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The mirage of an ideal metropolis

Constant New Babylon Zehn Lithografien 1963 Drawing Matter Collections

The unattainable shore of utopia spurs great feats of discovery

Being set on the idea

Of getting to Atlantis,

You have discovered of course

Only the Ship of Fools is

Making the voyage this year …

WH Auden, ‘Atlantis’

It is now 500 years since Thomas More reported the discovery of an ideal society on an island imagined in the Atlantic. This anniversary has been used to clothe a host of dubious activities in utopian dress, from discussion of new programmes for adventure playgrounds to the contemplation of the habits of whales and the re-evaluation of urban graffiti. By happy and uncontrived coincidence, a number of serious and important architectural events reconsidering Utopian movements from the 1960s and 1970s have appeared at the same time. These include an intelligent redefinition of Hippie Modernism in an exhibition now travelling the United States; a probing analysis of collaborative approaches to the architecture of urban experiment in Montreal that took its cues from such groups as the Urban Innovations Group; a revisiting of the work of one signal group, AUA, dedicated to reinventing the scale and function of the urban landscape, in Paris; and a thrilling re-examination of the origins and evolution of Constant’s labyrinthine framework for an open society in the imaginary city of New Babylon, at the Reina Sofia in Madrid. This represents a wave of nostalgia – rightly felt in the face of a Mannerist design culture descending ever deeper into the egotistical formalism and vacuous dandyism of luxury construction – for a time when architects and artists, seeking paths forward from the functionalist, desacralised consensus of the postwar years, looked forward to an architecture of social, emotional, and even spiritual engagement.

Constant Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys New Babylon Zehn Lithografien 1963 Drawing Matter Collections

Constant Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys New Babylon Zehn Lithografien 1963 Drawing Matter Collections

Constant (Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys), New Babylon – Zehn Lithografien, 1963. Drawing Matter Collections

We have long celebrated the many little utopias, isolated and often monastic, that have followed More – the towns Vasco de Quiroga organised to revive Tarascan culture in Michoacán; Mother Lee’s Shaker communities; the model villages of the 18th century; Robert Owen’s New Harmony; the Little Landers of Tujunga; Drop City.  But in many ways the modern city and its monuments are more lively and enduring utopian constructs.  The functionalist city of the postwar era, with its focus on socially hygienic housing, transport flow, managed open space, and conspicuously accessible services, represented a near revolutionary ideal of modern comfort and convenience – a universalist, systematic and inclusive environment, though it was against the resulting willed neutrality that Constant and the visionary reformers of the ’60s rebelled.  For the nearly two hundred years before, the monumental metropolis and town, wherever it lay, had taken its architectural vocabulary from the academies and models of Enlightenment Paris, constituting an ideal vision in which the city was conceived as a parade of well-regulated public life, in which each of the institutions of order, culture, measure and restraint would be separately, visibly and distinctively represented. And from the Situationists to Superstudio and the Independent Group, the mix of anxious and exuberant thinking about ways and habits of living that produced the radical reimagining of the short-lived Space Age all focused on the city.  Many of their propositions hovered uncertainly (as did More himself) between the fanciful and the possible, the satirical and the aspirational, but all celebrated the metropolis – so often characterised (from Dürer’s contemplation of Babel to Murnau’s city of light) as a site of corruption, distress and disorderly delight in contrast to the arcadian rhythms of the countryside – as the imaginative field for envisioning, repositing and representing the patterns of an ideal world.

Architecture is always a form of social iconography, and the language of drawing that produces ideas for, of, or against it is one of the essential tongues we use to hold a conversation about the nature, state and possible futures of civilisation. As a result, architectural drawings play a central role in the history of thought, not as tools of a hermetic trade, but as an essential layer in the shifting geologies of mind that generate ideas about how we see the social landscape, or might imagine a better one. Here are drawings from two great moments in the history of the city as utopia: the France of 1760-1840, in which a newly structured, deliberate and enlightened notion of the city was formulated and to a large extent constructed, in near disregard for the turbulence of the times; and three episodes from the ’60s and early ’70s that reimagine the reinvention of urban architecture, seen in the pregnant drawings of Constant, Ugo La Pietra, and – working together as artist and architect – Walter Pichler and Hans Hollein.

