From the perspective of the early 21st century it is difficult to believe that Americans once believed in Utopia—literally. We have had our Utopian experiments involving communities with idealized economic or governmental structures that it was believed would bring about a revolutionary way for people to live without the ruinous effects of greed and competition. It is even a bit more of a stretch to believe that beauty in art and architecture could civilize humanity. Nevertheless, that is what inspired many idealists for centuries in Europe beginning with the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Leon Alberti Battista who advocated the ideal town back in the 15th century.
In modern times we have only to look at the buildings or drawings of such architects as Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Adolph Loos, Le Corbusier, Philip Johnson and Louis Sullivan to get an idea why the “International Style” (1880-1930) was a radical change in the language of architecture and why these geniuses of building design believed that their buildings could influence human behavior. Robert Hughes expressed the vision like this: “People, no less than their shelters, needed re-planning. Revise the shelter and one improves the people. Re-educate the people and they will grasp the necessity—the moral necessity—of a new form of shelter.”
The danger of rhapsodic idealism is that it is often the false self doing the singing. Instead of the soft melody of our inner wisdom, we hear the blaring cacophony of the false self trumpeting its endless appetite for power and pleasure. Le Corbusier, who had no small ego, celebrated the technology of the new century. “We watched the titanic rebirth of the traffic. Cars, cars! Speed, speed! One is carried away, seized by enthusiasm, by joy [by] enthusiasm over the joy of power.”
The machine became so important in Utopia that the importance of the individual began to fade in the eyes of the new architects. Mies van der Rohe noted that, “the individual is losing significance; his destiny is no longer what interests us.” It is only a short step from this lack of compassion to inhumane housing projects, the great architectural disasters of the 20th century. Most of us have seen the images of the imploding massive buildings of the Pruitt-Igoe high-rise projects in St. Louis, a colossal failure in mass housing. Apparently, the people forced to live in that demeaning environment did indeed begin to feel “insignificant.”
Given the slums in the cities at the turn of the century it is easy to understand the dreams of adequate sanitary and safe housing for the underclass. In 1927 Mies saw “social housing” as “the great struggle for a new way of life.” John Betjeman described the “paradise of rational housing” satirically:
I have a vision of the Future, chum:
The workers’ flats, in fields of soya beans
Towering up like silver pencils, score on score,
While Surging Millions hear the Challenge come
From loudspeakers in communal canteens:
“No right! No wrong! All’s perfect, evermore.”
The Utopian architects have had their effect on our 20th century cities and with often disastrous results. Whether on the outskirts of Paris or the aforementioned Pruitt-Igoe project, the description of Robert Hughes written some thirty years ago tells of the outcome. “These are the new landscapes of urban despair—bright, brutish, crime-wracked, and scarred by the vandalism they invite.” Most of these projects starting in the 1960s remain with us today although most will surely meet the same implosive ending as all ill-conceived utopias.
Le Corbusier’s dream was most fully realized when Brazil, in the 1950s decided it needed a new capital. It would be Brasilia, the City of the Future. Finished and officially opened in 1960, “it has been falling to bits at one end while being listlessly constructed at the other; a façade, a ceremonial slum of rusting metal, spalling concrete, and cracked stone veneers, put together on the cheap by contractors and bureaucrats on the take. It is a vast example of what happens when people design for an imagined Future, rather than the real world.” What happens, indeed, and in that sense Brasilia is a metaphor for the Global Village designed by the human false self and crumbling all around us.
Not that we are jaded today or have lost all of our idealism but perhaps we are learning the difference between reality and illusion, between a Utopia imagined by the false self and the genuine joy of living in the present moment—no matter what physical structure contains us. Those who believe that “form” changes people rather than the reverse have failed to understand how the laws of the universe function. Form, whether physical or ideational has no substantial reality and exists only in the human mind. To change human behavior, as we have learned, we must first restructure our story which in turn results in a new identity. Only a new identity results in transformed human behavior. Then we will experience the “perfect” flowering of beauty in all aspects of human creation including the buildings to house that beauty.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.