Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

Imagining a new society begins with visionary design. What can we learn from the bold architectural schemes of the twentieth century?

The frontispiece of the original edition of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, published in Leuven, Belgium, in 1516, depicts a small island, nearly round with deckled edges. The engraver’s hand shaded the landmass with short, neat hatch marks to suggest topography and a river. More imagined utopia as a self-contained world where communities shared a common culture and way of life. This definition sets up two particular criteria: place and society. To convey these intertwined conditions, the illustrator dotted the woodblock print with buildings.

No fewer than sixteen spires on top of eleven edifices spring up from the page. In the book, society is a complex structure of labor, rest, and intellectual and cultural pursuit, yet it is visualized as architecture. More’s work is political satire, with his neologized title the most famous joke. The etymology comes from the Greek: eu-topos, meaning “happy place,” and ou-topos, meaning “no place.” But just because utopia is literally nowhere, that hasn’t stopped architects and visionaries from conjuring fantastic cities ready to relieve society from its own ills.

In the words of the French writer Georges Perec, “Behind every utopia there is always some great taxonomic design: a place for each thing and each thing in its place.” Architecture is a thing, a place, and a place for things.

While our twenty-first century is not without utopian and dystopian dreamers—think of Elon Musk’s vision for domed villages on Mars—attempts to build utopias, with varying degrees of success, punctuated the twentieth century. Photography operates in parallel with this very human search to find a better way to live, documenting and fixing in time experiments that were often partial in execution or unrealized.

Such is the case with Llano del Rio, the socialist colony founded on May Day in 1914. A short-lived attempt to build a communitarian society in the north of Los Angeles, founded by minister turned socialist Job Harriman, this desert utopia promised self-sufficient freedom from the burdens of industrialist capitalism. The feminist architect Alice Constance Austin drew up a plan to house ten thousand people—a radial city inspired by the British urban planner Ebenezer Howard, founder of the Garden City movement. Her wheel-like proposal arrayed parks and kitchen-less homes around the outer rings, while the center was dedicated to shared civic facilities, including communal kitchens and kindergartens. “The Socialist City should be beautiful, of course; it should be constructed on a definite plan . . . thus illustrating in a concrete way the solidarity of the community,” she wrote in a 1916 article for the Western Comrade, the colony’s paper.

Austin’s vision, alas, was never realized. In 1972, Paul Kagan published photographs of what he found on the site in the journal California Historical Quarterly as a prelude to his 1975 book New World Utopias: A Photographic History of the Search for Community. All that was left of Llano del Rio was picturesque ruins: two monumental fireplaces, stark against the dry landscape, and the remains of fieldstone foundations. These images were accompanied by an essay by Aldous Huxley, who pegged the community’s demise on a lethal combination of lack of money, idealism, and internal politics. Archival images of the communal yet bleak existence of the colonists in rough cabins were presented alongside a supplemental text, written by Kagan. Of the utopia they worked so hard to achieve, which ultimately fell claim to homesteaders stripping the buildings for material and the unrelenting desert climate, Huxley quoted Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1818 poem “Ozymandias”: 

Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

In those words, Huxley encapsulated the fleeting afterimage of utopia—not dystopia, per se, but a barren place no longer defined by shared ideals. Published in the mid-1970s, a moment when the crest of the drop-out-and-live-off-the-land movement of a decade earlier had begun to taper off, Kagan’s book documents both failed and living utopias, like the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a retreat located in California’s coastal range. In combining both within a history, his work operates as an object lesson for his moment and for ours. Or, as Kagan asks, “Can the vision of the utopians be pursued here, in the context of life in the world?”

Kagan didn’t include Drop City, the countercultural commune, in his search for utopia, but it has, in retrospect, become a touchstone of intentional community, particularly due to its photogenic architecture. Its famous patchwork domed buildings (or “zomes”) were made from salvaged car roofs—a tidy repurposing of the automobile, icon of mid-century mainstream culture—and modeled on R. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. Founded in the mid-1960s, the project was largely disbanded within a decade, partly a victim of its own media success. National news attention made it a destination for hippies, communards, and searchers, but such fame was unsustainable. Until the 1990s, when the last dome was demolished, the site remained a ghost town on an open plain outside of Trinidad, Colorado. 

Fuller’s writings and lectures underpinned such hippie-era activities from The Whole Earth Catalog, the counterculture magazine founded by Stewart Brand in 1968, to the fantastical constructions of Ant Farm, the architects who designed the giant, pillow-like inflatable medical pavilion for the doomed 1969 Altamont music festival. Fuller’s domes, however, were almost visual shorthand for the period. One of his geodesic designs was built as the United States Pavilion for the 1967 world’s fair, Expo 67, in Montreal, an event that also featured other trials in utopian living, such as Habitat 67 by the Israeli Canadian architect Moshe Safdie.

