Dear Mr. Woods: A Utopian Fiction

“Have we reached the end of utopia as well as the end of history?”—a question perhaps more pertinent than any other in regard to the current state of architecture, and one that architectural theorist and writer Lebbeus Woods has raised to the “more ambitious and idealistic of the coming generation.”  However, I’m not entirely certain that we have the answer.

As he describes, we, the “avant-garde”, have become entirely too focused on pragmatic matters, “from innovative computer techniques of form-making to issues such as sustainability.”  And I believe it’s this interference of the digital and the temptation of architectural gimmicks that have persuaded designers to take the easy way out, so to speak.  But that’s not to say that these “issues” don’t serve a purpose in the grand scheme of things.  Conversely, I think design by digital means and with sustainability as a driving force afford the opportunity for great architecture.  Both, to me, appear to be tools that must be used in their own right not to limit or compromise the integrity of the design, but instead to challenge the reality of the idea—if in fact, the purpose is to have the idea realized.  Some ideas are meant to be manifested through the use of questions rather than answers—Can utopia be realized; if so, has it already been realized; and what would be the benefit of imagining another utopia?

But perhaps the most important thing to note is that these types of questions must be asked, or at least taken into consideration, at the forefront of design.  Is that not what the former “avant-garde” did when approached with ideas of ideal cities or grid structures that were intended to improve the living conditions of a society?  Because as Woods points out, “All utopian projects reach not only for formal or technical improvements, but social ones, as well.”

Furthermore, is capitalism to blame for the current lack of vision in reference to utopian ideals?  If the economy isn’t to blame, to which direction do we point the finger?  I think the only obvious answer is us, the designers—architects, engineers, urban planners, landscape architects, etc.  The sooner we take the opportunity to improve on past failures, the more likely visions of utopian ideals will start to be realized.  However, that’s not to say that a pure sense of utopia is entirely achievable; but I think the movements and changes brought about by careful consideration of architecture, infrastructure, and economy can start to address some of the most basic utopian ideals.

And so the question still remains—has capitalism brought about the end of history?  And what does it really mean to say “the end of history?”  I think the idea of such a claim speaks to the current state of architecture.  The acts of prefabrication and “green architecture”, to me, seem to mimic the ideas of the past.  At what point did architects stop having a conscious understanding of the environment and the surrounding landscape of a building?  I wasn’t aware that these ideas were ever new to the practice of architecture, or design in general.  Isn’t that, at its core, the purpose of design—to improve society through the process of innovation and making?  History seems to defend that notion, at least to me.  But as designers with an understanding of both past and present, and with the beginnings of utopian ideals in mind, what are we doing to change the future?  That doesn’t mean that we should forget about the past, but what answers can we give that start to plan for new concepts and ideas?  I think that there is some truth to the claim that we’ve reached “the end of utopia as well as the end of history.”  However, an end only gives birth to a new beginning, and I believe that Woods has challenged the new generation of designers to start to imagine what shape and form that new beginning should take, either as an idea or as a reality.

Consequently, I too believe that this new beginning, or transformation, can be brought about by sudden, dramatic, or even violent means.  And regardless of whether these violent transformations are brought about by natural or human causes, it’s important, as Woods notes, “to be able to speculate, to create these scenarios, and to be useful in a discussion about the next move.”  He continues, “No one expects these ideas to be easily implemented.  It’s not like a practical plan that you should run out and do.  But, certainly, the new scenario gives you a chance to investigate a direction.”  And that’s what I too think is most important—in what direction this new scenario leads the architect and the investigation of new ideas or solutions.  As unfortunate as moments of conflict or struggle are, either between man himself or man and nature, they are almost always warranted and necessary to bring about change; even if the reason for the conflict isn’t easily understood.

Despite the temptation to dwell on the negativity of such situations, Woods always takes the high road and instead asks, “How could architecture play any positive role in all of this?”  He, like myself, is far more concerned with the transformation in society, politics, and economics through architecture; and I think that’s more of a utopian ideal than one can get.  I imagine that the forefathers of utopian ideals had that in mind when the first ideal cities were designed, or even before their conception.  Because again, isn’t that what design should be?  Isn’t that what utopias were supposed to be?  I think so, and I still think it’s realistic to conceive of such a strong affect on the ideas of others, in all aspects of life.

And this is exactly what Woods hoped to achieve after the political crisis and apparent terrorist attack of the Bosnian government on its own people in Sarajevo.  In response to the aforementioned question that Woods asked himself, he replied; “My answer was that architecture, as a social and primarily constructive act, could heal the wounds, by creating entirely new types of space in the city.  These would be what I had called ‘freespaces,’ spaces without predetermined programs of use, but whose strong forms demanded the invention of new programs corresponding to the new, post-war conditions.”  Again, to that I ask the question, what could be more utopian than returning the land and the buildings that occupy it to its people?  Is the notion of “freespaces,” for people to do just that—use the space in which they occupy as freely as they choose—about as utopian an idea as an architect or designer could ever conceive?  I think so, and subsequently, I believe that we have not reached the end of utopia or the end of history.

 

Works Cited

Woods, Lebbeus. 2011. http://lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com/.

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