Utopia Refuses

SP13_aiwan_utopia_final_superstudio

“It has been said that one can find some of architecture’s meaning by looking not at what architects do, but at what they refuse to do.”
– Aureli, Architecture Refuses [1]

The notion of utopia has both puzzled and excited philosophers, leaders, and designers for a number of centuries, even before the term “utopia” was coined by Sir Thomas More in the early 16th century. Following More’s Edenic island came the logic and harmony found in Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s Enlightenment utopia of the late 18th century. By the early 20th century, more and more thinkers became obsessed with trying to define “utopia,” including Colin Rowe who defined utopia as “a unified vision which includes [an] artistic theory, [a] political and social structure, [and] a locus independent of time, place, history, or accident.” And in the case of the USSR, during the time period between the first and second World Wars, they searched the globe for answers in a frantic search for a “utopian” model, calling on Western architects, such as Ebenezer Howard, Bruno Taut, and Ernst May to instruct the Soviets on the “utopian” form. One of the latest and still controversial theory on utopia is Lyman Sargent’s view of utopia as “’social dreaming’—specifically, dreams (or nightmares) about how a society arranges itself—that is radically different from present existing society.”[3] However, as Keller Easterling remarks, “the tabula rasa is a seizure or conquest usually accompanying utopia,”[4] –these competing definitions merely lead to a non-place, a tabula rasa. Therefore the question that we should ask is not “what is utopia?” but rather, “how do we define utopia?”

If we refer back to Pier Vittorio Aureli’s theory on architecture refusal, we may apply a similar concept to better understand “utopia.” Through the examples presented above, utopias can be seen as each designer’s manifesto. As Aureli rightfully argues, “the Manifestos were killed by Manifestos. Yet the ultimate collapse of the Manifesto was due not to itself, but to the compulsive use of it by artist and artist-groups.”[5] Since the late 20th century, possibly due to the exhaustion of the fantastic pursuit of the definition of Utopia, we too seem to kill our utopian manifestos –it is only a matter of time before our present visions are crushed by our future visions of utopia.

In 1970, the group Superstudio became one of the pioneers in this critique of utopia. Operating during the 1968 student revolt against the oppression demonstrated by modern city planners, the members of Superstudio spent their energy rethinking the role of architecture in answering how to define utopia. A few of their well-known projects include the Continuous Monument, Histograms, and Supersurface/Life, but I will focus on the Twelve Cautionary Tales for Christmas. This project, written by Piero Frassinelli, exhibits a series of twelve seemingly Utopian cities that portray technology as the all powerful “mother who looks after her children,” a Grimms-like story accompanied by Surrealist images.[6] Superstudio’s “dystopic” imagery is, in a way, an attempt to describe utopia by what is not or what we refuse utopia to be. The notion of utopia is so unattainable that it “must be read literally, as the ‘non-place’ written into its etymological origins that is ‘nowhere,’” that the only way to describe utopia is by defining what is non-utopia.[7]

I have purposely used the term “non-utopia” as opposed to “dystopia,” seeing it more as an umbrella term rather than as a single typological scenario. Although critic Manfredo Tafuri scoffs the work of Superstudio for turning “the project [of engaging the proletariat] into dream material transcribed with an iron ‘that made nobody laugh,’”[8] the exhibition curator Emilio Ambasz understands Superstudio’s work as a “play not only [of] the aesthetic, formal, or semantic aspects of a work, but also, [of] their social, technological, economic, and political implications.”[9] Through their multiple projects, Superstudio explores not necessarily what constitutes “utopia” but rather expresses parodies of them through a variety of non-utopias. When describing an object through all that it is not, one may gain more information about the object itself than if one were given a single statement about what it is. Here, the term “non-utopia” may refer to either dystopia (worse than the existing), reality (current condition), or even “hypertopia” (exaggerated, almost parodic utopia). The other issue with this utopian thinking is the potential blur between utopia and reality. As cautioned in the Twelve Ideal Cities, “You didn’t want any of the cities to come true: So you feel self-satisfied, but you shouldn’t. Because you have not caught on: you haven’t understood that the descriptions represent cities now. Is it possible that you didn’t realize that it is enough to carry forward the logic of the system until it becomes rigorous logic, to concretize many more hallucinating fantasies than those described here?”[10] But if we take Sargent’s definition of a utopia being “radically different from [the] present,” from reality, then what about the two extremes: dystopia and hypertopia?[11] Dystopia may be described (in the third of the Twelve Ideal Cities: New York of Brains) as “the most charred, devastated and molten area of that grey space that once was New York … contaminated … bodies were rotting without recourse,” like the apocalyptic scenes that we encounter in action movies.[12] On the other hand, hypertopia may be characterized as “contain[ing] in itself everything that pleases its inhabitants. It is certainly the most beautiful city in the world, because all its inhabitants, at every moment of their existence, move towards the single goal of possessing the most beautiful house.”[13] Hypertopia, similar to how utopia is often characterized as the optimized state, is not necessarily the most valued condition –becoming “both glamorous and boring, exceptional and prosaic,”[14] lacking dynamics. In these examples, utopia ceases to exist on the ends of the spectrum (dystopia vs. hypertopia) nor along its span (reality), therefore the only possible solution is to acknowledge, as Aureli writes, that “refusal, rejection and negation, instead of being understood as ‘negative’ practices, must be viewed today as the only possibility to ‘make’ something. This act of making is based on approximations towards something based on the strategic choice of what to reject. This way of making is thus an act of framing –a strategic choice of what to reject –rather than creating something, and it is far from being value-free negation.”[15] This method of elimination will eventually lead to an asymptotic definition of Utopia.

