The Era of Utopia

ideal, universal, achievable, deliberate, zeitgeist.

The availability of new means, the apparent insulation from the rest of the developing world and as a latecomer to the ‘modern’ world- ‘utopia’ was an achievable concept, driven by analytical and creative developments and an impassioned search for a material expression.

“Utopia has long been another name for the unreal and the impossible. We have set utopia over against the world. As a matter of fact it is our utopias that make the world tolerable to us: the cities and mansions that people dream of are those in which they finally live.” – Lewis Mumford, The Story of Utopias

“The concept of ‘Utopian’ thinking reflects the opposite discovery of the political struggle, namely, that certain oppressed groups are intellectually so strongly interested in the destruction and transformation of a given condition of a society that they unwillingly see only those elements in the situation which tend to negate it. Their thinking is incapable of correctly diagnosing an existing condition of society. They are not at all concerned with what really exists; rather, in their thinking they already seek to change the situation that exists, their thought is never a diagnosis of the situation, it can be used only as a direction for action. In the utopian mentality the collective unconscious guided by wishful representation and the will to action, hides certain aspects of reality. It turns its back on everything which would shake its belief or paralyze its desire to change things…”  – Karl Manheim, Ideology and Utopia in Modern Sociology

The idea of utopia was a positive force in the events leading to the formation of new ideas in space conception and expression in the early twentieth century. Though the idea of utopia was brewing all along in the preceding centuries as mentioned below by Peter Collins, it manifested as a necessary condition which gave impetus to the establishment of the innovative trends at the turn of the century. The principal idea was the reinvention and reconstruction of the past and to view history as a base for inventive thinking rather than that of an imitative process.

The architecture at the end of the eighteenth century is distinguished by the works of four such architects: John Soane, E. L. Boullee, C.N. Ledoux and J.N.L. Durand, whose attitudes were unmistakably revolutionary rather than evolutionary, and whose aim was not to maintain tradition by applying and reinterpreting old principles in the light of changing traditions, but to reevaluate the very principles themselves. They did not have a large following, nor were their principles systematically pursued for a long period; indeed, the architectural shapes by which their ideals found expression were soon abandoned, and were not to attain popularity again for another hundred years. But these architects can with justice be regarded as pioneers of modern architecture from the architecture of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus, it can fairly be claimed that it had no precedent, and was literally the architecture of the new age [Peter Collins, 21]

Looking back, the idea of utopia was encountered as an achievable task. The utopian concept was to be an assimilation of ingenious solutions in an evolutionary process rather than idealistic aims to reform. Utopia was in close nexus between needs and aspirations – as an extension of intensions which did not isolate social responsibilities, nor did it vouch for cultural uprootment. The explorative means were checked for expedience with a vision of the future.

Utopia was a sure footed concept which aspired and prepared simultaneously for a higher social order in context of the changing times. The paradigm shift in the socio- political, cultural and economic setting prodded a change in space conception. The evolutionary changes took shape – establishment of new typologies and institutions, search for a ‘human’ scale, explorations seeking suitable materials and appropriate technique. The utopian temperament was however revolutionary in the fact that it aspired for a higher order than the then existing exploration, the evidence being the futuristic programs that were put forth [ Sant’Elia La Citta Nuova,1914], monumental scale that was aspired [Iakov Chernikov’s 101 Fantasies, 1933] and objective processes which foresaw the risk of disorder in the future. Characteristic to this utopian temperament was the conception of new urban centers which was demonstrated in distinct phases. [Ledoux Ideal city of Chaux 1804, Tony Garnier Industrial City 1917, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City 1934-58]

For some time I have been fascinated by the mechanism of rejection whereby the bold, Platonic forms of Etienne-Louis Boullee and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (prior to the French Revolution), and Kazimir Malevich or Ivan Ilich Leonidov (on the eve of the Russian Revolution) were hastily buried as passé, even within the lifetime of the artists themselves. Such architects were cast as cultural scapegoats of a social process focused on constitutional change. After thrashing such “revolutionaries,” the new French constitution of the late eighteenth century adopted a more docile neo-classicism; likewise the Soviet state of the mid-twentieth century enforced a policy of pseudo classicism. Both styles, though sharing a geometrical bias, were deviations from the heroic mainstream of classicism. [Arata Isozaki, Japan-ness in Architecture, P 173]

05_Mondrian in his atelier, circa October 1933, with a Lozenge Composition of Four Yellow Lines, 1933 and Composition with Double Lines and Yellow, circa 1933, unfinished.
06_Nelly and Theo van Doesburg the dog Dada, dancer Kamares in front Counter Composition XVI, 1925.
06_Nelly and Theo van Doesburg the dog Dada, dancer Kamares in front Counter Composition XVI, 1925.

