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Utopian Dreams: Failures and Successes

Posted: April 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: spring 2011 | No Comments »

Designers have the ability to solve problems with their creations.  One of these problems to solve is the betterment of the society they live in. The philosophical beliefs and ideas a designer has about the current condition of their habitations can bring about the creation of designed utopian societies that are often expressed in the form of architecture for communities. Designers use their views of the condition of their current environment to create utopian societal concepts for the future that push their ideological agendas. Although these utopias often fail to be successful in the way the designer had originally intended, they are usually adapted and integrated into contemporary society becoming successful in a different way.


The post world war eras were times of reassessment of the living condition in urban environments. In the 1920’s in France, officials had been trying to deal with the squalor of the growing Parisian slums, and Le Corbusier sought efficient ways to house large numbers of people in response to the urban housing crisis (Huxtable). He believed that his new, modern architectural forms would provide a new organizational solution that would raise the quality of life for the lower classes. Le Corbusier designed and built a community of fifty-one homes in Pessac, a town near Bordeaux, in France that was meant to be a laboratory of new domestic, structural and esthetic ideas (Huxtable). The structures had a “raised ground floor, wide windows, roof terraces, open facades and open plans… corners could be breached, openings placed almost anywhere and made much larger, spans increased and walls treated as screens, rooms [were] opened to each other and to the light and view”.[1]

However this project was commonly seen as a failure, because of the occupants’ rebellious rejection of Le Corbusier’s doctrinaire modernist esthetic and elitist ideas, as they restructured and redecorated the homes (Huxtable). But French architect, Philippe Boudon wrote that “The Quartiers Modernes Fruges were not an ‘architectural failure’. The modifications carried out by the occupants constitute a positive and not a negative consequence of Le Corbusier’s original conception. Pessac not only allowed the occupants sufficient latitude to satisfy their needs, by doing so it also helped them to realize what those needs were.”[2] “The project’s strong identity absorbs almost anything.”[3] An observer can discern the features of the original structure from the changes that were made to it (Huxtable). Even though the structures designed by Le Corbusier are not being used in his original intention as a “machine to live in”[4] they are successful in the fact that adapted and assimilated well.  The project is a true expression of how life and art accommodate each other.


After World War II, there was a renewed sense of progressivism in industry.  The 1939 World’s Fair, held an exhibition with the theme of “Building a Better Future”.  The General Motors building exhibit featured the utopian creation designed by Norman Bel Geddes.  Futurama, as it was called, looked at the concurrent traffic and congestion problems of the 1930s and tried to fix it with a plan for 1960. The exhibit constructed an ideological agenda through streamlining, which was “intended to soothe the tensions between the rich and poor and between labor and capital by suggesting harmonious slum-free society sustained by commercialized science and technology.”[5] Geddes’s Futurama was a diorama covering 36,000 square feet featuring sparse examples of futuristic innovations such as scientific orchards, a giant power dam, and a fourteen-lane superhighway system and a Le Corbusian metropolis (Henthorn).

Although GM used Geddes’ model to promote their business and never intended to make it a reality, he wanted his vision be fulfilled. Geddes tried for years to get support for his vision of utopia but it was never realized.  However, the urban freeway and the idea of a city structured for the use of automobiles were both taken from Geddes’ model. “Indeed, two seminal documents of US government freeway policy at this time…did not copy Bel Geddes’ schemes, [but] they did propose massive freeway construction in and around the cores of America’s central cities.”[6] The ideological theories of using the freeway system to have a cleansed city—free of slums—was never actualized but the idea of creating the highway system to ease congestion was.


Looking for new ways, fix the problem of class division and pressure of growth in Brazil in the 1950s, the idea of Brasília was formed.  The city served to open the center of Brazil to new development, relieve the pressure of growth from the burdened old Capital Rio de Janeiro, and create a renewed sense of Nation pride by building a modern twenty first century city (Oscar). Niemeyer didn’t want his city to be a “recreation, on the Brazilian plateau, of an equivalent to the bourgeois life of Ipanema or Leblon, but the creation of something new, egalitarian, and powerful, with its roots in a shared sense of adversity.”[7] Brasília’s plan, designed by the urbanist Lúcio Costa, is shaped like a bird or an airplane (Williams 123). It’s wings, contain fifteen km of residential buildings and are bisected by a five km Monumental Axis containing the seat of government, the president’s office, the ministries, the national theater, and the bus station (124).

