In 1813 the cotton mill owner Robert Owen (1771–1858) published a book “A New View of Society”. This was just one title in a long list of utopian and reformist concepts in architecture combining social and architectural ideas. Owen proposed in a “Report to the Committee of the Association for the Relief of the Manufacturing and Labouring Poor.” (1817) a new concept for a “Village of Unity” realized some years later in an ideal community named “New Harmony”. Many more utopian and reformist ideas in architecture followed over time. Some had more impact on the society, others failed completely or even fostered totalitarian regimes. We will study and reconsider some of those reform concepts from Robert Owen, to Arts & Crafts reformers like William Morris, from garden city pioneer Ebenezer Howard to the German Werkbund members and utopian ideas like Le Corbusier’s “Ville Radieuse” of the 20th century or futurist utopian dreams in Pre-World-War I Italy. 

Many of these ideas fired the imagination of visionary architects however one core question will be discussed here: Did utopia ever “work”? Did utopian concepts have more effects than merely fostering architectural imagination? Did they have a positive effect at all, or to put it more bluntly: What went wrong with them and why?

The time of utopian ideas and reformist attitudes is not over. Today Songdo Smart City in South Korea is a model for a technology-driven utopia: A green and sustainable city based on IT. The lines between totalitarian control, technological or artistic disaster and utopian promises of reform and relief of contemporary misery remains – as always – narrow.