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Utopianism to the Role of Design in 20th Century

The architecture of our century that has actually been built, that everybody sees, and that is ordinarily commented upon in magazines and books, appears from cursory study to be relatively uniform in character. Of course, when we try to evaluate the architectural achievements of the present moment, many questions arise. Yet we can, historically, isolate and explain certain individual trends.

If we are to believe the well-known survey books of modern architecture, there were processes of change in the advanced eclecticism of the nineteenth century, which gave rise to the nascent modern architecture and the formulation of doctrinaire principles and ideals. If one ventured to construct a really complete picture of the architecture of this century, it would have to include phenomena which do not correspond to the better-known, universally recognized trends and which for that reason have usually been ignored.

They have been considered superfluous, passing fads, and frequently have been pronounced pathological. To preserve the orderly classification, impulses of utopianism were branded as freaks. At best, they were called individualistic or different -because they did not “fit. ” However, if one takes the trouble to examine carefully and together all those apparently eccentric and isolated phenomena, interrelationships emerge that make it impossible to dismiss them with such superficial epithets.

Important and logical tendencies and trends begin to appear, and occasionally one might even feel that these so-called freakish ideas are concerned with something much more fundamental -and perhaps much more important – for the design of the future than the exquisite over-refining of accepted and already perfected forms. This work does not intend to challenge the actual design of today or to play it off against another type of design.

This work wants to pay tribute to utopianism; specifically, to that creative fantasy which conveys its message not through literature, painting, sculpture, or pure technology, but in design shapes in 20th centaury. Design is of course totally implicated in the story of utopias. At it simplest, a great deal of the institutionalized practice of design has been concerned with the creation of both modest and grand exemplary forms – typeforms (Margolin and Buchanan 13).

Frequently a singular object or environment is claimed to represent an element of an ideal and a coming whole – the example of the New York World’s Fair evidences this writ large. Against the backdrop of design’s place in the story of utopias, it is by no accident that it has been in America that utopianism found its most powerful expressive forms. America the New World, America the dream, America the hope of the future – all these characterizations figure importantly in the history of modern utopian thought and its representational manifestations.

The strongest contrast to an architecture with a tangible skin is the skeletal. The first half of the twentieth century with its colossal ferrovitreous structures for world expositions and railroad stations, its daring metal bridges had introduced hitherto unknown formal potentialities. Metal gossamers, incredibly thin as was the custom at that time, rose into the sky; undreamt of heights could easily be achieved; great areas could be effortlessly spanned.

Bruno Taut set out the framework of a trigonometric point over the chalky rock of Rugen Island and gave his drawing the caption “Beginnings of an Alpine Architecture. ” It was the study of construction that stimulated him to produce his remarkable book Alpine Architektur which may be counted among the most poetic inspirations of our century (Miles 2004). The glass-and-iron exposition buildings of the twentieth century were designated “crystal palaces;” actually the term came into existence with respect to the gigantic hall of the first International Exposition in London of 1851 (Berry 10).

To us this term seems an exaggeration, because the skin of these buildings was formed of a window glass of watery transparency that does not today seem out of the ordinary. In Bruno Taut, Scheerbart found an architect who gave – at least for a short time – an approximate realization to his glass house dreams. For the exposition of the Deutsche Werkbund at Cologne in 1914, Taut constructed a pavilion that exhibited with exemplary formal discipline the possibilities of glass in the field of architecture, and which fulfilled the writer’s wishes almost literally.

The enclosing walls and the facets of the dome were paneled with glass prisms backed by a layer of colored glass. The stairs were composed of glass tiles, and glass cylinders were set into the ceiling between the two floors. The fountain on the lower floor, using all imaginable sorts of glass in a highly inventive manner, thus became a many-colored, scintillating, witty, and gay creation of a truly supreme fantasy. The same fascination with transparency is evident in the Chapel for the University of Oklahoma in Norman, designed thirty-five years later by Bruce Goff.

