Architecture, Fate, and Utopia

The right way for an experiment to fail


I've got a soft spot for failed utopian experiments, or at least for those that managed to fail without killing anybody. (Sorry, Pol Pot.) So I should probably check out The Tale of Tomorrow, an upcoming book about the weird utopian architecture projects of the 1960s and '70s. Margaret Rhodes just wrote about it in Wired, and it sounds pretty interesting:

Like living in an Escher painting.
Nehemia G/Wikimedia Commons

There's a photo in The Tale of Tomorrow, a new book about the mid-century utopian architecture movement, of a building in Jerusalem. It's composed of hundreds of wooden, dodecahedron-shaped structures, each at least the size of a room. It's more orderly than favela architecture, but still has an air of chaos—like the beehive of geometric modules might tumble to the ground at any moment. This is Ramot Polin, an experimental housing project that architect Zvi Hecker built in the 1970s, just after the Six Day War.

With Ramot Polin, Hecker envisioned a society of the future, one that shared resources, like an interior courtyard, and looked nothing like the monotonous, rectangular apartment-blocks found in cities throughout the world. For its idyllic aspirations, it certainly deserves a place in The Tale of Tomorrow. "But people hated it," says Sofia Borges, who edited the book. "It's so formally amazing, but the corridors were dark, it was super hot, and basically over time there's been this really aggressive adaptation of it by the residents."…

The arcology in its purest form: on paper.
Paolo Soleri

Plenty of the structures built during the heyday of the utopian architectural movement are still standing, but many have been repurposed, and others have been abandoned. Look at Arcosanti: The 1970s-era desert community in Arizona is perhaps one of the most famous examples of design that makes a utopian statement. Its designer, Frank Lloyd Wright disciple Paolo Soleri, built it to be a self-sustaining city—a dome in the desert where thousands of people could live together, in harmony. It never really worked: after attracting a few thousand members in its early days, interest waned and people left. Today, it's a tourist attraction.

If this moment had a philosopher-king, it was Buckminster Fuller, the polymath probably best known today for designing the geodesic dome. And if there's a single passage of writing that seems to sum up the decline of the dreams described in Borges' book, it's the brief discussion of those domes in Whole Earth founder Stewart Brand's 1994 text How Buildings Learn. "As a major propagandist for Fuller domes in my Whole Earth Catalogs," he wrote, "I can report with mixed chagrin and glee that they were a massive, total failure." Brand goes on to list a bunch of problems with the structures—they leak, they can broadcast your whispers to other parts of the room, they often wind up wasting more materials than they save, etc.—and then he delivers the coup de grace:

Worst of all, domes couldn't grow or adapt. Redefining space inside was difficult, adding anything to the outside nearly impossible—a cut-and-try process of matching compound angles and curves. When my generation outgrew the domes, we simply left them empty, like hatchlings leaving their eggshells.

Those domes were (usually) built on the experimenters' own dime, and when they turned out not to work so well everyone was free to walk away. As failed utopian experiments go, that has to be the best kind.

Bonus link: Way back in 1972, Reason ran an article about Soleri, and at the end it brings up his plans to build Arcosanti. The author was more enthusiastic than you might expect.

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  1. Today, it’s a tourist attraction.

    Tomorrow, it will be our last refuge of human civilization during the zombie apocalypse.

    1. The day after that, Bartertown.

    2. No, it will be a city where people get refuge from the nuclear apocalypse at the price of being killed when they reach the age of 28. The bad news is you die young and leave a good looking corpse. The good news is a 20 something Jenny Agutter is available to transport into your apartment on a nightly basis. Not a bad trade really.

      1. Factoring in lime-green taffeta outfits worsens the deal, I think.

        1. It was the 70s, the world went colorblind for a decade.

        2. True but the lack underwear, how loose fitting they are and the efforts the city went to to use as little fabric as possible makes up for it.

          1. Yes. The one redeeming factor of garish clothes is that the come off easy.

            1. That and the views to be had through the gaps distract you from the garishness.

      2. Except she gets cold feet when she finds out what you do for a living and storms off in a huff leaving you unsatisfied.

        1. You just call her back the next night and lie.

      3. In the book it was 21. And they became adults at 14.

    3. Just tell me if it’ll have Pauly Shore living in a dome.

  2. Like living in an Escher painting.

    “I’m not sure we wanna pay for a dimension we’re not gonna use.”

      1. Because the Simpsons used to be really funny, that’s why.

  3. “If this moment had a philosopher-king, it was Buckminster Fuller, the polymath probably best known today for designing the geodesic dome.”

    “Instairs” and “outstairs” is enough for me to be afraid of that movement.