Many critics, such as Danielle Duval, see Superstudio’s “parody and contradiction [as] the group’s most enduring qualities”[16] – a compliment for Superstudio and a critique on the previous utopian figures, such as Claude Ledoux and Ebenezer Howard. Or as Reinhold Martin puts it, it is only a matter of time before we realize that “utopia” is “an all-too-real dream enforced by those who prefer to accept a destructive and oppressive status quo.”[17] A majority of the utopian plans of the 19th and early 20th centuries come in the form of literal plans, blue-prints, of the envisioned city. However, the thoughts behind the designs came from one visionary figure, resulting in Friedrich Engels’ critique that “utopians attempted to evolve out of the human brain… These new social systems were worked out in detail, the more they could not avoid drifting off into pure phantasies.”[18]

There are multiple factors embedded in the concept of utopia that it becomes difficult to pinpoint what utopia truly is. One way Superstudio tries to tackle this complexity is through a series of experimentations, similar to the iterative design process we learn at school, filled with an overwhelming number of contradictions along with persistent attempts. Across several of their projects, they take the liberty of defining a variety of non-utopias –formulating a fragmented understanding of utopia.

Two major forms of utopian architecture that came after the modernist master plans of Broadacre City and Radiant City: (1) the megastructure of Cedric Price (Fun Palace) and (2) the flexible/soft, programmatic architecture of Archigram (Instant City). In a deliberate contrast to these large-scale projects, Superstudio began to investigate and critique the minimal or “anti-design” versus the monumental. In Superstudio’s early project Reflected Architecture (1967), the architecture was reduced to almost nothing, to instead reflect its context, yet directly following that project came the Villas (1969), a series of cube-based houses. Although in Villas, Superstudio attempted to understand the basic construct of architecture, the block, for its purity, the autonomy of the block instead monumentalized itself. Not long after came the Continuous Monument

(1969), “a parable invented to criticize”[19] the very monumentality proposed by mega-structural projects. And acting against consumerism, they produced the Histograms (1970) furniture/architecture out of “little squares.” In reducing the furniture to its bare element (supposedly severing its consumerist label), they ironically employed the object with yet a new capitalistic symbolism. This series continues with the monumental 2,000-ton City of the Twelve Ideal Cities (1971), where architecture infinitely organized and controlled the life that unfolds within its voids. Finally the Life (1972) project, though similar to the Continuous Monument, is reduced to a single plane. In these projects, although Superstudio could not imagine a utopian city – operating in both “city nightmares, [and] perfect mechanisms, like the one the Nazis designed to solve the ‘Jewish problem;’”[20] they instead expressed what it should not be. However, Aurelli also challenges this search for refusal –“how can one write a Manifesto that escapes this logic of compulsive negation, whilst at the same time not betraying its quintessential negating nature?” [21] Rather than choosing one ideology over another, Superstudio discounts these conflicting ideologies in the hope of a new understanding of what utopia may be.

