20 September 2008

Utopia and the Perfect Form

Architecture and urban form are representations of notions of the perfect world, either with form as container, reflection, or shaper of some ideal state. From Plato's philosopher kings ruling over the agora and the ancient Chinese urban plans reflecting the order of the universe to Paolo Soleri's arcologies and the new urbanism that is the most recent incarnation of the the new towns / garden cities movement and is elegantly iconized in Harmony, Florida.

There is a great deal of questing in both architecture and urban design for the perfect form, as if creating the perfect form will cause the social order within it to naturally fall into place.

The problem with this is not that it overlooks the sloppiness of everyday life. Much of it does address this. There is a ready wealth of discourse on the failings of Harmony, Florida as corporate ownership shifted hands and many corners cuts and promised amenities sacrificed for higher profits. Paolo Soleri, a dogged utopian, openly states he is proposing new tools to think with, not solutions guaranteed to perfect the world.

The problem, instead, if we are to accept the ideas of Karl Mannheim in this context, is that in realizing utopian ideals in material form we begin the shift from their representing a utopian goal to an ideological one. The manifest form of an ideal cannot address every possible permutation required to achieve perfection, and therefore becomes a standard-bearer calling for an urealizable state, an inconvenient paradox necessary to justify its own existence. An ideal made manifest produces a form that is no longer a continuing progression toward realizing that ideal, but rather a static representation of that status quo at its time of inception. Almost by definition, the material fights against progress except in very narrowly defined and sanctioned channels.

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