Thursday, June 23, 2011

Utopian Cities

Peter Cook's Kunsthaus. Wikipedia
In periods of great stress, whether personal or out in the world, my wandering mind tends to wander a bit more than usual. Lately, it's been wandering away back to an exhibit I attended several years ago at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, featuring the works of Peter Cook and his wondrous Archigram projects. The imaginative rigor of Archigram's ideas were impressive, if not mind-boggling. Concepts such as walking cities, plug-in design, and instant homes were showcased, and most of the installations embraced a near post-apocalyptic mission for humanity, but embraced that mission with extraordinary enthusiasm, energy, and obsessive detail. It was a zest perhaps equal to how present-day Dutch engineers have begun drumming up bold, dramatic plans to mitigate the imminent coming of global warming and its related issues, i.e., floating subdivisions of houses linked together in chains, adaptable levees, docks, and floodgates.

But I recall one installation at the MCA exhibit that took the ideas seemingly far beyond the reach of reality. The concept was centered around a 1970's era theory of building a high-tech nomadic existence for western civilization. In this scenario, families no longer needed to crowd into communities or edifices - they would live and travel throughout nature in Bedouin-style, portable, high-tech, inflatable homes that would plug into circuitry built amidst the natural surroundings and then disconnect and deflate to a back-pack size for transport. The bearded, caveman-like figures in the exhibit's accompanying film evoked vivid impressions of a 1970's Planet of the Apes stylization.

Walking City Archigram, 1964. Image: Westminster.AC.

Utopian architectural ideas are fascinating worlds through which to navigate. I especially enjoy perusing a variety of presentation media created to communicate the concepts, from the bold drawings of the Italian Futurists to the the models of Le Corbusier to Peter Cook's colorful mix of contemporary advertising graphics and architectural conceptualization.

Unfortunately, the few utopian projects that have made it from the drawing board to construction have not always fared so well - many of Le Corbusier's best attempts at urban planning have resulted in dismal Parisian slums.

Linear City, Arturo Soria, 1913. Image: Wikipedia.

The clip below is a trailer for Great Expectations, a recent documentary that highlights some of the most renowned utopian cities drawn up over the past century.--D.A. DeMers.

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  1. Very interesting post. I read a short story in Jim Shepard's latest collection, You Think That's Bad, called "How the Netherlands Live with Water" which explores the impending sense of disaster the Dutch have. Here's a passage:

    "It’s the catastrophe for which the Dutch have been planning for fifty years. Or really for as long as we’ve existed: we had cooperative water management before we had a state. The one created the other: either we pulled together as a collective or got swept away as individuals."

    It's no surprise that the Dutch have (and have been) "drumming up bold, dramatic plans."

    With the challenges presented by climate change, it will be interesting to see what kinds of creative solutions will make it from
    "the drawing board to construction."

  2. Beautiful passage. Thanks for sharing.

    I heard an interview recently with Jim Shepard on public radio's provocative show Fresh Air. It inspired me to briefly peer into the situation with the Netherlands and their plight with water. The take away from Shepard's interview on the subject was that the developed world has essentially given up combating climate change on the front end, and some are beginning to think of the post-climate challenged future.

    While places such as Tahiti might be terrified by that notion - and rightfully so, since they have little means to control or fully adapt to the devastating scenarios - the Dutch seem almost invigorated. They are masters in this sort of thing.

  3. The Archigrams have a sort of Peter Max look to them. And maybe a little Peter Greenaway? In any case, very cool post. I can't believe I haven't seen more of this stuff.

    --Susan K.

  4. Here's an interesting PowerPoint/PDF link regarding plans being developed by the Dutch government to deal with the inevitable effects of global warming and flooding. They've calculated the estimated changes in sea level and what they need to do to survive. Note the declaration "We're staying."


  5. It should be noted that Ron Heron of Archigram created Walking City. In essence, it was a proclamation of forgotten modernist ambitions: to make collective dwellings, transcend territorial boundaries, make machines in which to live, further integrate technology for humanity, alter the way people perceive the world, bring people closer to nature, and most of all to generate excitement about the future.

    Peter M.

  6. The "developed world" hasn't given up on limiting the impact of climate change. Many environmentalist and progressive nations are still on the "front end" of this fight - and the front line. Starting to promote a Marshall Plan for a post climate change world while so many environmental activists are in battle is detrimental. It causes our effort to become self-fulfilling losing prophecies.

    Helene Carlson.

  7. Nicely written post. Good to see you're back to writing about archtecture. Keep up the good work!