We were optimistic then. We thought we could build utopia. We thought we could cast our vision of a better world in raw concrete and sweeping glass and cantilever it over the edge of our flawed present, over the chasm of our human failings, and into the open, untouched air of an ideal future -- and then live there, all of us.
For thirty years or so, in the heart of the twentieth century, it felt like architecture might save the world.
Half a century later, we turn back to look at those massed hopes and dreams, some still standing, some already crumbling, and ask: What happened to the future? When did we decide that the present was the best we were going to get?
Ambition and arrogance
Utopian architecture was driven by visions of how life could -- should -- be. It was informed by ideas of society reshaped to overcome divisions of class, race, and creed, to strengthen the bonds of community, to enable us to live more humanely (and to be more human), to live with and in nature. It was architecture meant to make things better.
The way the utopian drive manifested itself in built form thus changed over the decades, but the drive itself stayed true: architects could provide more than just shelter -- they could free us from the flaws of earlier forms of living and usher in a new era.
The very grandeur and ambition of their plans sometimes seemed to move them towards an architecture not of utopia but of dystopia. Some of the most idealistic buildings have served as the ominous settings of dystopian films, while others have been shunned, abandoned, or even rebuilt from the inside out by those fated to live or work within them.
There was a certain arrogance on the part of the architects in thinking that a brave new world could simply be planned, modeled, and made. And yet that same arrogance is so full of inspiration and yearning and potential. Even today, looking back, one cannot help but feel a longing for what could have been -- and also a sense of disappointment or even resentment because their dreams failed us.
What they hoped would make life better, more humane, and more livable did not. We were promised a better future and we received the present day instead.
Designing a better future
But in other cases, it was we who failed their dreams. We watered down their ideals, stripped back their visions, and ignored their calls to become something more.
Consider modernist architecture, the school most associated with the utopian impulse: Black and white, and Brutalist. Minimalist forms creating uncomfortable spaces. Cheaply built and sometimes poorly constructed. Cracked concrete. But that is not what the real modernist utopians intended, or designed, or built. Real modernism was not minimalist.
It was elegant and it was often photographed in black and white and so it appears to have been colorless, stripped down, unadorned. But many modernists played with bold splashes of color, and as much as they favored elegance, they were not all dogmatic, austere minimalists. Modernist works could holistically blend architecture, art, and product design.
Our modernism is not their modernism, nor was it never meant to be. The modernism we think we know is our later perversion of their designs and ideals to create templates for saving time and cutting costs. It was our own bad faith that made much of the dystopian architecture that now surrounds us.
We live in an age of coming to terms with both the atrocities and the achievements of the past. The things that could have been, the things that (regretfully) were, the feats that will endure forever, and the failures that we would like to forget.
The time has come to begin again -- to design a better future.
We have learned our lessons. We have the technology. Let us go forth and build new utopias.