Louis Gustave Taraval A Temple of the Muses c1770 Drawing Matter Collections

Louis Gustave Taraval A Temple of the Muses c1770 Drawing Matter Collections

Louis-Gustave Taraval, A Temple of the Muses, c1770. Drawing Matter Collections

There is no concealment in the 54 towns on More’s isle of Utopia. They are cities patent, in which differing beliefs may flourish but among which neither banditry nor vice nor aggression can hide and in which the conduct of life and its ranks and roles are evident.

In March 1766 a decree of the ministry of Carlos of Bourbon banned from public use the traditional cloak and sombrero of the Spanish people, requiring the citizens of Madrid to appear in the more open garb of short jackets, trousers and cocked hat. Just as the new and enlightened regime had reclothed the city, widening the narrow streets of Madrid, lighting them with lamps, and replacing its pumps and wells with fountains in plazas, so would the public display of one’s person become inimical to the hiding of weapons or carrying of secret dispatches. Gone would be the riotous and unruly life of a city behind walls, the haunt of the thief and mob, its parliaments held in taverns, its courts and councils in star chambers. In its place would be a new metropolis dressed in its own architectural equivalent of cocked hats, short jackets and trousers. Just as the station and demeanour of a person would now be apparent, so the movements, transactions and institutional life of the state and its commerce would take place in buildings conspicuously crafted to represent their part.

‘In many ways the modern city and its monuments are more lively and enduring utopian constructs’

The notion came from France, where it was essentially an expression of a new, secular, hygienic and almost scientific sense of civil society. This movement was triggered by the expansion of urban commerce, industry and habitation. It became possible as a depersonalised monetary economy replaced barter, and as the pacifying force of a growing state no longer required a city housed within battlements or a citizenry useful as hostages to a lord at war. It was based in Montesquieu’s pragmatic belief that neither the good man nor the good impulses of a king could be relied upon to make a moral society, only the abstract power of laws and institutions. The new city, grounded in this realistic ideal, embraced social fallibility and answered its consequent need to order public life, structuring the passage of goods and people, defining and securing space for the pursuit of pleasure, establishing distinctive markets for the exchange of goods, and standardising money and measures. 

Constant New Babylon Zehn Lithografien 1963 Drawing Matter Collections

Constant New Babylon Zehn Lithografien 1963 Drawing Matter Collections

Constant, New Babylon – Zehn Lithografien, 1963. Drawing Matter Collections

In such an ordered society, the ‘dignity’ of buildings was essential, and their fronts and entries should stand to characterise the relative and distinctive nature and weight of their authority. We know much among the fancies of Boullée and Ledoux that was only drawn, dreamed and imagined. But progressively, through a succession of revolutions, much of this ideal city was slowly constructed, as Palais de Justice, prisons, public abattoirs, granaries and covered markets spread around Paris and deep into the provinces. Convents were reclothed in Classical form as prefectures. Streets were widened and planted with trees. The great disordered shores of waterways were bridged and banked in stone. Chapels and churches of the Baroque were recast as institutes of learning or pantheons for the noble dead.

For each city typology a distinct vocabulary emerged, and the studios in which that language was learned and those models developed – Percier’s atelier at the École des Beaux-Arts, Durand’s courses at the École Polytechnique – established a system of training in city building that came to govern architectural teaching throughout Europe and the Americas. And the much-engraved results – what Horace Walpole called the ‘august simplicity’ of French public building – became the models for the new urbanism of the first industrial age. 