The city was never discarded as unusable, but there are many critiques to the design. The most common critique was that “civic life is something it conspicuously lacks and that its absence is a conspicuous failure.” [8] This is meant that the city seemed to alienate the people living in it. A further issue as Niemeyer recognized in 1963, was that the city exacerbated the social problems it was supposed to solve (131). The city’s spatial arrangement imposed a brutal regime on the poor, obliging them to live far from the center in a semi legal periphery and to endure a long and painful commute (131). There is evidence, as well, that the city “increasingly reproduces the bourgeois civic life that it was supposed to replace.” [9] But the city is successful in the way that it gave Brazil a striking, new capital to equate Brazil with industrialized and developed countries.


As the world kept developing, and we became aware of the issues involved with wasting resources there came a need to consider environmentally friendly ways of living. The Cosanti Foundation began building Arcosanti, an experimental town in the high desert of Arizona in 1970 (Arcosanti). Arcosanti is based on the concept of arcology (architecture + ecology), which was developed by Italian architect Paolo Soleri. An arcology, is the integration of the built and the living, so that they act “as organs would in a highly evolved being. This means many systems work together, with efficient circulation of people and resources, multi-use buildings, and solar orientation for lighting, heating and cooling.”[10] Arcosanti was designed to house 5000 people, have compact structures and solar greenhouses that would occupy 25 acres of a 4060-acre land preserve.

While the city provides a good place for the discussion of environmentally friendly ways of building and living, the city for the most part is a dud. At the present stage, “about 3% of the city has been built in the last 30 years, and about 70 people, not 5,000, live there.”[11] Instead of being a city for people to live with the land, it is instead, an educational site where people can learn the architectural “building techniques and arcological philosophy, while continuing the city’s construction”[12] as well as create the clay bells that Soleri is known for.  The lack of funding is a major component of what kept this project from developing further but the city is still successful in the way of teaching strategies that one could use to create a more environmentally friendly city, providing working examples of these structures and giving a place where nature and people come together to have a full community.

Faced with countless societal problems that for the most part are never fully solved, designers have tried to find ways to make a more enjoyable society for everyone.  These concepts, based on the ideologies of the designer, are frequently presented in the form of utopian societies achieved through the structure of architecture.  But the idea of a utopian society is a set up for failure, due to a steady variable: human nature.  It is human nature that accounts for the downfalls, as well as the advancement of society.  Without this variable, there would be no advances that lead us to better societies. Although utopian societies will not be the solution to our problems, designing them is an important step that allows us to take the successful parts and use them to get closer to the overall betterment of society.




Works Cited


“Arcosanti : Project.” Arcosanti: Home. (accessed April 17, 2011).


Ellis, Cliff ‘Lewis Mumford and Norman Bel Geddes: the highway, the city and the future’, Planning Perspectives, 20:1, 51 – 68


Henthorn, Cynthia Lee. “Weapons of Mass Persuasion.” In From submarines to suburbs: selling a better America, 1939-1959. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2006. 47-49.


Huxtable, Ada Louise. “LE CORBUSIER’S HOUSING PROJECT- FLEXIBLE ENOUGH TO ENDURE.” The New York Times (New York City), March 15, 1981. (accessed March 28, 2011).


“Oscar Niemeyer – Brasilia – The Capital of Brazil ::” architecture online – arcspace is an architecture and design magazine that features today’s most creative projects as well as the most influential of the past.. (accessed March 28, 2011).


Steffen, Alex. “Worldchanging: Bright Green: Recycling Arcosanti.” Worldchanging: Bright Green. (accessed April 18, 2011).


Williams, Richard J.. “Modernist Civic Space and the Case of Brasília.” Journal of Urban History 32, no. 120 (2005): 120-137.





[5] Henthorn, Cynthia Lee, “Weapons of Mass Persuasion.” 47-49.

[6] Ellis, Cliff, ‘Lewis Mumford and Norman Bel Geddes: the highway, the city and the future’, 51 – 68

[7] Williams, Richard J., Modernist Civic Space and the Case of Brasília, 129

[8] Williams, Richard J., Modernist Civic Space and the Case of Brasília, 121

[9] Williams, Richard J., Modernist Civic Space and the Case of Brasília, 131

[10] “Arcosanti : Project.”

[11] Steffen, Alex. “Worldchanging: Bright Green: Recycling Arcosanti.”

[12] “Arcosanti : Project.”

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