The panels of the roof are of pink illuminated glass, set in aluminum frames which permit the installation of hidden fluorescent light tubes. The walls are formed of double windows between which fragments of colored glass have been inserted. The glow of these walls can be enhanced at night by the underwater illumination of a lily pond which extends in part under the walls into the interior of the chapel. The image of the crystal cave, the fiction of color emanating from the interior of matter itself, attest to the pure and legendary attitude of these architectural dreams.

Finsterlin’s idea for a “House of Worship” of 1920, a combination of massive parts of pyramidal form with movable spheres made of majolica and smoky quartz, finds a surprising parallel in the project for a sports club by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1947, although his choice of smoky quartz is replaced by a much more pedestrian synthetic material (Allison 1981). The fairytale atmosphere is thrust aside, as it were, by the idea of transparent bell jars such as man would set over a certain spot on the earth in order to isolate it not only aesthetically but also climatically from the rest of the world.

The project created by Bruce Goff in 1952 for the house of a musician in Urbana, Illinois, illustrates this concept of the bell jar. A supporting construction in aluminum, spiderweb-like gracefulness, carries a membrane of fine wire mesh onto which the synthetic material has been sprayed while it was still in liquid state. Early in the century, Paul Scheerbart had declared prophetically: “One is going to try to invent materials that can compete with glass. I am referring to materials that are as elastic as rubber but also transparent.

Something like that has already been invented once in the Tektorium; but it is not resistant enough, and that is a real drawback. Nevertheless, things will change. Materials will be devised that combine transparency with durability. With the ever-increasing number of inventors everything will become possible” (Marty 102). Goff’s idea may border on the utopian, yet it shows just as clearly the characteristics of imaginative design. First, there is the tendency to arrange the spherical living units in a spiral sequence, there is the delight in manipulating the “found object.

” (Hill 6) Here we must admit that it is not the case of a stone oddly shaped by nature, as with Postman Cheval, but rather the globular aluminum container produced by a highly developed industry for a totally different purpose; yet, from the point of view of a selective imagination, it is an already existing form. And, last but not least, there is the willingness to explore fully the charms of the transparent in a disconcerting manner. Utopias assume an inadequacy in the existing state of affairs, a dissatisfaction with prevailing conventions.

Utopia is a projection, and the utopian spirit certainly is the aura that exists about those who use conventional means prophetically and whom we call geniuses. If structural Utopia is a departure for new shores, one may ask: whither? If it signifies a break with architectural conventions, one should determine just what this intends to accomplish; if it takes the form of expressed or implied criticism, one should find out what will benefit from such criticism.

Utopias, structural and urbanistic ones included, seldom lack a theoretical basis; usually they are founded on a rigidly drawn up program (Fry 102). Whether declared or implied, the aim is the correction of human life and of mutual relationships by means of design. Ever since their special social position established itself in the twentieth century, architects and planners have always been world reformers by virtue of their very calling.

That much-maligned century, which nevertheless contributed more than any other to the altering of the earth’s surface, was also in the realm of building and planning full of faith in progress. However, technical advancement, the growth of large cities, the development of new sources of energy and of means of production – all these moved so fast, continually creating new perspectives, that architects and civil engineers could hardly keep pace and could not think beyond immediate demands.

The idea of a large airport in the center of city plans has in the meantime not only been realized, as in the Tempelhof airfield of Berlin (although there it lies amongst only five- and six-storey apartment houses), but has even become obsolete with the development of jet aircraft. But the technical advances that produced the jet plane, which requires landing strips of more than a mile in length, also perfected the helicopter that manages to land on an area of a few square yards.

Was the possibility of vertical take-offs and landings already anticipated in 1923, when in the project for the “Palace of Work” in Moscow landing areas were planned on or above the roof. It is no surprise that Frank Lloyd Wright in his utopian design for a “Mile-High Office Tower” of 1956 includes many such helicopter landing fields (Carson 1984). The desire to reach altitude, an elevation above the fettering earth, the dream of victory over gravity, flying – all these have been utopian aims since time immemorial.

