1. Unpacking Utopia: The futile pursuit of certainty


Nobody owns anything but everyone is rich - for what greater wealth can there be than cheerfulness, peace of mind, and freedom from anxiety?

― Utopia (More 1516)

The idea of utopia is a powerful one, one that glistens with hope and promise of escape from the travails of life. From Plato’s Republic to Norman Foster’s recent Masdar City, utopian visions of cities have been a dominant force that has shaped the landscape of urbanism. To project any future vision for architecture and urbanism, there must be a holistic look at the concept of utopia and the underlying presumptions it’s based on. The word ‘Utopia’, coined by Thomas More in 1516, has different connotations and its usage has changed over time. Having a dual meaning of the ideal place and no place, utopia suggests a coexistence of perfection and the inherent impossibility to reach it. However, for the purpose of this paper, we shall be content with a broad definition of utopia that distills the essence present in every utopian adventure, be it in literature or architecture.

“Utopia is the expression of the desire for a better way of being or of living” (Levitas 2013).

Rather than surveying individual visions of architects, this paper intends to see the patterns of thought that has motivated their generation and collective agenda. Only by being critical of their ontological relation can one hope to construct a framework for visions for the 21st century, in which utopia is not so much a goal or a product but rather a method or a process.

In order to unpack the trends, we shall borrow the three major strands of utopia delineated by Thomas Fisher in his book In the Scheme of Things. The first is the rational utopia of Rene Descartes as exemplified by the City Beautiful movement by Daniel Burnham, utopia that comes from pure reasoning and is beholden to order and certainty. The second is the technological utopia of Frances Bacon, one of scientific progress and exemplified by the work of Le Corbusier and Ludwig Hilberseimer. The third is on the other end of the philosophical spectrum, a more romanticist utopia of Johann Gottifried von Herder, as exemplified by the Broadacre City designed by Frank Lloyd Wright—a return to the land and the sublime (Fisher 2000). This author is well aware of the pitfalls of reducing the work of these architects in such neat categories. This reduction is just of a symbolic nature to show the breadth of western utopia, and hence use them as a trope to highlight their shortcomings.

One can see these strands continuing to these days. The shadow of Baconian technological utopia is hard to ignore in Norman Foster’s Masdar City, a symbol of a plethora of visions of the future of cities that assume technological solutionism as a way to move forward. There is a palpable hegemony of technology operating underneath the surface of our collective imagination (Morozov 2014). No matter which strand of thought, utopian thinking in urbanism is always a product of the genius mind or a collective group (as in the case of Archigram or Superstudio). On one hand, there seems to be a general disregard for tapping into the collective aspiration of the people resulting in appreciation by architects but reciprocal disregard by the society in general. On the other hand, utopias which are made solely to reflect the aspirations of the people are essentially marketing schemes, a continuation of the status quo packaged as a better future. Alex Marshall makes this argument against the New Urbanism movement, terming this movement as a ‘grand fraud’ (Marshall 2001). On the other end of the ideological spectrum, Ecological Urbanism on closer examination they reveal a power relationship between capital and urbanization that is an extension of the exercise of control and power starting from the 19th century by the remaking of nature within the urban (Adams 2014), and thus utopias envisioned within the ecological urbanism ontological framework serves the status quo as well.

What is the essential characteristic of the utopian visions in architecture and urbanism? The frame of reference in which all these models are produced, has its origins in the Enlightenment and the following hegemony of the scientific worldview, more specifically the clockwork universe model. The aspiration of ‘freedom from anxiety’ in Thomas More’s quote was answered by the specificity and the predictability of this Newtonian thinking. Newton’s gravitational laws symbolically represented a world in which accurate predictions could be made as the world seemed to work like a machine. ‘The house is a machine for living’—the maxim by Le Corbusier after three centuries is the distillation of the same idea taking centuries to find its way into architecture and urbanism. The overlapping rationalist and scientific/pragmatist worldview of Bacon, Newton and Locke was a formidable ideology. The ‘enframing’ of nature, the subjugation of the periphery, the marginalized and subaltern can be seen as an extrapolation of that ideological thinking. In a much deeper sense, the utopian visions all rest on their certainty. Like a well designed clock, they would function like a machine to provide a vehicle for urban life, where there would be freedom from anxiety. The certainty of their final form would equate to the certainty so longed by humanity. Earnst Becker sees the search for certainty as a way of combating man’s own mortality (Becker 1977).

