Collected Visions of Utopian Living

by Cristiana Strava

In 1932, Frank Lloyd Wright introduced a utopian vision of a democratic society in a manifesto titled “The Disappearing City.” The antithesis of urban, Wright’s Broadacre City would house families on separate one-acre plots spread out along freeways. This was, in Wright’s view, “not only the single form the democratic city could take, but the only possible city of the future.” Broadacre City was never built, and received a fair amount of criticism as a naive vision of utopia. Nevertheless, Wright continued working on the concept until his death.

The idea that artists should use their work to champion social change dates back at least to the Enlightenment, but it was Jean-Paul Sartre who articulated it most memorably. His notion of littérature engagée and its sister, l’art engagé, were driven by an ethical commitment to exert an emancipatory political and social influence on humankind.

Rendition of Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia by Craig Hodgetts (1982), envisioning the San Francisco Bay with solar power stations. Source: TU München

L’Architecture Engagée: Manifestos for Changing the Society,” an exhibit on view until Sept. 2 at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, looks at the architectural equivalent of Sartre’s concept through the ideas of Wright and other visionaries, including Thomas More, Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Ebenezer Howard, Bruno Taut, Theo van Deosburg, Moisei Ginzburg, Tony Garnier, Jiří Kroha, Renaat Braem, Frei Otto, Ernest Callenbach and Yona Friedman.

Welcoming visitors with a panel on Thomas More’s “Utopia” and continuing into the 1980s, the exhibit diligently traces the historical development of idealist architectural visions. The curators assembled a series of hanging panels and a variety of media to create seven spaces that educate visitors about the central works and tenets of each vision.

Moving from More’s time to the early 19th century, the next section introduces visitors to Welsh social reformer Robert Owen and his utopian socialism. Driven by a desire to alleviate poverty through cooperative living, Owen moved to the United States and started an experimental village centered around unity and mutual cooperation. New Harmony, as the community was called, failed within two years.

Panel showcasing Charles Fourier’s Phalanstery utopian settlement. Source: Cristiana Strava

The fate of Owen’s initiative did not deter Frenchman Charles Fourier from his own vision of a utopian community. Designed to integrate urban and rural features, Fourier’s Phalanstère (Phalanstery) was similar to an Israeli kibbutz. It was meant to house a self-sustaining community of no more than 1600 people. The complex comprised both living and working space, as well as a nursery and a ballroom. Due to lack of financial support, Fourier never built a Phalanstery in Europe, but several communities were created in the United States.

A view of the Garden City section. Source: Jens Weber

Owen and Fourier both shared a preoccupation with what they saw as the eroding influence of industrialization on human communities. Ebenezer Howard also shared this concern, advocating a vision of living in harmony with nature. His Garden City movement was a response to the increasingly squalid living and working conditions that he witnessed in London. A somewhat different response to industrialisation, Tony Garnier’s Cite Industrielle (Industrial City) occupies a wall across the room from Howard’s Garden City plans.

“Alpine Architecture” by Bruno Taut. Source: TU München

The exhibit then transitions rather brusquely into the internationalist movement and offers a glimpse of Bruno Taut’s theoretical writings alongside the eye-catching model of the Maison d’Artiste (Artist’s House) by Theo van Doesburg.

Model of Theo van Doesburg’s Maison d’Artiste. Source: Cristiana Strava

Examples of socialist and communist architecture occupy the middle section of the exhibit, revolving around Moisei Ginzburg’s (in)famous Narkomfin Communal House. Together with the work of Renaat Braem and Jiří Kroha, these examples draw upon ideas that are similar to Owen’s and Fourier’s visions of communal living with less concern for nature. The theme of living in harmony with the land resurfaces in the last section of the exhibit with Wright’s Broadacre City and Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia.

Section on socialist architecture. Source: Jens Weber

Model of Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Communal House. Source: Cristiana Strava.

Despite the great quantity of information accompanying the exhibit, by the end I had a distinct feeling that questions of substance had been left out. For instance, I was struck by the omission of Le Corbusier and the Athens Charter from the timeline of utopian manifestos. His Unite d’Habitation was clearly influenced by the Narkomfin House, and evokes certain aspects of Fourier’s Phalanstery as well.

However, there was an even larger white elephant looming in the room. Hovering amongst the beautifully preserved archival documents and plans was the scarcely mentioned fact that all these visions eventually failed to achieve their goals of social emancipation. Although the ideas were frequently recycled as time went on, they never congealed into another coherent manifesto.

Architect Jiří Kroha’s “The sociological fragment of living, the human being and his dwelling.” Source: TU München

The exhibit’s curators hope that a re-examination of these “efforts to improve or change social systems could help to historically deepen the current discussions about the importance of the built environment.” Despite recent initiatives like WikiHouse, there is a common view that the moral mission of architecture has been in decline for the past 25 years. Increasingly perceived as an elitist domain whose practitioners build monumental museums and luxurious villas, 21st-century architecture has thus far failed to productively engage with pressing social issues. One can only echo the Munich curators’ hope that the situation will soon change.

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  1. amazing collection of ancestors, ideas, images... thank you for sharing this for those of us who aren't able to see the exhibit in person and may not have known about it otherwise. i do hope that it deepens the conversation on applying human ingenuity toward improving the way we live and use resources. and i hope we can draw very selectively from these forbearers, avoiding insensitivity to the desire to do things in our own way, never fitting into one person's ideal plan.

  2. dear Anne,

    thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. It's a very thought provoking exhibit, indeed, and I was glad to share my impressions!

  3. Yes this is a great summary! Wikipedia is great, but it's hard to trace themes across decades and centuries.. here you can see the whole long conversation!