The Myth of Utopia
Over 500 years ago Sir Thomas More conceived the first Utopia, a fictional idealized society on a large island in the Atlantic Ocean, in his self-named book of 1516. The name “Utopia” itself gives a hint to the inborn viability of such a social order: it literally means “no-place land” and is derived from the Greek ou (οὐ), “not”, and topos (τόπος), “place”.
That More’s Utopia was set on an island that had somehow been lost to the awareness of the rest of the world, may also offer an indication of what such a place represents and how it might ultimately be made real. Our visions of Utopia today are, if not the product of ironic nostalgia, then they are often the result of earnest conceptions by futurists who have planned every detail for the construction of such a world. Every detail, at least, but one: the question of where to construct their perfect society and how to acquire the land remains dependent upon a giant leap of faith in the power of human nature to change. This is where the ideal is separated from manifestation by the real-world barriers set in place by capitalism and property rights. Thus it is that fascinating architectural renderings and models of such perfect future worlds must remain in miniature stasis as they await a mass outpouring of social change which will hopefully raise them from relative obscurity and make them real.
Such utopian visions that re-imagine every detail of urban planning, social structure, and human behavior must therefore be set apart form the rest of the world in order to remain pure and to break with the past. From the hyper-detailed models of future cities at the 1939 World’s Fair to the airbrushed Sci-Fi illustrations of the 1970s and 80s, each one of these visions has depended upon the utilization of a heretofore unsettled and unexploited geography in order to free itself from the troubles of our current world. In other words, a true No-place Land.
In the 20th Century, utopian ideals were implemented for the first time as an official policy of state. That those Utopias became the most concrete examples of dystopian society is no secret, since the root of any such idealized society lies in the re-engineering of human nature itself. The futility of forcing individuals to conform to a vision of society that was first conceived on paper and then born of violence can be attested to by almost 100 years of Communism and a dozen years of Nazism. There are still outposts of this insular vision in practice in the world today, most notably in North Korea.
The legacy of a totalitarian utopian past is manifest in the remaining architecture. Vast political forums and sprawling “living-machines” (as mass housing units were sometimes called) still mark the skylines of hundreds of cities from Europe through Russia and into China. The official hopes that these structures engendered can still be detected in some of these constructions today. However, with the hindsight of our post-communist worldview, the majority of these buildings seem to manifest the menacing oppression of the totalitarian police states that erected them.
My fascination with such massive urban and social planning began with an illustration in a Junior High School social studies textbook that depicted in garish 4-color process a mass rally of “communists” demonstrating joyfully amongst the architectural fruits their culture. From that moment forward, the Communist world represented an alternate reality to me; a place equal to but the opposite of my own world. With my limited access to contemporary information in the 1970s, I began to see the world behind the Iron Curtain as a sort of malevolent Disneyland where the citizens smiled on command and praised the virtues of their society by marching through the flower-strewn streets carrying large photographs of their wise and wizened leaders. When I was able to visit East Berlin as a teenager and then later as a student I gained a better understanding of the diminishing prospects of Communism as it was then practiced in the Soviet Empire. But my fascination with the propaganda only increased as I witnessed colorful posters and red banners with exhortative slogans festooning drab, soot-stained edifices of what was once the architecture of a future that clearly never would be.