‘Architectural drawings play a central role in the history of thought as an essential layer in the shifting geologies of mind that generate ideas about how we see the social landscape, or might imagine a better one’

Early in the progress of this ideal city we find Louis-Gustave Taraval drawing a gleaming temple of the muses amid the decay of the medieval town, at once secularising and cultivating the urban landscape. Jean-Charles Delafosse, at the same time, prepared a series of small prison designs for the security of each arrondissement, finding a different symbolic iconography in each one, all wittily playful in their decoration: here chains took the place of acanthus in its stone garlands and the dialogue rose from rusticated battlement walls signifying incarceration to a clean Classical language to represent the justice that imposed it. By the time of Louis-Pierre Baltard’s Palais de Justice and prison for Lyon, the agenda was more solemn and imposing. He announced the solemn force of the law by placing it high and fierce above the junction of the two rivers that carry the traffic of the town. Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine, in a suite of proposed model markets for large towns, showed a convivial sociable space, using the open sheds and fountains that cleanse the pavements to make a near garden out of the business of buying food; while the young Paul Piot’s abattoir for Macon showed a common slaughterhouse, butchery and offal incinerator hygienically translated to the outskirts of the town and lending dignity by its formal expressions of function.

‘Once, Grippes had watched Utopia rising out of calm waters, like Atlantis emerging, dripping wet and full of promise. He had admired the spires and gleaming windows, the marble pavement and year-round unchanging sunrise … Utopia was a plaintive message now … a forsaken city … bone dry, the colour of scorched newsprint. Dessicated, relinquished …’ 

Mavis Gallant, in a story initially entitled ‘Utopia Reconsidered’, 1981, published in Across the Bridge, 1993

Ugo La Pietra La Cellula Abitativa 1972 Drawing Matter Collections Copyright the artist

Ugo La Pietra La Cellula Abitativa 1972 Drawing Matter Collections Copyright the artist

Ugo La Pietra, La Cellula Abitativa, 1972. Drawing Matter Collections. Copyright: the artist

By the 1830s, there was some marked dissent from this early Beaux-Arts, Augustan vision of the ideal city. It came in two forms. One was a scholarly quest for medieval and Byzantine sources that could better express the consciousness, scale and height of a liberal city of industry than Roman precedents, which suggested the entrepôt of an agricultural economy and the trappings of an imperial state. The other, most closely allied to utopian aspirations, would clad visionary cities – just as Owen Jones would clothe its ornament – in a universal, exotic and varied language that saw modernity emerging by weaving together architectural elements from all cultures. Louis-Jean Desprez, in a project perhaps conceived for the King of Sweden as a new home for the Knights of Malta, envisaged a true Atlantis on the island of St Barthélemy in which elements of architecture from throughout Europe and the Mediterranean world are orchestrated into a singularly universalist urban structure. The notable Bedlam inmate George Elliot’s metropolis for a universal kingdom rises up in a wholly new patois invented from eclectic sources.

This appeal to exotic rather than national or classical sources as a way to express a spacious, international new world of glass, metal, science and machines would find much later echoes in such experiments as Minoru Yamasaki’s 1961 Hall of Science in Seattle, which drew on memories of Moorish Spain as the first great centre of modern science. But as the Second Machine Age unfolded, it was to the machine itself that dystopian and utopian architectures turned, not only in the cinema’s fictional cities of the future, but in such glorifications of the derricks, pylons and scaffolding of an industrial plant as Iakov Chernikhov’s.

‘Why may not there arise some new phase of mind which shall be as different from all present known phases, as the mind of animals is from that of vegetables?’

Samuel Butler, Erewhon, Chapter 23: ‘The Book of the Machines’, 1872 

‘Technology is pleasure’, announced the Dutch artist Constant, whose New Babylon first emerged in 1958. The city was born from a complicated mix of contempt for the banalities of Dutch postwar planning, his work with Aldo van Eyck on children’s playgrounds, his conversations with Guy Debord on the psychosocial topography of the city, the quest for a new adherence to the primitive and evocative that marked the COBRA movement to which he first belonged, a fondness for Johan Huizinga’s concept of man as homo ludens, and a musician’s fascination both with the fretwork of the flamenco guitar and the informal and undomesticated social life of the Romani culture he visited in Alba. All seemed to suggest a new city conceived as an open framework for playful and often gymnastic activity, out of which a liberated society might freely emerge, as music might come from the strings of a guitar. Worked and redesigned over more than 15 years, in models, paintings, mazes, drawings and statements, New Babylon was a labyrinthine concept of the city as a single connected skeleton stretching if need be to infinity.

