Characteristics of Utopian Architecture

Utopia is derived from the Greek ou-topos “no place” or “nowhere”. A utopian society is an idealistic one with no problems, issues, or end in sight. This style aims to reinvent the style of living of the masses by the creation of a perfect place. 

Utopia was a term coined by Thomas More in 1516, in his book of the same name. Utopia lends people an illusion of perfection. Imagine a world where no hardships exist, where everything is as ideal as can be. It is as unfathomable as a world without water. The existence of Utopia is seen only in science fiction and modern fantasy. This genre of books and films provide us with a fresh perspective on life and lifestyle.

The conception of this form of society in architecture was through ideas and notions of a self-sufficient, independent, cohesive plan. There is no clear definition of physical characteristics or common design elements across the range of utopian designs. This allows freedom of thought and expression in the workings of society. The planning and layout have little or no restrictions and facilitates a comfortable style of living. It prioritizes comfort and happiness over fulfilling planning guidelines and rigid structural systems.

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Utopian architecture focuses on the social, economic, and political upliftment of the urban fabric. The most important aspect is equality and communal peace. Structures and spaces have unrestricted development without compromising the limit of resources. Rather than consumerism and economic status, the needs and requirements of the users are fulfilled. Technological and scientific developments drive the expansion and growth of urbanities. Banalities like going to work at a 9 to 5 job, endless commutes to work, and staring at screens throughout the day are no longer a part of life. The mundaneness of everyday life is gone and every human being is encouraged to strive for fulfillment over monetary compensation. Inspired by abstract works of art, fictional manuscripts, and movies, this style of architecture waxes poetic against the cruelties and injustices of the world. As the countries wage wars against each other and suffer from civil strife, the formation of a utopian society can see the end of it.

The buildings are planned systematically and hierarchically to attain a higher goal. Collectively, utopian architecture works towards the betterment of society as a whole. Early utopian designers were known as Futurists. They aspired to form a society driven forth by technological advances with the progression of time. Aesthetics were put on the back burner while practicality and utilities were given importance.

Other designs looked toward the formulation of aerial, arboreal habitats where transit was the spine of the city, with each structure acting as a transit hub. Buildings had external pedestrian walkways, roads, rail networks, and bridges. This facilitated vertical and horizontal movement without going back to the ground level. This allowed for better productivity and lesser resources to be used, along with more ground space for nature to flourish. Ultimately this was the most practical and had high probabilities of fruition in case of establishment of space colonies.

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However, some conceptual works also saw glorification and embellishment, thereby prioritizing aesthetics and shiny new materials. The focus shifted from the need for a cohesive community. It also instills the beliefs and ideals of a few into the masses. There is a stigma of brainwash and individuality in the form of leadership as there needs to be a clear judiciary to make it permanent.

The redistribution of resources – financial and otherwise- will ensure a balanced community. Blurring the lines socioeconomically will abolish the discrimination between people. The terms ‘the haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ will cease to exist. Driven primarily by emotion and intellect, the architecture will be targeted to engage the mind and hearts of the users. The physical aspects will be focused on visual pleasure. Utopian works capture the eyes of the public due to their unique and outlandish visual impact.

Modern renderings by 21st-century architects see the utilization of extreme climatic zones and oceans as an expansion of existing landforms. These townships will be self-sustainable and self-sufficient. They focus more on the replenishment of natural resources and fossil fuels. Agrarian housing typologies will be revived to encourage agriculture within the city. Entire cities will go off-the-grid and will no longer share resources with neighboring cities.

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However, the self-reliability of townships will make them introverted. The isolation of a particular utopia will in turn create discords among its kind as a whole. Unless this new breed of design is implemented on a global or universal scale, the social ideals of a few futurists will destroy the lives of the millions within the utopian society. 

Architecture is meant to be lived in and is rooted in the experience of the user. Utopia is an idealization of life as a whole. The longevity and sustenance of this form of architecture are incalculable. The unpredictability of utopian societies gives rise to doubts and hesitance to make it a permanent way of life. The unpredictability of life is what makes it unique and liveable. With the loss of individuality and restrictions, the architecture will reach new heights, literally and figuratively.

Images: Archdaily

  • A still from “Metropolis”, perhaps the archetypal futuristic city film.
  • Palmanova
  • The failed Utopian city of Ordos is now abandoned and obsolete. 

A 4th-year student of architecture, Krittika is foraying into the professional world of design. Buildings- their past, present and the endless possibilities of the future excite and inspire her. Her means of expression is through writing and art. She unwinds by listening to music and is an avid reader.