Both these images 05 and 06 can be visualised as being a metaphor to understand the ‘utopian’ temperament of this time period. Mondrian standing expectantly with his determinative formulations of art as an interpretation and anticipation of his contemporary conditions, and in the second image, Doesburg seen with his abstraction (painting) and reality (dancer) in the same frame poetically conveys his interpretation of reality and comprehension of arts.

The idea of utopia itself was received, interpreted and demonstrated in varying degrees across the world. Utopia nurtured theoretical constructs to specific spirit and expression according to the prevalent spirit of time and place, providing for deliberate and subtle inconsistencies in the attitude to utopia. The acute need to break away from the existing degenerate condition vented in different mediums. The expressions hence were most severe in case of the conceptual, as in art and more subtle but relatively discernable in manifested and utilitarian domains such as architecture.

The Russians took an evolutionary yet fragmented stand for the future. The approach was humanistic tending towards the newly found socialist concept.

The theory of constructivism may be subdivided into three parts: the Constructivist attitude to the aim, to the means and to the form… the aim, in so far as we are concerned, is the absolute forceful demolition of old concepts. This is usuallya programmed process within which the architect must display his creative ability… technology is for us no more than a means we press into service… All the achievements of modern science must be subordinate to our work, must be tied in to this work for a new social aim by the new architect…. A fairly widely held opinion is current that Constructivism represents artistic nihilism and is the rejection of form, an unwillingness to take account of form. In reality, however, constructivism is a working method for searching out the most reliable and correct path to new form, which most closely corresponds to the new social content… we approach form through the unfolding of the social aim. Form, in so far as we are concerned, must constantly be sought and newly defined each time by an aim that is clear and bears the imprint of the Revolution. (Moisei Ginzburg, Extracts from a lecture entitled ‘Constructivism in Architecture’, 1928, as quoted in O.Khan – Magomedov, Selim. Pioneers of Soviet Architecture – The Search for New Solutions in the 1920s and 1930s, 1987. P 584)

In Holland, the idea of utopia was to be transformational, to cater to the anticipated order of the universal. The transition was thus a rational step for reconstruction rather than an aimless, escapist utopianism.

The utopia of reconstruction is what its name implies: a vision of a reconstituted environment which is better adapted to their actual nature and aims of the human beings who dwell within it than the actual one; and not merely better adapted to their actual nature, but better fitted to their possible developments. (Lewis Mumford, The Story of Utopias).

The overall utopian temperament was also balanced with an enquiry into the fundamentals of arts and architecture. The close relation between different art practices helped to emerge a strong vocabulary, but only within the domain of pronounced beliefs. This comprehensive attention is unique and critical to the school of De Stijl. This strong vocabulary has been unique and visible, thus also an easy prey of visual communication in present times, devoid of the intellectual meaning, keeping this particular fragment of the history of Modern Architecture to be revisited frequently.

As compared to the Futurist whose deliberate attempt to overthrow history, the Dutch movement enquired all classical notions by speculating the fundamental reasoning in its expression. The Futurists attempted at mutation of the existing condition as the sole criteria. The most deliberate attempt to attain utopia is evident from their various manifestos and public addresses.

We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice. (Antonio Sant’Elia, Manifesto of Futurist Architecture)

In a contrasting aptitude the De Stijl’s intense declaration as the part of the First Manifesto states,

There exists an old and new consciousness of the age. The old is directed towards the individual. The new is directed towards the universal. The Struggle of the individual against the universal shows itself in the world war as well as in today’s art.

The utopian temperament emerging from intense political and social conditions proved a fertile ground for the birth of new schools of thought and contemplate its contemporary condition, which attained a ‘revolutionary’ character over an ‘evolutionary’ mode.