Certainty and predictability creates a sense of control. Modernist utopias therefore essentially are grand schemes of control and exercise of power and hence a pursuit of certainty. Sadly, utopias that project certainty, fail, certainly. Many utopias remained utopias and therefore are beyond the scope of empirical judgement but looking at the ones that are realized, one can see that their potency on paper rarely equated in the built environment. The American suburbia can be taken as the greatest utopia ever realized stemming from the Garden City pioneered by Ebenezer Howard (Fishman 1989). The post-war rapid birth that symbolized the american dream resulted in a landscape whose fall has been well documented (Kunstler 1994). With the rampant neo-liberal capitalism from the seventies, there remained little space for utopian thinking. The market has no reward for any scheme that is not profit driven, which results in pseudo-utopian architectural and urban visions being rampant now a days that lacks any rigor and originality other than superficial technological solutionism. No utopia questions the status quo which perpetuates a dystopian human existence at a global scale. The freedom from anxiety seems farther than ever. The only certainty is the unflinching stare of uncertainty.

Utopia, as a western modernist tradition, is dead.

At this point in the paper, it is prudent to conduct an autopsy on the corpse of utopia, if we are to ever think of its miraculous rebirth.  


2. Autopsy of Utopia: why do they fail?


SUPERSTUDIO evoke twelve visions of ideal cities. the supreme achievement of twenty thousand years of civilization, blood, sweat and tears; the final heaven of Man in possession of Truth, free from contradiction, equivocation and indecision; totally and fur ever replete with his OWN PERFECTION       
- Twelve Cautionary Tales for Christmas (SUPERSTUDIO 1971)

The sarcastic rendition of the ideal city by Superstudio in 1971 shows how dystopian they thought the world already was. Each of the twelve cities were representations of existing cities, albeit made to look like utopian futures. The fragility of the modernist tradition of utopian thinking as crystallized visions of progress was palpable even then. A similar pattern can be detected in Conrad Ulrich’s collections of manifestos from the 20th century. It paints a collective picture of the thought guiding architects as they visualized the future of urbanism. Their individual merit may be debatable but as a collection, they show critical fragilities.    

This fragility can be attributed to the following epistemological and ontological misconstructions:  

A. Dualist and Rationalist view of man

"I think therefor I am"—Rene Descartes’ much publicized maxim, which postulates a thinking mind separate from the body is shown to be erroneous (Damasio 1990). The idea of the inseparability expressed by the idea of the embodied mind paints a radically different picture of ‘man’. The radical picture does not end with the erasure of this long-standing duality but also extends into the idea of ‘man’ being an inseparable part of his social existence. The highly acclaimed western value of individualism and the primacy of the ego is receding with mountain of research from social psychology and neuroscience, which is pointing towards man as an individual whose ‘self’ develops as part of the whole as human brain is primarily in a default social mode (Lieberman year). A more suitable maxim for our age is—I participate therefore I am (Rifkin 2014). The social nature of man also throws the concept of survival of the fittest and the whole notion of concept under the bus. Rather research points to humans being biologically predisposed towards cooperation and collective agency (Tomasselo year?). The Rational Choice Theory, epitomizing man as a rational actor is crumbling as an accurate representation. Rather, research in behavioral psychology paints a rather irrational picture of man who is biased, swayed, and is easy manipulated (Kahneman and Tversky 2002). A sincere recognition of human irrationality, fallibility, predisposition with social  tendencies and tribal biases has been largely absent in utopias of the past. This resulted in those visions being unable to afford such human subtleties, to think of the embodied experience and to house the social needs of man.

B. Reductionist view of city/urbanism

The linear, mechanistic conception of cities as espoused in the Utopias was challenged curiously in close temporal proximity by three important texts—Jane Jacob’s The Life and Death of Great American Cities in 1961 which explicit stated cities as organized complexity; Christopher Alexander’s seminal essay in 1965 titled “The city is not a tree” which articulated non-linear overlappings in making a city; and Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture in 1977 which showed anachronistic juxtapositions being essential part of architecture and the city. The neat modernistic idea of the city being a machine slowly started to give away to a more entangled, emergent, complex idea of the city. The articulation of such complexity was helped by, on the one hand by the expanding field of complexity science in the nineties which studied how the whole gave rise to phenomenon not predicted by the parts, and on the other hand by the deconstructivist thinking in the social sciences, particularly ideas from Deleuze and Guattari such as the ‘assemblage’ which attempted to describe a complexity previously unarticulated. The utopias being linear in nature failed to anticipate and formalize the inherent complexity of good cities.

