4.241J | Spring 2013 | Graduate

Theory of City Form

Lecture Notes

Lec 13: Utopianism as Social Reform and Built Form

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Lecture Summary

For many, the gradual reform of cities could not overcome their essential malaise; yet the nineteenth century was also a time of “great expectations” and alternatives to the physical and social form of cities abounded, most often in imagined new places distant from the existing. More’s sixteenth-century Utopia / Eutopia was both a good place and no place, an island of 54 cities where no private possessions would be tolerated. Very often utopias were constructed in opposition to identified social ills: family weakness (the Kibbutz separating child-rearing); drink and alienation (Owen’s reform of character); secular failures (the abstinence of Shakers); Puritanism (Fourier’s communal passion); industrial society’s disorder (paternal factory towns of Pullman, Saltaire and Noisel-sur-Marne); and over-centralization (the distributionism of Kropotkin and Morris). Most of these options faltered around the difficulty of maintaining physical (“the middle landscape”) and psychic (“to be yourself and also a group”) boundaries, yet the power of their ideas infiltrated mainstream urbanism: Fourier’s rue interieure, for instance. Compared to their social reforms, their architecture was conservative, recalling power (Considerant’s phalansteries or Verne’s “super-Krupp” city) or suffering from not having enough resources to innovate physically. The idea of an available quotient is argued to be the case in Russia after 1917. While these utopian ideas often emanated from ordinary people, criticized as such by Marx, their influence was widespread: the effect on Gandhi and the Tolstoy farm in Johannesburg, for instance. Antagonistic opposition of ideas were stimulated, Morris’ writing of the desertion of London in News from Nowhere after reading Bellamy’s communistic version of Boston in Looking Backward.

For architects who proposed new alternatives for the modern city, the stress was on the spatial and formal organization of the city, often with naïve or borrowed notions of the society that would inhabit them. Garnier, for example, whose proposal for a new industrial city was published in 1917, argued that there would be no need for certain types of building in his city because “the new society, governed by socialist law, would have no need for churches, and that, as capitalism would be suppressed, there would be no swindlers, robbers or murderers.” Garnier’s was an all-concrete city with building corners rounded off and serviced by a technology that produced cars and airplanes. In its zoning, it was much like a paternalistic factory town. The great architect, Le Corbusier, had a fundamental conviction that the answer to most urban problems lay in the creation of the “right plan,” an instrument which would be appropriate independent of the ideology of its patrons. So his 1922 plan for a modern city located business in the center but his Voisin plan for Paris three years later was rejected by the capitalists. In 1930 his syndicalist plan for Moscow, now with housing in the center, found no favor from the communists. Frustrated by the inability of the citizens of Algiers to adopt his many plans for their city from 1933 to 1940, he appealed to the fascist French Vichy government and wrote to Mussolini for help. It waited until the middle of the twentieth century for him to realize a plan fully, this time for a capital city for a new India. Frank Lloyd Wright’s great architectural production often asserted commentaries on cities, but he never designed a large city. He wrote a great deal, expressing philosophies taken from many sources such as that of the economist Henry George. Having already built for 40 years, Wright designed Broadacre City, a tiny settlement for 7000 people, during the depression years. Its principles lay in an apparent American right to automobile ownership (in 1929 more than 5 million cars were made in the USA), a sense of quality and scale of small enterprises, both in agricultural and machine-shop production, and a connected and informed citizenry despite their physical isolation. To what extent Broadacre represents an alternative to American suburbia is unclear. Meyer Shapiro may be unfair when he says that “Wright’s social imagination should not be classed with that of the great Utopians whom he seems to resemble.”


Handout for Lecture 13 (PDF)

  • Page 1: Timeline of eighteenth to twentieth century urban utopianism

Referenced Texts

Excerpts from Bordosi, Ralph. Flight from the City. Harper, 1935.

Smith, Joseph. “An Explanation of the Plat of the City of Zion.” June 25, 1833.

More, Thomas. Utopia. 1516.

Owen, Robert. The Crisis. 1832.

Examples, Precedents, and Works

Familistery of Guise; Phalanstery (Charles Fourier); Shakers settlement; Rappites migration; Oneida community (Humphrey Noyes); Mormon spatial program; Theosophists traditions; Fountain Grove (Thomas Lake Harris); Llano del Rio (California, United States); Kronenberg (Germany); Saltair, and Port Sunlight (England); Les Villes tentaculaires, Algiers, Ville Contemporaine, Voisin, ASCORAL (Le Corbusier)

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