  4. I nearly failed Architecture for Non-majors when I had designed a modular community housing project that looked more like soviet dystopia than any kind of utopia. I was really excited about modular buildings and didn’t realize I was creating a prison compound. I can look back and laugh.

    1. I am surprised you didn’t get an A. You could be describing the entire American architect community from 1946 until the early 80s.

      1. The professor was really into eccentric, asymmetric shapes. The piece that saved my grade was 1000 flexy straws haphazardly connected into each other. It was an “art” class and thus tough for me to get into artist mode while at an engineering school.

        1. I HATE asymmetric architecture. It’s one of my pet peeves. Buildings are artificial, they should be made as perfect as we can, and that means symmetrical unless some functional factor makes that impractical.

          1. Me too. Again, Frank Gehry is an idiot.

            1. He aspires to be an idiot, but he’s very rarely that talented.
              Traveling major cities in the US during the 90s and early 00s was instructive — so many were touting their new special ‘fancy design’ building. Yet the same damn ugly messes, right down to geographic orientation, showed up as ‘new and special’ in every damn place I went.

              1. They are horrible and the public hates them. But they fit the tastes of posing elites looking for a way to feel special from those they consider beneath them. “Oh you don’t like Gehry and instead like buildings that are not ugly by any definition used by man in the entire history of civilization before 1950? You poor hick”.

              2. Surely you can’t be serious.

            2. I love Frank Gehry buildings. I don’t get the hate at all (outside of the large amounts of public funding they often receive).

              1. Here’s what I hate about him:

                Polish stainless steel exterior walls.

                1. Yeah, maybe they are impractical and weird. I just think they are beautiful.

                  1. I’m with John on this. They are atrocious. They are asymmetric blobs of odd shapes lacking any complex decorative element. Maybe they are a little more interesting than the brutalist blocks of glass and concrete that dominated the 80s, but that’s like saying a polished turd is slightly more interesting than a fresh turd. Please, SMOD, wipe out all of modern architecture and leave behind the stuff made before WWI.

          2. Buildings are artificial, they should be made as perfect as we can, and that means symmetrical unless some functional factor makes that impractical.

            Oh man tell me another one.

          3. I hate pretty much all architecture from about 1945 forward. And I was (briefly) and architecture major.

            OTOH Gehry’s doing some good stuff in NYC that’s fairly straightforward. The guy is like 90 years old; his disciples are probably toning that shit down.

            1. My old roommate lived in 8 Spruce St. I was unimpressed by the space. It did have a raging hard on of a doorman though, which is always fun.

              “WAIT!!! GET BACK HERE!!!! WHO ARE YOU HERE TO SEE?!?!?!”

              “Huh? I just got beer from my car. You literally just saw me walk out.”


              “Oh, FFS.”

              1. a raging hard on of a doorman

                I think I mis-read that at first.

          4. Without knowing what futurism is like, Johansen achieved something very close to it when he spoke of the city; for instead of describing any definite structure or building, he dwells only on broad impressions of vast angles and stone surfaces – surfaces too great to belong to anything right or proper for this earth, and impious with horrible images and hieroglyphs. I mention his talk about angles because it suggests something Wilcox had told me of his awful dreams. He said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.

            1. +1 pulpy monstrosity

    2. You know who else thought they were creating utopia?

        1. Epcot would have been a masterpiece!

      1. You have to crack a few eggs to create a utopia.

  5. Speaking of buildings as failed social experiments, High-Rise, from the J. G. Ballard novel is being released later this month.

      1. Agreed – good book

  6. Any good statist knows that utopia and compulsion are synonyms. You wouldn’t understand.

  7. $54.22? Hardcover only?


  8. I did some research into domes years ago,drawn by the idea that they had the most space for the least amount of material. The math might say it but they don’t have the most usable space and since humans have created a world based on right angles it requires huge amounts of custom fitting to put our square and rectangular building materials, furniture, appliances into that dome space.

    1. Humans created a world made of right angles and arches because that is what the building materials are best suited to.

      1. Or at least what they were best suited to when we built cities and towns. Modern materials are quite well suited to building geodesic domes. It’s still not a terribly practical thing for a lot of reasons.

        We waste huge amounts of space in our square buildings too. If you are 6 feet tall, what do you need 8′ ceilings for?

        1. Ceiling fan air flow, room for piggy back rides, decorative lighting, and the curbing of claustrophobia. The extra space isn’t just for looks. Plus, not everyone is below six feet in height. You are artificially restricting who can buy your house if you don’t give at least seven feet of clearance in your rooms.

    2. Plus they’re camp as fuck. Pass.

      1. They’re pretty sweet out in the desert, a la burning man.

        1. I don’t live in the desert!

          *checks surroundings*

          Well, shit.