Constant called this city ‘a poem in which to dwell’ and the testing ground for ‘new and audacious imaginations’ – in essence the site to bring forth a new social life and a new habit of mind. He took to peopling it semi-consciously, watching their imaginary society evolve in this ‘labo-rinth’ for constant reinvention – with quite unimagined results. To his dismay, starting in 1969 and becoming ever more intense as New Babylon moved into the early ’70s, he found his city serving as the scaffolding for acts of violence, abuse and aggression, echoing the distressing Goyas which had informed his own first meditations on his catastrophic century. Abandoning his once playful Babylon and leaving all his studies for it to a museum in The Hague, Constant spent most of the rest of his life consoling himself with a set of magnificent variations on another Goya, portraying the gypsy life which had first provoked it.

Ugo La Pietra Immersioni 1969 1970 Drawing Matter Collections Copyright the artist

Ugo La Pietra Immersioni 1969 1970 Drawing Matter Collections Copyright the artist

Ugo La Pietra, Immersioni, 1969–1970. Drawing Matter Collections. Copyright: the artist

Constant was readily taken up in England. There a slightly different set of propositions for a newly emotive approach to architecture and design had emerged, seeking liberation through delight in everyday characteristics of an emerging post-industrial society and taking most evident shape in 1958 in Theo Crosby’s collaborative exhibition This is Tomorrow. And there are widespread echoes of this utopian quest for a psychologically resonant architecture and for liberation from the supposed systematisation of the Modern. They follow many diverse paths, among them the sculpturally shaped spaces of the ‘emotive’ architecture of Mathias Goeritz and Luis Barragán, who drew on ancient Mexican figurative forms to protect and add psychic force to their ideal suburb, and on towering transcendental markers in many hues to announce its approaches.

Technology and emotion – along with the idea of reinventing the city as a mystical and erotic space – were reconciled by Hollein and Pichler in their collaborative studies for an underground city. Here, evoking both the constructed utopia of a Hopi mesa and the towers of a technological world, the labyrinth of an unknown life unfolds beneath a near-sacred ‘communication interchange’ that serves to mark it.   

‘For unless we continue to look for the improbable we can never extend the limits of the possible’

This call to balance the senses and technology, or to make one serve the other, was strikingly taken up by Ugo La Pietra in Milan. La Pietra’s first conception of a novo urbano was to propose the reclamation of the disintegrating perimeter of the city by covering it with a second city made of emotional and often erotic sculptured spaces, as habitable visionary monuments in the landscape with no fixed purpose: spaces again for homo ludens. La Pietra’s urban utopia then developed even more radically, moving toward a set of ideas built around the idea of ambivalence, in which the citizen became a ‘semi-player’ in his own progenitive bubble (or Uomouovosfera), choosing at whim or on temper whether to participate in the city at all, or simply regard it as the location of a solitary life. By 1972, his citizens of this new utopia have become the inhabitants of communicative tents. Folding modules that could serve any purpose at any scale. Here the life that may or may not be taking place around them is joined by television, radio and telephone. It was a prescient vision of the utopian or dystopian world we have now come to live in.

More’s island never was. Nor could New Babylon ever come into being. The essential and necessary fate of all our utopias is to fail to be found. But if by chance we should get a distant glimpse of life in one of those newer worlds – as Constant willed himself to do – we should quickly turn away, push off and start the voyage to seek another.  For unless we continue to look for the improbable we can never extend the limits of the possible.  

… even then if, perhaps

Having actually got

To the last col, you collapse

With all Atlantis shining

Below you yet you cannot

Descend, you should still be proud

Even to have been allowed

Just to peep at Atlantis

In a poetic vision:

Give thanks and lie down in peace,

Having seen your salvation.

WH Auden, ‘Atlantis’