‘I’ve said goodbye to the overworked notion that architecture has to save the world,’ said Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, a Pritzker Prize winner and recipient of RIBA’s Gold Medal.
In one sense Zumthor was right: architecture is only as good as our intentions, only as good as the values we place on what we choose to build and what those buildings are for.
Did we overinflate architecture’s leverage to change the world? Could it really have created a human idyll where divisions of wealth and class were redundant? If we look at the house prices and urban development plans of the last decade, the short answer is no.
Yet it wasn’t always thus. Such pessimism did not always hang over our ideas of building better lives for all. A beautiful new book called The Tale of Tomorrow (Gestalten) shows the optimism of post-war architecture in all its glory, brimming with lofty ideals: how those involved believed what we built could overcome our divisions on a human level, while also allowing us a more harmonious relationship with nature.
Utopian architecture, the general sticker we would slap on this modernist movement, was intended to be universal, not just the preserve of the elite. The same houses would be built for rich and poor. This was a time when architects, designers and engineers – abetted by governments that believed in social justice – imagined they could construct a brave, better world where we would all reap the benefits of a more equitable and therefore spiritual society.
However, the utopian movement became an unfinished symphony, though a few buildings that period bestowed upon us still shine.
An easy choice, but one that cannot be overlooked, is Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Marseille. Built as social housing, it is considered by many to be the idée fixe of a utopian building, completed in 1952 with capacity for 1,600 people.
Unité d’habitation was figured as a “vertical garden city”. A 17-storey concrete block set on pilotis, the ventilation stacks sticking out from the top of the building make it look like a cruise liner.
Each resident has a colour-co-ordinated balcony with unrestricted views, and the facilities are almost unthinkable for most modern city dwellers: on the seventh and eighth floors there are a bakery, butcher, chemist, greengrocer and off-licence.
The building also has a post office and barber’s, while there are a nursery and kindergarten on the top floor, where there are also a running track, swimming pool, rooftop garden, artists’ workspace and solarium. Thanks to the pilotis, there is plenty of parking for cars and bikes underneath the building. Communal, convenient, and self-contained, this is what social housing could and should strive towards.
In marked contrast to the two-hander of Le Corbusier’s modernism and brutalism, US architect Bruce Goff was a leading figure of the organic design vanguard. He built almost 150 commissions and none was more striking than the Ruth Ford House in 1948. The house cost less than $70,000 to build and had the honour of a spread dedicated to it in Life magazine.
The main unit is shaped like a large dome made from bright red prefabricated steel, which wasn’t filled in, so allowed a view inside the house from outdoors. Rising over three levels it resembles a bird cage or a pumpkin with its skin and core removed. The steel ribs realise a remarkable cathedral-like vault inside, while the bottom level of the house has a kitchen and dining room with built-in furniture and fireplace. The house is an enduring object of beauty, though beauty was not always in the eye of the beholder. Fellow citizens of Aurora, Illinois did not take kindly to the new building, so the Fords erected a sign reading: “We don’t like your house either.” Touché.
It would be remiss to make a selection of utopian architecture and exclude the legendary Buckminster Fuller.
Probably best known for his Montreal Biosphere, based on his seminal geodesic dome design, Fuller held more than 28 patents and 47 honorary degrees. One of his most celebrated ideas came to him during a period of severe adversity. After a business plan with his father-in-law failed, Fuller spent two years living as a recluse in the 1920s. During this time he came up with his design for the Dymaxion House (fully conceived in 1945).
If the Ruth Ford House was designed for the hip intelligentsia, Fuller’s was a universal housing solution. The house could be mass-produced, shipped in a single container and built in a matter of hours.
The layout could be easily adapted and was totally efficient with its own heating and cooling system built in. It was the epitome of Fuller’s philosophy of “doing more with less”.
The Dymaxion House led to spin-offs too: the Dymaxion Car and Dymaxion Bathroom, but the mass-production venture of each collapsed due to a conflict between Fuller and his business partners. Capitalism distrusted an idea of making products that were good yet cheap, easy to produce that cut down waste.
Like most utopian architecture, Fuller’s ideas remain unfulfilled, but are still part of the future, even as we look back on them.
Of course, utopian architecture did not always need a function: it could simply add something to the landscape. The St Louis Gateway Arch is a fine example. It doesn’t “do” anything on a functional level, but it does something magical to the city. This transformation is from the designs of Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen.
The arch is made of stainless steel and, at 192 metres, is the tallest manmade monument in the US. It was completed in 1965, the two legs being built simultaneously and then linked at the top by a keystone. It has a tram inside which carries the public to a lookout area at its highest point.
Saarinen’s design was part of a 1948 project to commemorate Thomas Jefferson and the settlers of the American West. The son of acclaimed art deco architect Eliel Saarinen, Eero survived him by just 11 years but still managed to complete many of his father’s projects, before flourishing with his own commissions; another is the TWA Terminal at JFK.
It is easy to fantasise about a Saarinen-style arch in Dublin; as a stooping sister to the Spire, perhaps. It could majestically sweep across the Liffey, joining north and south together. Utopian architecture in the Fair City: just imagine it.
The Tale of Tomorrow is published by Gestalten
- Article first appeared in The Irish Times