C. Non-negotiability with context

Most utopian thinking in urbanism were tabula rasa. Either they showed a definite future but failed to chart an evolution process from the present, or they required an altogether greenfield site for its enactment. In either case, it operated in a temporal or spatial blankness. Even when the site existed, the project disregarded the existing as a negative. Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus for Algiers was directly cutting across the old city quarters whereas Rem Koolhaas's Exodus from 1972 literally call for abandoning London in order to escape into his architecture. The lack of understanding of emergence—the unfolding of the cities like an organism directly results from the aforementioned mechanistic thinking. Very few utopian projects, such as Cedric Price’s Potteries Thinkbelt suggested a synchronous existence of the project with its temporal as well as spatial context.

D. Disciplinary boundaries

In The Silo Effect, anthropologist Gillian Tett argues how setting up strict boundaries amongst departments and disciplines creates dysfunction at higher organizational scale (Tett 2016). The city being a complex organization, requires an interdisciplinary approach in its conception and vision. Utopias rarely were ventures of interdisciplinarity. Rather, a noticeable trend is using utopias as a creative exploratory devices which suffices the disciplinary agenda yet falls short of the social commitment architects ought to have. The argument is not against such uses but rather the absence of any other form. Architects made claims without much substantial backing from other disciplines and utopias were both highly prescriptive and fantastical, garnering much acclaim within the discipline, but failing to engage other disciplines.    

E. Failure to unfold collective imagination     

Last but not the least, but rather the cumulative effect of all the other causes resulted in a distancing of the public aspiration and the utopian thinking. Not that the architect needed to be a fashioner of collective aspiration without his disciplinary interjection, but rather, most utopias acted as a top-down devices that had little room for diffuse design and feedback loops that engaged the quotidian life. There was a palpable disconnect between what people could imagine and what the architect thought would be the best for them. A deep paternalism plagues the utopias. Rather than arriving at a collective vision by mutual learning and exchange of competence, the architects acted as modernism’s missionaries with an ideological agenda that could not be compromised. Architects always seemed to be consumed in their architectural fantasy than the collective urban imagination.

This author acknowledges that the findings of this autopsy are neither conclusive, nor without gross generalizations. The purpose of this essay is not to launch a much more rigorous autopsy as an end, but rather to use the autopsy as a means to arrive at an approximate framework for our times by exposing the fragilities embedded in the utopian visions of the last century.

3. Agency of Utopia: why do we need a rebirth

But before such an audacious attempt can be undertaken, one must shed a moment to conceptualize why we need a rebirth of utopia—a failed modern device. If it is truly dead, then should we not follow up with a burial?

This author argues quite an opposite position. Our contemporary world as is now can be defined to be in the grips of capitalist realism, whose success is the ability to subdue any imagination to envision any other reality other than it (Fisher 2009). In such a time where all imagination seems to be surrendered to the market forces, the concept of utopia not only needs a rebirth, but also needs to be stripped of its modernist tradition and be used as a vehicle for new collective visions. Words have the potency to give form to meaning, and therefore utopia, being a word with a deeply enchanting meaning, of future possibilities, of alternative existence, needs an urgent reappraisal. Ruth Levitas, at the Inaugural Lecture at the University of Bristol in 2005, delivered a speech titled “The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society or why sociologists and others should take utopia seriously”. As the title suggests, she makes a case for utopia not as a goal but as a process.

“Utopia is a form of anticipatory consciousness. ... key concept is the ‘not yet’, carrying the double sense of not yet, but an expected future presence, and still not, a current absence. But that which is not yet is also real…,” (Levitas 2004)

It is the capacity to incubate an anticipation which is the most potent feature of utopia. Only when people do believe in the possibility of an alternative that exists beyond the dichotomy of the real and the imaginary, can there be actions striving towards that. Architects find themselves curiously in a position where they have in their hands a device that could condense collective imagination with disciplinary competence.