    3. I have recently been shopping for a house. I’ve seen the interior of more residential buildings than I’d care to, and the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that I immediately crop off and disregard anywhere that the ceiling comes down to eye level as “storage” if the structure is lucky. I’ve actually had to use the term “Spear Closet” when describing a space where the owner was storing a broom. Once the technology is there to support it, a lot of the vernacular architecture around the world contains vertical walls. This is just a natural tendency of the human psyche to prefer upright spaces.

      1. A lot of architects seem more interested in creating something different then useful.

        I have been in a few new public buildings, theaters, museums, etc where they had lots of space taken up by angles and crannies that served no useful purpose but to create areas where dust bunnies can congregate.

        And don’t get me started on ones with solar features, especially passive solar, I have yet to find one which is not either too hot or too cold or having different parts of the building at different temp due to design which either had too much solar windows or not enough mass storage to hold the heat

        1. A lot of architects seem more interested in creating something different then useful.

          That’s because they’re trained to be “artists” first. You’ll notice that architecture trends parallel art-world trends.

          1. Architects should be trained as structural engineers first, with a heavy emphesis on human workflow and interaction.

        2. Yeah, but most architects are still designing pretty utilitarian houses and office buildings.

          1. I agree, but its probably due to the fact that most houses and office building are being paid out of pocket by the individuals or businesses that buy them.

            The crazy designs seem to effect either taxpayer paid for or taxpayer subsidized buildings or by someone who won’t actually use it but wants their names in the paper.

    4. A geodesic down is basically a round garret.

  9. Since the subject is architecture, we shouldn’t miss the opportunity to mention that Frank Gehry is a philistine and an idiot.

    1. He was the god of the architecture prof I had to deal with.

      1. He designed a hockey trophy that was met with stunned silence when revealed to the audience.

        I thought it looked kinda cool only cuz it resembled an alien egg cluster.

  10. The first one is kinda like if they made Habitat 67 with domes instead of blocks. I like the blocky version.

  11. built it to be a self-sustaining city?a dome in the desert where thousands of people could live together, in harmony. It never really worked: after attracting a few thousand members in its early days, interest waned and people left. Today, it’s a tourist attraction.

    People don’t want to live with other people in harmony. Sure, they don’t mind living around other people, just not communally. It takes a lot of energy to live communally and most people aren’t up for it.

    1. Word. I went to visit a friend in San Fransisco who was living in a communal housing project. They were set up like a college fraternity, having rented one of the “painted lady” style houses in a desirable part of the city. Maybe 30 people were living in the 4 story house. Beautiful place, but tons of restrictions and rules with everyone in bunk beds. I came home late from a show and shared some whiskey with the founder. I swear it felt like I met the second coming of Jim Jones. He was a no-shit hardcore marxist opining about how he had to leave this shithole country and start his project again in South America. I live among progressives but this was something else.

      1. Maybe 30 people were living in the 4 story house. Beautiful place, but tons of restrictions and rules with everyone in bunk beds.

        It’s the only way voluntary Marxism works.

        It’s also the only way involuntary Marxism works. Funny that.

      2. I’m assuming no kids? Having children and realizing what they are missing seems to be the main thing that breaks people off from projects like this.

        1. Young adults 20-35 years old, no kids.

  12. Utopian communitarianism.

    I hate it.

    1. +1 Brevity is the soul of wit.

  13. If this moment had a philosopher-king, it was Buckminster Fuller, the polymath probably best known today for designing the geodesic dome.

    He didn’t call it the Dymaxion Dome?

  14. I still wonder why no cities have built arcologies, some sort of megabuilding that mixes residential, commercial, and utility considerations in a sort of skyscraper village.

    1. Zoning, but some places are finally allowing people to put in buildings with shops on the first floor and residences on the upper floors.

      1. You would think the notion would delight the anti-car, pro-density urban planner types.

        1. It does, except when the people who own single family homes in the area realize (a) the customers of the businesses will be parking in front of their house, and (b) the people living on the upper floors can look down into the homeowner’s yard.

          You want to put more density near me?!

      2. This was common everywhere until about 1950. Still very common in NYC. Starting to see it in SF except the ground floor is more likely to be a parking garage with maybe a shop or two.

  15. I lived in the Chicago area in the 80’s and 90’s when it was considered a center of creative architecture.
    And Helmut Jahn was kind of a big deal. His United terminal at O’Hare lacked weather protected access to the tram that ran between terminals, and no elevators, just stairs to the tram station. Guess he forgot airline passengers make connections and have luggage.
    Then there was the Illinois Center downtown. Beautiful sweeping glass wall with a huge atrium. It was a joke how people working in the cubes open to the atrium of this architectural masterpiece all had to have little fans to try to keep cool. Guess Jahn never heard of the greenhouse effect or how hot summer could be.

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