The Peculiar Adventure of Utopia: discourses of modern architecture in the 20th century and today, by Nathaniel Coleman

Although presented within the context of a meditation on architectural value, John Haldane’s observation that conflict over terms usually assumes ”that disagreement over values within a community is proof of the subjective character of the rival attitudes” broadly describes most instances of divergence within discourse, even if  “rarely noticed is that a necessary condition of there being such disputes is that all parties to them share a common presupposed belief in the objectivity of value (Haldane 1990: 204-5).” Presentation of this underexplored tension establishes a provocative paradox that I will explore with regard to the peculiar adventure of Utopia within discourses of modern architecture.

Although within architecture, Utopia generally denotes failure, inasmuch as Utopia always already presumes its apparent opposite, Dystopia, or the impracticality of realization; to say nothing of the impossibility of fulfillment. On the other hand, Utopian Studies takes a distinctly different view: Utopia is multiple, rather than singular, or in Ricoeur’s terms, it has both a pathological and a constitutive dimension. When constitutive, it correlates with Bloch’s concrete Utopia rather than the totalizing habits of abstract ones. Closer to architecture, or at least the production of space, is Lefebvre’s–in places–positive use of Utopia as opening up possibilities, revealing the possible impossible as an equally constitutive and concrete concept. In this regard, it is worth noting that More’s coinage of Utopia in 1516 already suggests its dual nature: Utopia contains both Eutopia (good place) and Outopia (no place).

Negative characterization of Utopia enters architecture from two apparently diametrically opposed directions: on the one hand Frederick Engels’, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880) and on the other Karl Popper’s, The Poverty of Historicism (first published in 1944 and 1945). The influence of both ends of this spectrum of criticism against Utopia has been so complete that from Jane Jacobs, to Rowe, Tafuri and Frampton, amongst many others, Utopia has either been rejected outright or used as shorthand for the failures of modern architecture, including its social purpose. So pervasive is Utopia-anxiety that K Michael Hays recent book, Architecture’s Desire: Reading the Late Avant-Garde (2009), can barely speak its name, despite Utopia having been defined as the education of desire. The title of Hays’ book even recalls Jameson’s, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (2007), not surprising considering the influence Jameson wields within both Utopian Studies and architecture theory. Perhaps when architecture reconciles desire and utopia it can reclaim its social purpose through transactions with the possible-impossible.

Harvard Citation Guide: Coleman, N. (2010) The Peculiar Adventure of Utopia: discourses of modern architecture in the 20th century and today International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 23 May 2010, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].


  1. Stephen Goldsmith Reply

    In the just published book, What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs, there is a fantastic essay by Deanne Taylor titled, “Between Utopias.”

    The piece raises questions about the problem of utopian visions and the transitions existing communities must make to preserve authenticity. In light of Dr. Coleman’s views on reconciliation, the piece offers some illuminating and entertaining points of view, supported by many quotes from Jane Jacobs herself.

  2. J. Powers Reply

    When I read your suggestion that “[p]erhaps when architecture reconciles desire and utopia it can reclaim its social purpose through transactions with the possible-impossible,” I immediately thought of Choay’s _The Rule and the Model_. As I recall, she argues that Alberti reinvents the act of building as a response to human desire, which implies that building is as indefinite and as infinitely varied as human desire. Utopia, according to Choay, provides the model of the _kind_ of building humans might undertake as an expression of their desires.

    You and I have discussed this before, but perhaps another commenter will offer further insight: it seems to me that the tension in Utopia between being simultaneously a superlative (More’s _optima reipublicae_) and a comparative (Levitas’s “desire for a better way of being”) mirrors an analogous tension in human desire, as well as an analogous tension in ideation (by which I just mean how humans come up with and share ideas). It is the ideality of Utopia that makes it difficult to deal with, and so I am inclined to think that we can best clarify Utopia by getting a handle on ideas, ideality, and most importantly, ideation (here, read: architectural creativity).

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