Another aspect that makes utopia difficult to decipher is time. The numerous proposals demonstrate that our notion of utopia changes with both time and context, therefore contradicting Rowe’s third theory on utopia being independent of time, place, and history.[22] Like in Superstudio’s internal dialogue between the monumental and reductive, the broader utopian discussion also fluctuates between industry (mechanics) and nature (crafts) –beginning with Owen’s Socialist industrial town New Lanark, to Howard’s Garden City, to Price’s industrial Potteries Thinkbelt, to Callenbach’s Ecotopia, to today’s digital cloud cities. Essentially, with history moving through a cyclical progression, we have and are still ever-chasing after the utopian world –each time loathing the present and reminiscing over past realities. Would it then make sense to design for what we think is dystopia/hypertopia so that we, at least, synch ourselves with the utopian cycle? Ambasz describes the Italy: The New Domestic Landscape as an exploration of what he calls “negative utopia,” referencing Filiberto Menna’s Noah’s Ark example –“building ‘Noah’s arks with which to meet the coming change.”[23] Superstudio plays with this notion of a reverse action-and-consequence relationship to formulate these “negative utopias.”

In Supersurface and a few of the Twelve Ideal Cities, the architect and/or inhabitant succumbs and “becomes accomplice to the machinations of the system.”[24] We are already living in this non-utopia with our auto-pilot and GPS systems today. A part of us do not want technology to take over the way machines took over the lives of the factory workers, but what if, fifty years from now, we reminisce about our bond with technology in a similar way we long to return to nature today? Maybe if we design for the dystopic/hypertopic condition, the image of the family living on the grid will indeed be our utopia –a world where technology determines our “desired microclimate … [and] primary need.”[25] Life also harkens back to some of the Socialist ideals of “an ordered and rational distribution of resources,”[26] where all our needs are supplied by the “magic black box”; “the grass of [our] neighbor is no longer greener than [ours].”[27] Devoid of the capitalistic economy, we would live the ultimate life without “objects.”[28] And maybe machines do come back into play to build our new cities. With the developing technology of 3D printing and a probable source of renewable energy and material, we can create the scene from the Twelve Ideal Cities of the Conveyor Belt City “[moving], unrolling like a majestic serpent; over new lands, taking its 8 million inhabitants on a ride through valleys and hills, from the mountains to the seashore, generation after generation.”[29]

The style in which Superstudio chooses to express their non-utopias, in both writing and loose imagery, is also “non-utopian.” Unlike the blueprints of Ledoux’s City of Chaux or Howard’s Garden cities, Superstudio’s attempt to define utopia is not through the exactness of a vision but rather an ambiguous set of representations. Through the use of mirrors, cables, and a patch of nature within Superstudio’s environment installation of Supersurface, one does not clearly understand the world they are trying to describe. Is it an infinite world of technology-infused colonies in which nature is hyper-framed by the man-made system? Or is it trying to convey a space in which the machine is a new ideal “nature” that encompasses our world and can facilitate all our needs? Is it dystopian? Utopian? Our projected future? This ambiguity is also evident in their description on the distant mountain, “is that the place to go to? Or is it only the limit to the inhabitable? It’s the one and the other since contradiction no longer exists, it’s only a case of being complementary.”[30] Superstudio has also understands its project as “not a three-dimensional model of a reality which can be given concrete form by a mere transposition of scale, but the visualization of a critical attitude towards the activity of designing understood as a philosophical speculation, as a means to knowledge, as critical existence.”[31] Pushing on this concept, theorist Gustav Landaeuer even extends his resistance against depicting the future to that of language. He believes “words imperfectly conveyed human desires and thoughts; they could hardly express utopian impulses.”[32] But at the same time, the long-time critic of paper architecture, Manfredo Tafuri, argues that “architecture was simply a useless object for capitalist development, and not even its ‘utopian’ ideological weapon.”[33] It’d be too easy to simply defend ideological architecture for being the match that is struck to create a larger debate. A lot of architectural thinkers spend too long designing and arguing for ideas that by the time it is ripe for construction, a better ideology has come along stir the conversation once more. Perhaps it is time to act upon this theory of non-utopia.

