Architecture

Architecture, Fate, and Utopia

The right way for an experiment to fail

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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.