Thus, a reincarnated Utopia, in the hand of the architect, could be the formalization of the hope of a better alternative just beyond reach but within possibility, and thereby an instrument of actualization and activism. The narrative of utopia has a potency beyond mere facts, because in essence, the utopia is a reflection of our better selves. For over the last 70,000 years since the cognitive revolution, the progress of homo sapiens can be attributed to their curious ability to form stories about a better future and have a vehement faith in them as well, prompting collective action (Hariri 2014). As historian Howard Zinn quipped, ‘you cannot be neutral on a moving train,’ the silence of architects in forsaking utopia would be an inevitable complicity in furthering the current dystopian trend.  


4. (You)topia: Framework towards an antifragile urbanism

That which does not kill us makes us stronger.
-Friedrich Nietzsche

In 2014, the UK Government’s Foresight Future of Cities Project, in a working paper concluded about a perceptible shift towards such intentionalities.

“...a foreseeable shift toward more open frameworks that enable decision makers, people and communities to inform adaptable, resilient and sociable urban development seems likely (Campbell, 2011). Such work alongside the Foresight Future of Cities programme forms an important resource for catalysing and rethinking the potential of perspectives on future cities more widely. One of the principal tenets going forward would be the relationship of people and their built environment.” (A Visual History of Cities, 2014)

Replacing the ‘u’ from utopia and replacing it with ‘(you)’ is a paronomasiac device—a pun that sheds light on this most fundamental aspect of the utopia to come. The utopia of the 21st Century must have at its core the relationship between people and built environment. Without developing a meaning of this relationship, it becomes an empty rhetoric useful for political shenanigans but hardly so for visionary architects and urbanists. The final section of this essay will outline a possible framework expanding upon this tenet for utopian thinking. In order to escape the dogmatic ideological inflexibility of the modernists on one hand and the apathetic relativism of the postmodernists, the framework is probabilistic, a set of tendency rather than being prescriptive.

What are the tendencies of our time? What is the larger trend of the Zeitgeist? The framework for thinking about urbanism in the 21st century must be aware of the paradigm shift taking place. The following figure, using word clouds, attempts to portray rhizomatically the paradigmatic transition.

Fig.1 Paradigm Shift (image source: author)

The uncertainty of the future so intricately entangled in a globalized world has given rise to a ‘global risk society’ (Beck 2015), where how to approach risk becomes a fundamental shaper of urbanism. This risk is no longer clearly distinguished as separate strands such as the ecological, the social, or the political. Both acute events—wars, disease outbreak, natural disasters and chronic stress—aging population, loss of jobs due to technology, public mental health, constitute the spectrum of disruptions that urbanisms of the future will have to deal with. These events and their risk cannot be predicted due to computational irreducibility. Therefore, the approach for urbanism to deal with them must not be predictive and fixed, but rather, anticipatory and adaptive to risk. The existential question in urbanism, then becomes, how can we think of a utopia which not merely absorbs the shock of these disruptions but rather benefits from them?

The concept of ‘antifragility’ helps us articulate such an approach. Even though a ubiquitous phenomenon, antifragility has been unnamed therefore outside of conceptual exploitation until recently. The antifragile benefits from exposure to disorder/ shock/trauma whereas the resilient absorbs the shock, resists succumbing to it but does not get better. Coined by Nassim Taleb in a 2013 book by the same name, antifragile is the quintessential property of not just surviving but gaining from disorder. If urbanism is to experience disorder/ trauma, then we must think of an urbanism that gains from the exposure to the randomness/ disorder/ trauma (Shafique 2016).

Urbanist Michael Mehaffy writes about antifragility, “...this characteristic is everywhere in nature, and especially in biological systems. Muscles endure the strain and damage of exercise, and actually become stronger. The body gets infected with a small dose of an infectious agent and develops immunity. Indeed, evolution itself, as a cumulative process, relies on this ‘antifragility.’ By contrast, removing shocks from these systems actually makes them weaker over time -- lack of exercise, or lack of exposure to immunity-generating pathogens. … Taleb points out, as Jane Jacobs did throughout her career, that our model of ‘planning’ is fundamentally broken, demonstrably incapable of learning from its mistakes. We try to ‘plan’ in a rational, linear, predictive sense, and the inevitable result is spectacular failure. Indeed, most of what passes for such planning today is pseudo-science, bureaucratic turf-building, and fragile clutter. Worse, it makes our entire civilization fragile” (Mehaffy 2014).

