Utopia and Reform in Architecture

Architectural thinking always shared a strong interest in utopian and
reform ideas. Architects do dream of a better future and their impact on
society as a whole. Today Songdo Smart City in South Korea is just one
model and exemplar of technology-driven utopia and vision. A green
and sustainable metropolitan city based on “smart” technology. But the
lines between totalitarian control, technological or artistic disaster and
utopian promises of reform and relief of contemporary misery remains –
as always – narrow.
In 1813 the cotton mill owner Robert Owen (1771–1858) published a
book “A New View of Society”. This was only one title in a long list of
utopian and reformist concepts in architecture combining social and
architectural. 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”. Other utopian and
reformist ideas in architecture followed over time not ending with the
Bauhaus Manifesto in 1919. 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 inspired the imagination of visionary architects
however one core question will be analyzed and discussed: Did utopia
ever “work”? Did utopian and reform concepts have more effects than
merely fostering architectural imagination?