Rewind: Modernist Dreams Of Utopian Architecture

James Bartolacci James Bartolacci

The reality of today’s world can often be difficult to face. With global climate change leading to rising sea levels, unprecedented environmental destruction, a widening gap between the rich and poor, and countless humans rights violations (among many other issues), it’s easy to dream of a world in which all of societal ills have been solved—a utopia. First described as a fictional island society in Greece by Sir Thomas More in 1516, the word “utopia” has evolved to mean any community with a visionary system of political and societal perfection—cities that function to improve the daily lives of their citizens.

“Utopia,” Abraham Ortelius

These imagined societies can never exist. Still, the concept of a utopia has been very influential in the arts, especially for architects. At the beginning of the 20th century, the world was facing the devastation and destruction wrought by World War I. In architecture, the modernist movement was beginning to take shape, and architects believed that their buildings could help solve the world’s problems. With new materials like glass, iron, and steel made available by the Industrial Revolution, modernist architects took to their drafting tables to imagine entirely new cities that supported utopian ideals and were devoid of the corrupted bourgeois sentiments often blamed for many of society’s dilemmas.

Some utopian visions focused on new technology, others on open, untouched landscapes, and still others were based on new social orders, but all were united under radically avant-garde and cutting-edge architecture. While each architect’s ideals varied, they all held one thing in common: they could never be built. Only able to exist in theory—the basis of a utopia—the architecture in the following utopian visions is carefully planned and highly systematic. Each detail is included to help reach a larger goal. While these visions suffered from a megalomaniacal belief that one person’s ideas could change an entire society, each architects’ plans are admirable in their experimental efforts. For the first part of our utopian architecture series, we take a look at five highly influential plans that fall under a modernist mindset. Read through to see these aspirational visions that never took off.

The Futurists and the Machine

Drawing from “La Città Nuova,” Antonio Sant’Elia

In detailing a vision of utopia, it’s best to disconnect with what is already realized, and perhaps no group does this more than the Futurists. Believing that “architecture is breaking free from tradition,” these forward-thinking designers aggressively rejected historical reference, doing away with monuments, classical arcades, frivolous decoration, and funereal and commemorative architecture, and instead championed a cult of the machine. Incorporating new materials like reinforced concrete, iron, and glass, the futurists envisioned highly industrialized cities built around an aesthetic of audacity and calculation. Beauty could be found in raw, bare materials, while oblique and elliptical lines had the power to imbue a city with dynamism. Sound a little severe? Perhaps, but the Futurists enthusiastically believed that science and technology could usher in a new way of life with practical and utilitarian sensibilities.

Drawing from “La Città Nuova,” Antonio Sant’Elia

Italian architect Antonio Sant’Elia’s“La Città Nuova”wasone of the designs most symbolic of the Futurist ideology. Unlike classic spread-out metropolises, the city of the future consisted of a centralized massive, vertical conurbation that included skyscrapers interconnected by bridges, aerial walkways, exterior elevator shafts, and funiculars. The mechanized city was designed around a lifestyle that always looked to the future, and held a foundation in renewel—constantly demolishing outdated structures to make way for newer technologies. This characteristic transience kept Sant’Elia’s ever changing visions on the drafting table.

The Power of Colorful, Prismatic Glass

Left: “Glass Construction,” Right: “Glass House,” Hans Scharoun

Things were not looking so great for German architects in the 1910s. With widespread destruction and a crippling recession coupled with inflation from World War I, the situation in the soon-to-collapse German Empire looked rather grim. So it’s no wonder that many early modernist architects at this time began drafting visions of brand new, idealized cities that sound straight out the most vivid of dreams. In 1914, Danzig-born Paul Scheerbart published his manifesto “Glass Architecture.” Unquestionably utopian in thought, Scheebart believed that the visually dazzling properties of glass—the modern emblem of the time—could raise culture to a higher level, and transform the habits of “Old Europe.” In a world dreamt by Scheebart, brick buildings would be replaced by radiant colorful glass, “as though the Earth clad itself in jewellery of brilliants and enamel.” Though Scheebart’s writings were purely imaginative, they had profound influence on German expressionist architects several years later, especially Weimar-based Bruno Taut.

Drawing from Alpine Architecture, Bruno Taut

In 1917, Taut published Alpine Architecture, a series of radically enthusiastic sketches that imagined building new glass metropolises perched high on the untouched mountaintops of the Alps. And, unlike many other modernists, Taut espoused a confidence in color. Like Scheebart, Taut’s vision promoted the psychological effects of glass, supporting the idea that refracted colors shining on the glass cityscape could elevate residents’ moods. To fund this new mountaintop city, Taut called for the melting down of old monuments and triumphal avenues—a peaceful anarchy that would dissolve the old, corrupt power. Taut’s Alpine city still remains among the most optimistic, if not fanciful, visions of utopia, taking on an almost fairytale-like quality as he cheered, “[h]urray and again hurray for the fluid, the graceful, the angular, the sparkling, the flashing, the light — hurray for everlasting architecture!”