Utopian aspirations quickly change into accessible goals, the discrepancy between a Utopia and its realization rapidly lessens, so that, literally, what today seems still impossible is already part of our living reality tomorrow. Confronted with the advances of manned missiles into space, high altitude structures tend to become somewhat meaningless. Projects like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mile-High Office Building are nevertheless sensational: receiving incredulous admiration or arrogant scorn.

When architecture seems to leave the ground, reactions occur within us – not unlike those sensations of people tracking the orbital flight of manmade satellites – reactions which can be best described as feelings of estrangement. According to contemporary reports any such estrangement effected by the Eiffel Tower of 1889 was still of a very elementary character, counteracted by the sight of the familiar panorama of metropolitan Paris spread out at one’s feet almost to the horizon: what lay below had had its measure paced off and thus remained forever in a scale.

The view from some contemporary towers, such as the tower-restaurants in Stuttgart and Seattle, opens up broader vistas; there one stands above the landscape in a really magnificent remoteness. Yet man is resourceful: he even takes the comfort of a house up with him. Although the idea of the tower-house has persisted since the eighties of the last century (first elevators 1852, invention of the electric elevator by Werner von Siemens 1880), living on top of the highest towers has only once been taken in the utopian sense: in the plan by Rino Levi for Brazil’s new capital city of Brasilia.

There six groups of three super-blocks are laid out, each group housing 16,000 people. The superblocks consist of a vertical grid of thirty-two 20-floor structures, each such grid being 985 feet high and 1,050 feet in length. Levi took pains to demonstrate the feasibility of such vertical superblocks, but the Brazilians, although by no means conservative in these matters and already accustomed to cellular structures in that location, decided against their construction (Addison and Burgess 69).

Not because they had financial or technical qualms – which they might have had – but because here the Utopia met other resistance that has no direct connection with the matter of structural feasibility in the technical sense. Here the Utopia came up against traditional patterns of human settlement, encountered a resistance deriving from social conventions. It is true that today, under the impact of tremendous technical advances in the last century, architectural ideas are being formulated which also have utopian characteristics, but the intellectual venture of 1919 will not be repeated.

One is now concerned with altering the surface of the earth, with the prospect of spanning vast valleys and whole regions; spacious supporting structures of theoretically any surface dimension are designed; one comes to the realization that the structural system of support and load is on the point of being superseded by a system which measures and differentiates in terms of only compressive and tensile stresses; one arrives at a dissolution of masses into the smallest possible members, and at the concentration of forces at points (Thinking about Design).

And as forty years ago, so today one takes into account those changes which inevitably result in peoples’ lives and in community affairs when such plans are actually carried out – again aiming at improving the conditions of human existence. It is almost certain that in the future, too, design fantasy and Utopianism will not be lacking as integral expressions of the human spirit.


Addison, N. and Burgess, L. (2000).Learning to Teach Art and Design in the Secondary School, London: RoutledgeFalmer. Allison, B. (1981). “Identify the Core in Art and Design”, Journal of Art and Design Education, 1(1). Berry, Thomas. (1999). The Great Work. New York: Bell Tower. Carson, Rachel. (1984). The Sense of Wonder. New York: Harper & Row. Fry, Tony. (1994). Remakings: Ecology, Design, Philosophy, Envirobook Sydney. Hill, Jonathan. (1998). Occupying Architecture: Between the Architect and the User.

Routledge: London. Margolin, Victor and Buchanan, Richard. (1995). The Idea of Design, MIT Press, Cambridge. Marty, Martin E. (2003) Visions of Utopia. Oxford University Press: New York. Miles, Malcolm. (2004). Urban Avant-Gardes Art, Architecture and Change. Routledge: New York. Thinking about Design. November 15, 2005. Available from: http://triptychresearch. typepad. com/thinking_about_things/2005/11/design_engaged_. html

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