We often stress to produce ideal projects, yet we fall into the same trap as previous single-minded “Utopian” thinkers. Should we then aim for architecture that is “consciously negative [and] intentionally designed to be unpleasant, uncomfortable, to not work,” as Bernard Tschumi suggests?[34] For only through understanding the non-utopia can utopia be defined, or in Frassinelli’s words, by cataloging what we don’t want to find (in this case, the non-utopias), we can identify what we want –“I say ‘I believe’ because I might even have found it without realizing it!”[35]
WORKS CITED
1 Pier Vittorio Aureli and Jan Nauta. “Dogma 95: Architecture Refuses” AA Media Studies (2009).
2 Colin Rowe. Architecture of Utopia (1976), 213.
3 Lyman Tower Sargent. “Authority & Utopia: Utopianism in Political Thought” Polity 14 (1982), accessed March 28, 2013, doi:10.2307/3234464.
4 Keller Easterling. Enduring Innocence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 161.
5 Pier Vittorio Aureli and Jan Nauta. “Dogma 95: Architecture Refuses” AA Media Studies (2009).
6 Piero Frassinelli. “Twelve Cautionary Tales for Christmas: Premonitions of Mystical Rebirth of Urbanism” AD 41 (1971): 738.
7 Reinhold Martin, “Critical of What?” (2005), in Constructing a New Agenda: Architectural Theory 1993-2009, ed. Krista Sykes. (New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press,
2010), 360.
8 Felicity Dale Elliston Scott, Architecture or Techno-utopia: Politics After Modernism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007): 147.
9 Ibid. 148.
10 Piero Frassinelli. “Twelve Cautionary Tales for Christmas: Premonitions of Mystical Rebirth of Urbanism” AD 41 (1971): 785.
11 Lyman Tower Sargent. “Authority & Utopia: Utopianism in Political Thought” Polity 14 (1982), accessed March 28, 2013, doi:10.2307/3234464.
12 Piero Frassinelli. “Twelve Cautionary Tales for Christmas: Premonitions of Mystical Rebirth of Urbanism” AD 41 (1971): 738.
13 Ibid. 742.
14 Reinhold Martin, “Critical of What?” (2005), in Constructing a New Agenda: Architectural Theory 1993-2009, ed. Krista Sykes. (New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press,
2010), 360.
15 Pier Vittorio Aureli and Jan Nauta. “Dogma 95: Architecture Refuses” AA Media Studies (2009).
16 Danielle Duval. “Superstudio: Paper Architecture” artUS 10 (2005): 27.
17 Reinhold Martin, “Critical of What?” (2005), in Constructing a New Agenda: Architectural Theory 1993-2009, ed. Krista Sykes. (New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press,
2010), 361.
18 Freidrich Engels. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (Intl Pub, 1972), 687.
19 Pierro Frassinelli, “Journey to the End of Architecture” (2002), in Life Without Objects, ed. Peter
Lang and William Menking. (Italy: Skira Editoire, 2003), 80.
20 Ibid.
21 Pier Vittorio Aureli and Jan Nauta. “Dogma 95: Architecture Refuses” AA Media Studies (2009).
22 Colin Rowe. Architecture of Utopia (1976), 213.
23 Filiberto Menna, “A Design for New Behaviors,” in Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, 421.
24 Cristiano Toraldo di Francia. “Memories of Superstudio” (2003), in Life Without Objects, ed. Peter Lang and William Menking. (Italy: Skira Editoire, 2003), 66.
25 Superstudio. “Supersurface” (1972), in Exit Utopia: Architectural Provocations 1956-76. (London; New York, NY: Prestel, 2005), 197.
26 Ibid. 195
27 Ibid. 197
28 Superstudio. “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape” The Museum of Modern Art 46 (1972).
29 Piero Frassinelli. “Twelve Cautionary Tales for Christmas: Premonitions of Mystical Rebirth of Urbanism” AD 41 (1971): 740.
30 Superstudio. “Supersurface” (1972), in Exit Utopia: Architectural Provocations 1956-76. (London; New York, NY: Prestel, 2005), 199.
31 Ibid, 194.
32 Russell Jacoby, Picture Imperfect : Utopian Thought for an Antic-Utopian Age (Columbia University Press, 2005): 102.
33 Pier Vittorio Aureli. “Intellectual Work and Capitalist Development: Origins and Context of Manfredo Tafuri’s Critique of Architectural Ideology” The City as a Project, accessed
March 31, 2013, http://thecityasaproject.org/2011/03/pier-vittorio-aureli-manfredo-tafuri/.
34 Bernard Tschumi, quoted on Pierro Frassinelli, “Journey to the End of Architecture” (2002), in Life Without Objects, ed. Peter Lang and William Menking. (Italy: Skira Editoire, 2003), 83.
35 Pierro Frassinelli, “Journey to the End of Architecture” (2002), in Life Without Objects, ed. Peter Lang and William Menking. (Italy: Skira Editoire, 2003), 82.

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