With light reflecting from interior waterfalls onto its colorful glass walls, Taut’s Glass Pavilion for the 1914 Cologne Deutscher Werkbund Exhibition exemplified his utopian ideals.

Utopian Structures Disperse a New Order

Lenin Institute, Ivan Leonidov

When Lenin came into power following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, artists and architects were searching for a new aesthetic that could symbolize the country’s new economic policies and embrace of communism. Deeply inspired both by the kinetic elements of Futurist and Cubist art and the nation’s new socialist principles, Constructivist architecture blended abstract geometric elements with a movement and energy stemming from the promise of a future society defined by technology and engineering.

“Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge,” El Lissitzky

And, like Soviet poster art that promoted the Revolution’s ideals, bold red became the color of choice for Constructivist visionaries. Unfortunately for Constructivists, their ideas were largely ahead of their time—especially considering the USSR’s limited resources.

Lenin Tribune, El Lissitzky

Many designs were purely theoretical and often included propagandistic imagery to disseminate both an artistic and a social order. El Lissitzky’s Lenin Tribune, with its leaning structure and lack of supports, functioned as a visual dogma for socialist ideals, and at the time could never be constructed. Vladimir Tatlin’s design for his Monument to the Third International—a socialist take on the Eiffel Tower—similarly existed only in vision.

Monument to the Third International, Vladimir Tatlin

With its expressive spiral construction of red-painted steel and iron surrounding three central spaces that rotated according to day, month, and year, Tatlin’s monument symbolized an industrialized USSR of the future. However, the impractical nature of these visions were evident after Tatlin’s tower was realized only as a small wood model in Petrograd.

The Ego of The Modern Master

“Plan Voisin,” Le Corbusier

Through the 1920s and 1930s, modern “master” Le Corbusier experimented with a series of highly utopian urban planning concepts, stemming from his visions of an ideal city that hoped to reunite citizens with a highly ordered and open environment, elevating culture on a universal basis. In 1925, he proposed the “Plan Voisin,” an idealistic mega-project that called for the bulldozing of central Paris and replacing it with monolithic 60-story towers set within an organized street grid and ample green space. Corbusier believed the efficient plan could transform society by raising the standard of living for all socioeconomic levels, thus sparing the country another revolution. However, the “Plan Voisin” actually divided housing based on class, illustrating flaws in his utopian aspirations. The plan was outright rejected, and the frustrated architect ventured outside Europe to spread his ideas.

“Plan Obus,” Le Corbusier

With an overtly orientalist mindset, Le Corbusier traveled the French-controlled North African city of Algiers to experiment with and perfect his utopian urban plans. While it was never commissioned, Corbu drafted the “Plan Obus,” a vision that intended to connect Algiers’ Casbah, the city’s traditional quarter, more seamlessly with the colonial waterfront area. However, the architect’s plan was steeped in class stratification hidden under the veil of modernizing a supposedly “backwards society.” Le Corbusier envisioned a modernized concave and convex apartment complex on the slopes above the city, connected to a new administrative center on the coast. These two sectors, which would mainly have accommodated French colonists, were to be connected by an elevated road over the Casbah, further polarizing an already segregated city.

Palace of Assembly (Chandigarh), Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier’s utopian ideals were entrenched in colonial thinking—the civilized European designing to better the non-West—and typically benefited upper classes. Most of Corbu’s urban plans never materialized, except for his later master plan for Chandigarh, India, the success of which is still debated today.

Utopia and Delusion

“Broadacre City,” Frank Lloyd Wright

While many earlier modernist utopian visions centered around densely packed cities, Frank Lloyd Wright rejected urban areas altogether. Believing that city life was plagued by corrupted values, FLW fled to the suburbs, where he envisioned a new, modernized lifestyle set within bucolic landscapes. In 1932, Wright drafted a vision for his “Broadacre City,” named because each family received a one-acre plot of land. The complete antithesis of Le Corbusier’s ideal cities, Broadacre championed low-density development centered around automobile transit, where all amenities could be easily accessed within a radius of 150 miles. Wright detailed plans for spacious landscaped highways, beautifully designed public service stations, roadside markets, garden schools, and parks, which were integrated to foster self-improvement and maximize enjoyment. Apartment buildings and train stations were kept to a minimum, as FLW believed that pedestrians could only safely exist on open land, and embraced the benefits of the countryside.

“Broadacre City,” Frank Lloyd Wright

Sounds a little like an idealized version of today’s sprawling suburbs, right? Well, Wright also conceived of the “aerator,” a small helicopter provided for each family that could land without a landing strip. Together, open land, automobiles, and Jetsons-like aerators promised citizens a city filled with more light, more freedom of movement, and more spatial freedom in the “ideal establishment of what we call civilization.” Unsurprisingly, FLW’s utopian city did not anticipate today’s widespread problems of suburban sprawl and the environmental degradation that comes from the basic principles of Broadacre. Much like utopian visionaries before, “Broadacre City” was born from a disgust with city life—a modern man’s eschewal of overcrowded, aesthetically displeasing lower-class areas.

Want more utopian architecture? Look out for the second part of our series, and learn more about “Unbuilt San Francisco” and The Los Angeles that Never Was.