The following is a framework for utopian thinking based on antifragility starting with the condition of  involving people in the design process: (Rather neatly laying out the parts, i.e. bullet points, the framework is a fluid network of important concepts integral to the framework in an assemblage)

(YOU)TOPIAS are PARTICIPATORY—rather than a work of genius, (you)topias are collective imaginations. The architect/urbanist may be the designer and curator of the participatory process but in essence the (you)topia itself is a condensation of the societal aspiration. In order for the architect or urbanist to allow fruitful participation, he must be EMPATHIC—sincere participation starts with developing an intellectual understanding of a first-person view of the other, rather than just an emotional one. This dramaturgical consciousness allows the architect to take turns in different roles and develop a nuanced reading (Rifkin 2009). Empathy not only allows participation of the user but also is essential to foster INTERDISCIPLINARITY, which is essential in condensing a collective intelligence and shared knowledge base. But knowledge itself is not enough. In order to synthesize the interdisciplinary understanding into foresight and practice disciplinary competence, (you)topias must be WISE (wisdom has more survival value than knowledge, or smartness)—resisting the lure of technological solutionism of the moment, (you)topias are precautionary and cognizant of temporal ramifications of solving problems locally without a more holistic view. Therefore, being wise leads to being HOLISTIC, which is to say that there is a sense of synchronicity between the parts at the global level, i.e. they are integral and the architect/urbanist is at least intuitively aware of how they are related. Therefore, (you)topias are RELATIONAL i.e. ecological in nature, the visionary is aware of the relationships between the design components, between the design and the people and between the people and himself, which begs (you)topias to be CONTEXT SENSITIVE—understanding the plurality of the context—temporal, social, environmental, political, economical context, leads (you)topias to be engaged in an activel, reorganizational way. Since they cannot be foreseen due to high degree of relational embeddedness, they are EMERGENT—rather than having a designed product immutable to change, (you)topias are evolutionary in nature, thus, emerging into different possible scenarios based on the context. Emergence is a property of a complex phenomenon, and (you)topias are COMPLEX—rather than being complicated, (you)topias are based on simple rules that generate complexity overtime by interaction between them. They are based on the fundamental premise of complexity arising out of local behaviors that may not seem intelligent locally but displays a collective intelligence at a global scale. Thus, (you)topias are made of small-scale interventions or inventions that come together globally to allow for certain properties to emerge by participatory selection, essentially making (you)topias ADAPTATIVE—they are designed to be changed at small scales depending on the feedback from the users. The adaptations allow for being responsive to changing context that was not foreseen. The key factor in designing for future adaptations is to be ANTICIPATORY—Rather than being predictive, (you)topias anticipate potential disruptions / disasters and design structures that operate in either case and create a framework of affordances that allow for multiplicity of use and even non-use. (You)topias are PROCESS-ORIENTED—(you)topias rather than being about the object from a genius mind, is more the process by which it is created. The product is only a snapshot at a fixed time existing ancillary to the process; they create affordance to be SOCIAL—(you)topias understand that, for humans to be socially engaged precedes other material needs, thereby, utopias will be fundamentally about provoking social bonding and organization; they are AESTHETIC—(you)topias will not disregard the need to satisfy the innate aesthetic need of man, in the sense that they will reorganize the way we look at ourselves and the world; and they are COFORMAL—(you)topias propagate the coexistence of the formal and the informal entangled with each other to create a richness of variety and affordance of local adaptations and yet global intentions. (You)topias seek failure and disruption, as each failure creates a condition for it to overcompensate, innovate and be better than before. (You)topias loves uncertainty precisely because they are not rigid and they need the randomness of the uncertain events in order to evolve. (You)topias are TRANSMODERN, that is counter-hegemonic to the Western neo-liberal worldview, they are fluid—oscillating between the traditional and the modern, the apollonian and dionysian, the economical and the ecological, the top down and the bottom up, the local and the global; and the Western object-based cognition of the world and the Eastern relational way of looking at the world.

Thinking in terms of antifragility in urbanism proposes a framework for a new rationality, based not on abstract concepts but survival in the real world through pragmatic heuristics that operate under opacity of knowledge. It is a philosophical construct for a time rife with uncertainty but is uses that very uncertainty to make its existence certain.

(paper to be presented at the Memaryat 2017 International Conference in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)


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