Expo 67 was titled “Man and His World,” a label carrying all the humanistic intent of the period but that also amplified gendered and colonialist power structures. Fuller’s biosphere dome was a near-perfect bubble built through feats of engineering. Self-contained, it carried forth the same island concept as More’s vision for utopia: a hermetic architecture in the service of a better society. The fate of the dome, however, bookends the idyll of the hippie movement. In 1976, during a restoration of the structure, a fire engulfed the acrylic panels that skinned the steel supports. It would be years before the building reopened to the public as an environmental museum. 

Decades later, the New York–based photographer d included Fuller’s structure in her book Lost Utopias in 2016. The product of nearly ten years of travel and research, it documents expos and world’s fairs dating back to the nineteenth century, beginning with the Crystal Palace in London. The buildings she chooses as subjects represent the technological or futuristic ambitions of each country that commissioned a design, but Doskow’s compositions refuse to reinforce such nationalism. 

The impossibility of achieving, much less sustaining, utopia is its most defining feature. This is suggested by the architect and writer Keller Easterling in her catalog essay for Utopia/Dystopia: A Paradigm Shift in Art and Architecture, the inaugural show at the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology in Lisbon, which opened in 2017, just after the five-hundredth anniversary of More’s Utopia. She frames impossibility as an inverted comfort. Master plans for building societies are not actually meant for implementation, much less success. “If the utopian proposal reaches far enough, it can enjoy the dual pleasures of being perfect as well as impossible,” she writes.

But some ambitious designs that perhaps should have remained impossible do get built despite the odds. For example, in 1960, the Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek fulfilled his dream for a new federal capital located in the country’s interior, moving the existing one away from Rio de Janeiro and a colonial past. Brasília, a new city designed for modern life by the urban planner Lúcio Costa, is famed for its expressive governmental buildings, designed by the architect Oscar Niemeyer. The National Congress of Brazil, a grand plinth topped with a dome and an upturned half sphere, epitomizes the drama of a future-looking aesthetic. The Swiss photographer René Burri traveled to the inauguration to capture the birth of a new city. His images of opening night are full of optimism: men in slim suits and women in ballooning white cocktail dresses foreground the architecture. But others juxtapose laborers, dirty and tired, against the perfection of the urban dream. 

Aerial photographs of the city’s equally monumental residential neighborhoods, called superquadras, or “superblocks,” each containing apartment buildings, schools, green spaces, and shopping areas, show a boxy utopia under construction, and one that was ultimately alienating and insufficient. Designed for five hundred thousand people, Brasília’s population quickly ballooned, creating a ring of unplanned and makeshift housing around the original perimeter. In Burri’s shots as well in the series Souvenir d’un futur (2011–15) by Laurent Kronental, photography operates as a means to try to reconcile architectural ambitions with ordinary, rather non-utopian existences. Kronental’s work is a melancholic study in portraiture. The fading façades of the grandes ensembles, Paris’s large housing estates from the 1970s and ’80s, including Les Espaces d’Abraxas (1981) by the Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill and the Arènes de Picasso (1985) by the Spanish French architect Manuel Nuñez Yanowsky, are paired with soulful portraits of the senior citizens who live there. Both are graying and resigned to fate. 

Utopias always come with constraints and a price, notes the British novelist and political activist China Miéville. “Utopia, for one thing, has never been the preserve of those who cleave to liberation,” he writes in his 2014 essay “The Limits of Utopia.” “Settlers and expropriators have for centuries asserted their good environmental sense against the laziness of feckless natives, in realizing the potential of land spuriously designated empty, of making so-called deserts so-called bloom.” For Miéville, the totalizing “we” inherent in utopian thinking—the island—masks injustice and excludes societies’ most vulnerable. Indeed, what might be perfect for a particular population has toxic, even apocalyptic, impacts on so many others. 

And utopia’s darkest burdens haunt the Mexican photographer Adam Wiseman’s Arquitectura Libre (Free Architecture) series (2016–20). His images of fantastical homes scattered across the Mexican countryside suggest dozens of individual micro-utopias. Castles and candy-colored façades. McMansions in aberrant hues. Hollywood-inspired abodes. One structure called Castillo de la Salud (The Castle of Health), built by a local medicine man, contains a church and a so-called Tower of Babel. But the delight of each architectural expression is tempered by the labor and politics of some of their funding. Wiseman discovered that many of these houses were financed by remittances sent home to Mexico by migrants working in the United States—a precarious cross-border condition that causes the word free in the title to waver. 

Who is free to dream of a new society when home is of primary concern? Our present news cycle at times seems more like a dystopian nightmare than any fantasy, rife with rising pandemic cases, the plight of displaced migrants, racist police violence, and structural inequality. But Miéville concedes that the search for utopia is necessary, just like hope is necessary. Still, it shouldn’t be taken for a future place, no place, or an outrageous architectural construct. Twentieth-century utopias set out to change society and to build an architecture that demonstrated belief in the tabula rasa, the sparkling new, and the grand scheme. Two decades into our century, and culture is deep in a period of self-evaluation and course correction. If anything, utopia is a mirror of our contemporary condition—a reflection of the hopes and the colossal wrecks of an ever-changing now.