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The end of utopia

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Architects have always dreamed of building a better world, dreams that were realised on a gigantic new scale in the twentieth century, but since the 1970s this ambition has faded – so why did we stop thinking about tomorrow?

For years now, the word ‘utopia’ has been pejorative when applied to architecture. Common sense has it that during the post-war period, architects and planners, drunk on far too much power, foisted all manner of ill-thought out and downright dangerous experiments on an unsuspecting public, who in the fullness of time bravely rejected this arrogant paternalism. ‘Utopian’ here means over-reaching, far too ambitious, unconcerned with detail and all too willing to disregard the human consequences of architecture.

Since at least the 1980s, we’ve known that architecture doesn’t change people’s behaviour, except for the bad, that the consequences of making big plans will always be worse than what went before, that the public have no enthusiasm for modernity, and most of all, that cities and the way people live in them cannot change. From this perspective, looking at radical architecture of the 1960s and 1970s can give the impression that it was all just a cavalcade of silly inflatables, ludicrous megastructures, space frames to infinity and other whimsical nonsense that had no concern for real people’s well-being, let alone what anyone actually wanted.

‘Architecture should stop trying to change the world and accept its own limits’

But to know that all this would be common sense in 2016 would have shocked anyone from half a century before. Back then almost everyone, from a working class mother moving into her new flat in a tower block, a student radical occupying their lecture hall, an acid-soaked hippy building their dome in the American midwest, a jobbing architect in a local authority, right up to captains of industry and heads of government, believed that change was inevitable - based on everything that had occurred in recent years, cities and the lives that went on in them would soon be totally and utterly different.

The scale of reconstruction after the Second World War went alongside historically strong economic growth, advances in technology, and new forms of social behaviour. These rapid changes in the world led many to believe that buildings of the near future were going to be much larger and more sophisticated, with a complexity to match the increased social and technical complexity of the times. In those days of the Cold War and the space race, new technology was frequently of a massive scale - this was the era of space rockets, giant radio telescopes, transmitters and TV towers, and these artefacts of high technology took their place in the architectural imagination of the time.

Tanga Oska Expo

Tanga Oska Expo

Kenzo Tange’s enormous space frame megastructure for Osaka Expo ’70

The ambitions of the time are embodied by the integrated architecture of the new universities or the centres of new towns, where civic, commercial, residential and leisure functions were all brought together and single buildings existed on the infrastructural scale, while across the world millions of new modern houses were built using new prefabrication technologies and materials. These new forms of housing often adopted radical urban ideas such as the three-dimensionally layered city, or planning that attempted to simultaneously abstract the best spatial qualities from city, suburb, and countryside, to synthesise an innovative modernist urbanism.

Elsewhere, developments in lightweight structures led to innovations in massive interior environments: malls, factories, airports, leisure facilities, and the iconic geodesic dome. Combined with the blossoming of youth and consumer cultures, it looked as though architecture was going to have to become responsive and adaptable - societies were becoming more mobile and flexible, and people would soon be demanding a less permanent form of space to inhabit.

But a powerful feeling of progress was only one part of the story. It can be easy to miss that - rather than by naive optimism - many of the more radical ideas of the era were motivated by a sense of dread. In the 1960s, nearly everyone above a certain age would have had first-hand experience of the last war, and a ‘never again’ determination to avoid the horrors of history, combined with the all-new threat of nuclear annihilation, fuelled many of the most ambitious proposals of the time.

‘For years now, the word utopia has been pejorative when applied to architecture’

This was the era of first-wave environmentalism, when the global side-effects of industrial society first began to enter public consciousness. For the first time, architecture found itself having to understand its role in the systems of the planet, the limits of which were becoming more apparent by the day. The new sciences that had fed this environmentalism, such as cybernetics and ecology, inspired architecture to change; to consider its impact, its material and energy use, its position within fragile networks. All these factors together suggested that the architecture of the near future was going to have to be less monumental, more efficient, more in-tune with the natural world.

But as is clear, these futures failed to arrive, and today’s common sense would say that they were simply bound to fail. But it took a number of global alignments before the rapid progress of the era was properly defeated. The most profound of these was the end of the era of swift economic growth, with the 1973 Oil Crisis throwing the western economies into confusion, a disarray that heralded the end of the Keynesian consensus and the eventual rise of neoliberal economics. The pace of rebuilding, and the role of governments in it, were put into retreat.

space colony nasa

space colony nasa

A space colony envisioned by NASA

At the same time, new research and polemic asserted that traditional forms of urbanism had been fundamentally undervalued in the previous generation’s modernisation drive, and that rapid changes in society had seen a ‘future shock’, with human beings unable to adapt to new conditions. Instead, it was seen that the historic city, far from being obsolete and complicit in the miseries of the past, was a finely evolved system that it was futile to even attempt to improve upon. Architecture should stop trying to change the world and accept its own limits.

