered the specifics of the garden city model irrelevant). Lenin was against planning per se – he called it a ‘bureaucratic utopia’ – but for Stalin it was paramount, and Ernst May, builder of the ‘New Frankfurt’, found the Russia of the first Five-Year Plan receptive to his ideas, at least initially. At the peak of his activity he had a team of 800, and executed more than 20 projects. The largest of these was Magnitogorsk, which May laid out as a linear city of Zeilenbauten following the contour of the landscape and centring on its massive iron works. The city is still going strong, heavily polluted but almost fully employed by the now-private factory.
Palmanova Italy 1593
Sforzinda by Filarete c1465
After the war, Britain reclaimed the garden city with its programme of greenbelted ‘new towns’, which were granted ownership of their land. The first wave of these, beginning with Stevenage, was criticised for lacking urban scale and density; Cumbernauld’s central megastructure was intended to resolve this problem. Long the subject of mockery, the new towns were in fact fairly successful – indeed, in financial terms they were so successful that they became lenders to other public bodies. However, from 1979 they were asset-stripped and privatised, undermining the economic foundation of the project.
Today, the new city is a city of technological messianism and ecological pieties. That these are ideological claims is no mystery: the so-called smart city uses the rhetoric of dematerialisation and efficiency to clothe the reality of mingled governmental and corporate surveillance; the eco-city on the other hand is a greenwashing reiteration of Howard’s ‘town-country’ hybrid. Both are mere entrenchments and extensions of existing spatial systems of power, carried out under the cover of claims that intriguingly seem to echo the dreams of a young group of postwar Soviet planners, who envisioned the ‘ideal communist city’ that would counter the bourgeois garden city: instead of greening the metropolis, this would metropolise the countryside, aiming for cybernetically planned ‘world-wide urbanisation’. This now seems to be in the course of realisation, but any idea that it might mark a step along the path to utopia appears to be thoroughly delusional.
Proposed Cumbernauld Town Centre by the Cumbernauld Development Corporation
Masdar city, Abu Dhabi, UAE
Perhaps the greatest folly of the 21st century so far, Masdar was planned as a carbon-neutral ‘eco city’, but here’s the twist: it was to be located on the desert fringes of Abu Dhabi. The project, with a masterplan by Foster + Partners, was initiated in 2006 and was due for completion this year. It was meant to have 50,000 residents, who would travel to work at the headquarters of international green technology firms in futuristic pod cars. But things have not worked out quite as intended. Only 5 per cent of the city has been built, it has just 300 permanent inhabitants, few businesses have been convinced to relocate here, and its design manager admits it is unlikely to ever pass 50 per cent carbon neutrality. The city was meant to be car-free, but the transport system was abandoned with only two of its projected 100 stations finished. Who would have thought that greenwashing a despotic petro-state during a prolonged global downturn would be so onerous? The plan shown below is of an earlier version of the project.
masdar city abu dhabi uae
Songdo, South Korea
Songdo in South Korea is among the most successful new cities of recent years, with ingenious ‘smart’ features such as self-emptying rubbish bins, which evacuate via vacuum chutes to a central location. Like all new cities, its growth has been slow, but it has now reached over half the target population. Transport links between Songdo and the capital, 65km away, are not yet up to scratch, and this may have contributed to the difficulty in convincing businesses to relocate here. But it is liked by its inhabitants, who enjoy cycling through the green space that constitutes 40 per cent of the city, including the 4.2 million square foot Central Park. However, all that greenery cannot hide the fact that the smart city is essentially a ‘test bed’ (as Cisco describes Songdo) for hyper-surveillance – by which measure London is already the ‘smartest’ city in the world.
Songdo South Korea
Songdo South Korea 2
Tianfu, Chengdu, China
When asked whether the French Revolution had been a good thing, Zhou Enlai allegedly remarked ‘it’s too soon to tell’. It might be worth bearing this in mind when considering massive urban planning projects, since cities such as Rome and London have taken many centuries to reach their current forms. However, that would ignore the fact that even open-ended plans, which supposedly account for future growth, are intrinsically intended to circumvent the dead ends of evolutionary development. China’s new ghost cities are a case in point: are they really ghosts, or are China’s critics simply desperate to jump on any perceived weakness in what has actually been, by Western standards, a phenomenal pace of urbanisation? In any case Tianfu, a new city under construction 30km outside Chengdu, is distinguished from the general run of these developments by its vaunted sustainability. The masterplan by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture proposes a comparatively low density of habitation, surrounded by a greenbelt designed to prevent sprawl.
Tianfu Chengdu China 2
Tianfu Chengdu China