Utopian Architecture Part 2: Beyond Modernism

Whether through a more seamless integration of city and nature or fantastical abstraction, these three visions are imbued with a post-war sentiment to critique and confront the modern heroic architect.

James Bartolacci James Bartolacci

In the past, Architizer has gone back to the history books to examine five highly influential architectural visions that, because of their inherently utopian idealism, could never be built. Falling under a modernist mindset of idealized planning with relatively new materials like steel, concrete, and glass, these visions strived for progressive cities that improved the lives of their citizens. Unfortunately, this often led to grandiose plans that placed the genius of the master architect above all else.

Now, we revisit utopian architecture with three more plans that never left the drafting table. Unlike those that came before, the following ideas are largely a reaction to modernist grand visions. And while earlier modernist plans felt rigid and utilitarian, the following proposals take on a particularly playful, retro-future aesthetic.

Whether through a more seamless integration of city and nature, challenging rationalism, or experimenting with fantastical abstraction, these three visions of utopia are imbued with a post-war sentiment to critique and confront the modern heroic architect.

Paolo Soleri, Arcology drawing, photo via

While many modernist utopian plans sought to reconnect city life with nature by building towering buildings in the middle of ample green space, visionary architect Paolo Soleri, who passed away last year, envisioned a more seamless integration of the two.

Soleri conceived “arcology,” a term that literally fuses architecture with ecology. Designing under this new principle, Soleri drafted numerous utopian buildings that brought nature into every aspect of urban life to help cities densify while lessening human impact on the environment. Arcology was Soleri’s antidote to the inherently wasteful, inefficient, and resource-consuming effects of urban sprawl, a reality that the architect believed manifests an unhappy lifestyle of physical isolation in today’s American cities and suburbs.

Paolo Soleri, Arcology drawing, photo via

The most recognizable of Soleri’s concepts was his Hexahedron Arcology, a highly dense, 3,000 ft structure in the shape of two offset inverted pyramids that incorporated passive solar technologies to generate energy and reduce dependency on resources.

Paolo Soleri, Hexahedron Arcology, photo via Arcosanti Foundation

Accommodating 170,000 residents, this man-made mountain compacted sprawling urban life into a tight-knit system where living, working, and public spaces are placed in close proximity of one another, making it easy and efficient to move about the complex. Soleri proposed eliminating private transportation—especially the automobile—to foster socialization and connection among residents.

Hexahedron Arcology section, photo via

Walking was the primary form of transportation, which was aided by a network of pedestrian walkways, elevators, and lifts. The structure would also be built adjacent to uninhabited wildernes—not just landscaped parks—making all social classes dwellers of both the city and country, and providing them with low-impact access to nature. A revolution in urban planning, Soleri’s utopia was rooted in the principle of reducing social alienation by creating diverse yet intrinsically connected communities centered around ecology.

While today true arcology has yet to be achieved, the concept remains highly influential for many architects, providing the basis for Foster + PartnersMasdar City (which has been criticized for its possibility of creating a sterilized walled city for the rich).

Arcosanti, photo via

However, in 1970, Soleri established Arcosanti, a continuously developing experimental community in Arizona based on the principles of arcology. Each year flocks of Soleri-advocates come to Arcosanti to pursue and explore theories of the compact city and alternatives to urban sprawl.

Archigram, Walking City, photo via

For the Futurist architects in the earlier 20th century, utopia revolved around new technology and the machine. Pushing the cult of the machine age further into experimentation—and more cemented on the drafting table—decades later was Archigram, a highly experimental, productive, and often excessive group formed in London in the 1960s. Archigram combined a renewed interest in technology with an unrestrained and sometimes senseless program to keep modernism from further inching towards a banal and safe reality. Archigram’s buildings were excitingly playful, hyper-consumerist, and technologically driven, largely as a means to reinvigorate the profession.

Cover of Archigram Eight, photo via

Unlike many of their contemporaries, Archigram’s idealized visions were manifested as collages in a series of magazines. Images from popular culture were affixed onto abstract cityscapes, in a form of pastiche that retaliated against the conservative, well-mannered nature of British modernism.

Archigram, Instant City, photo via

The imagery was often accompanied by aggrandized statements like, “You can roll out steel – any length. You can blow up a balloon – any size. You can mould plastic – any shape,” which shows the plans’ hypothetical nature and Archigram’s tendency to rely on an unfeasible supply of resources and labor.

Archigram, Instant City, photo via

The group ignored contemporary notions of what could be built, and instead indulged itself with largely technocratic and completely unbuildable visions that drew inspiration from advances in technology and culture—like the launching of the first cosmonaut into space and the theories of Foucault and Barthes.

Embracing a program of constant change, Archigram founding members Peter Cook, Warren Chalk, and Dennis Crompton designed the Plug-In City in 1964. Like its name suggests, Plug-In City detailed a huge infrastructural network that allowed for modular residential units to literally plug into the system.

Archigram, Plug-In City, photo via

Large cranes and an intricate web of railways could transport and drop the units into the network, which contained access ways and essential services. And while its name suggests otherwise, Plug-In City was in fact the opposite of a traditional city, a continuously evolving megastructure rooted in obsolescence that contained no permanent buildings. Plug-In City glamourized a new faith in machines and technology that was based on infinite supplies and hyper-consumption, and rejected any notion of conventional architecture. Disregarding larger social and environmental issues associated with this ever-varying city, Archigram’s utopian vision put an unprecedented faith in capitalism, which to this day could not sustain Plug-In City’s insatiable appetite.

Lebbeus Woods, A-City, photo via

Perhaps the most imaginative of all the utopian visionaries—both in principle and design—was Lebbeus Woods. Though he started out his career working in the offices of Eero Saarinen, Woods never received a degree or license to practice architecture—which went totally against a modernist tradition, and most likely led to his ideas being even more experimental and unorthodox.

Woods’ provocative drawings were unbound by the influence of traditional rules of architecture and nature, and instead focused on experimenting with architecture for its own sake. Often politically motivated, Woods juxtaposed familiar social orders with deconstruction and disruption, challenging the “Cartesian grid.” In many of Woods’ drawings, buildings rise organically from what has been destroyed and are purposefully left unfinished, giving the viewer an opportunity to determine its fate.

Lebbeus Woods, Quake City, 1995, SFMOMA collection

Woods’ designs addressed systems in crisis, like war-torn Zagreb and Sarajevo, and an earthquake-damaged San Francisco. One of his imaginative plans shows mystifying structures rising out of and constructed from the ruins of an earthquake, while another places a sprawling city beneath East and West Berlin to provide a space for citizens to escape the isolating realities above ground and reconnect with one another.

Lebbeus Woods, drawing from Centricity, 1987, SFMOMA collection

Woods’ experimental ideas bled over into urban planning as well. In the late 1980s, Woods published a series of drawings called Centricity—essentially a utopian city unrestricted by any set of conventions or rules. Entirely speculative in theory, the buildings in Centricity were drawn merely to challenge what architecture could do and why we build.

Lebbeus Woods, Aero-Livinglab from Centricity, photo via

Many structures are totally illegible or have completely ambiguous functions, like a surreal zeppelin-like structure made from scrap material aimlessly hovering in the sky. Starting in the 1970s, Woods drew more than 200 elaborately detailed and overtly hypothetical structures; only one of his plans was ever built. For Woods, utopia existed more in freeing the mind from the physical and psychological constraints of society—a revolutionary concept that boldly disrupted the modernist need to rationalize, classify, and make sense of the world around.