Even where innovation continued, the nature of technological development also changed. Where many of the initial post-war developments in technology were huge, the products of the electronic revolution swiftly shrank in size, and miniaturisation robbed architecture of one of its primary relationships with modernity. Many who had previously imagined a better world followed their dreams into cyberspace, imbuing the frontier of the Internet with a revolutionary potential that was once seen in the spatial realm. Now, the future was something you could hold in your hand, lose yourself in, but never actually inhabit.

But also, despite the fact that ecology had been forced high up onto the establishment agenda, when the oil price dropped again in the late 1980s the drive for efficiency dropped off the radar and environmentalists lost the ears of government, pushing what had been becoming a vital part of new architecture into a fringe position apparently populated by sandal wearers and survivalists, building yurts and adobe huts, advocating a retreat from industrial society.

These vanishing futures were probably inevitable, given the political and historic forces at play, but in today’s world there is a deeply uncanny sense that many of the issues that weighed heavily on the minds of those working half a century ago are back, but rather than looming in the distance, they are waves that are beginning to crash right over our heads.

 ‘50 years ago governments of all types vigorously attempted to solve the housing crisis: today they desperately prolong it’

Throughout the 60s and 70s, the question of what would happen when technological development removed much of the drudgery of industrial life was much asked. In those days, it was widely thought that the increase in leisure time won both through workers’ struggle and more evenly distributed affluence would continue, and humans in the wealthy parts of the world would soon find themselves burdened with the question: “what on earth were they going to do with all that free time?”

That clearly didn’t happen, but now, sure enough, it looks as though computers are about to remove the burden of labour from unprecedentedly wide swathes of the human population. However, this time only tiny portions of the population stand to benefit from this new wave of automation. The world without work that was a feature of the utopian dreams of the past is now occurring, but as a nightmare, as many millions stand to see their jobs eliminated, with nothing to replace them.

And while it’s clear that the many mistakes and failings of post-war public housing helped the turn the ideological tide against it, it’s also clear that housing simply doesn’t work as an efficient market. Here in the UK we face the predicament where retaining political power depends on keeping happy a part of the population whose affluence is completely tied to the scarcity of housing, which leads to delirious levels of abstract speculation and all the misery that that entails. 50 years ago, governments of all types vigorously attempted to solve the housing crisis: today they desperately prolong it.

dropcity

dropcity

Drop City was a countercultural retreat comprising domes established in Colorado in 1965.

But in housing, there are even bigger questions. The pace of social change once suggested that the city would have to become more flexible, that people might wish to decouple themselves from a sedentary existence, with the opportunity to move more or less at will. The image of a subject passing freely through a city constantly fine-tuned to their requirements was one that consistently haunted these radical futures. While this technological dream appeared time and again, as both a utopia and a dystopia, it seemed that in the end, ordinary folk weren’t interested in becoming unplugged nomads. People wish to dwell, it seems, and that’s that.

However, this misses the point that despite most people’s sedentary preferences, there is a tiny group of the elite at the top of the world who can and do live a transnational nomadic life, while there is an ever-growing section of the world’s population who through war, starvation and poverty are rendered nomadic, homeless. This is perhaps the true housing crisis, one that is worsening by the day, and architecture is clearly one of the major factors that aggravates, but could also alleviate this terrible situation.

‘Perhaps some architectural utopianism wouldn’t be such a bad thing’

And then, of course, there is the question of the planet as a whole. The recent predictions of climatology have led to a level of apocalyptic rhetoric in the public sphere not experienced since the 1970s, but now backed by vastly improved science, a terrifying inertia from those in power, and a sense that it may already be too late to avoid the worst happening. In many ways it looks as though - like in a historic dystopia - the future will be defined by a tiny portion of humanity living perfectly exquisitely lives filled with leisure, technology, and nature, while everyone else will be left to go hang, fending for themselves outside the walls. This is of course nothing new, but merely the horrors of the world that have always existed, intensified beyond anything seen before. Today, it is utopian just to believe that things won’t get worse.

Half a century ago, a vision haunted the future of architecture: the transparent spherical environment, the dome or the bubble, came to represent both a new-found sense of the earth as a tiny, vulnerable globe in the vastness of space, but also the old possibility that sustained human endeavour could improve the lives of all. A new potential began to appear, for architecture to play a part in finding a balance between humans, technology and the natural world. Today, humanity has capabilities like never before, but those with the power lack the ambition to make any of the changes that seem so desperately necessary. Perhaps some architectural utopianism wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Douglas Murphy’s latest book Last Futures: Nature, Technology and the End of Architecture is available now from Verso 

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