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Timeless Visions and Realizable Utopias


Timeless Visions and Realizable Utopias

“To believe in a Utopia and be at the same time a realist is not a contradiction. A Utopia is par excellence realizable”.

Yona Friedman
Utopies réalizables

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias”.

Oscar Wilde
The Soul of a Man under Socialism

“Ideas are called “Utopian” when they seem useful but propose a different style, a different procedure, different motives from the usual ones of the time. They may be ideas of obvious common sense, and also technically easy to implement; all the more then they will be called “unpractical” and judged “a tyranny imposed on the people by experts and intellectuals” with a vehemence indicative of strong psychological resistance”.*

Paul Goodman
Utopian Thinking, 1961

* Reworded version of original English quote

Some time ago at a round table organized by London’s Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) to mark architecture critic Lucy Bullivant’s new book “Masterplanning Futures”1, we were asked an apparently easy question: how did we define “master planning”.
Our answer was immediate, concise and unequivocal: “city visions of relationships”.
Now, at an adequate critical distance, we would like to try and set down the reasoning behind that succinct answer.
Metrogramma’s ten-year professional experience with city and neighbourhood projects, and our current involvement in Milan’s regional development plan (the PGT)2, has gradually convinced us that “master planning” as commonly conceived by public administrators and developers has progressively lost its cultural usefulness. To paraphrase Rem Koolhaas3: as a means of creating a vision of space and setting the technical and regulatory goalposts, the urban project is dead.
There is now a need to envision new utopias4 that can be created from the bottom-up and realized over time. In other words, city projects must stop being general-reference physical plans and become the overall vision and receptacle of potential relations within a given area - already envisaged, or still to be generated. As a consequent they must be able to trigger two-way collaboration between governing powers and citizens. The city is a physical entity that cannot be contained in a preordained plan. It is the consequence of new forms of relations formed over time between individuals as the new potentials and opportunities offered by realizable utopias become apparent. This state of affairs is, however, one that we are as yet ill-equipped to deal with.
Yona Friedman and his “Utopies Réalisables”5 immediately spring to mind. Hungarian by birth, Friedman fled the Nazi round-ups during World War II, living in Haifa for about ten years before moving permanently to Paris in 1957 where he published his book in 1975.
The cultural context in which Friedman’s genius6 emerged was twofold. On the one hand, the mass utopias of the Sixties and Seventies hailed by many who saw technical progress and the network as finally ushering in the modern city; on the other, the emergence of individual utopias in political opposition to concepts of standardised hypermodern urbanism7.
This was the period when the myth of faceless progress started to be challenged by ideas of community living, separate heterogeneous spaces, and specificity of place to be freely chosen by individuals - utopias in which people could realize their dreams. The international architectural debate of the time on the future of the city would produce a plethora of theoretical and scientific theses, each positing precisely regulated programmes as to how these visions would be put into practice. Friedman stood apart from them all. His vision was not triggered by an historical critique of past urban planning. Nor did he view modernity with pessimism. Although organized according to a recognizable format, Friedman’s collectivity was positivist, a “bottom-up” creation that took on a difference semblance in each separate instance.
For Friedman, the architect’s job was to make available ideas and projects to make these new relations possible, bearing in mind, however, that these relations could not be defined a priori and at best could be channelled in a very generic manner by standardised technology. His was already a clear concept of “city visions of relationships”, a vision of the potential offered by new models of social relationships within cities. For Friedman, the drivers would be the opportunities released from the grassroots and not an extensive set of pre-established rules designed to achieve the over-arching dream of technological progress. Friedman’s realisable utopia is a true social vision, achievable through communication based on a seemingly elementary but highly complex language of representation. This communication was to be implemented by means of a series of small communities called Critical Groups8 that were to form the baseline units of the system.
Friedman’s view is prone to facile interpretations; his concept of community and “contemporaneity” is too readily seen as the antithesis of the evils of globalization. Yet what is incredibly pertinent still today is the fact that his realisable utopias and spatial architectures are bridges allowing heterogeneous communities, distinct units and different cultures to communicate. His is a concrete, theoretical and realisable proposal of how a given area may be governed starting from an elementary human requirement - the need to live together - but without the overlay of dogmatic sophistication that has wreaked and continues to wreak havoc in the world of urban planning.
Today we can safety say that the Cartesian city where everything is prescribed and pre-defined has had its day. Increasingly important is the possible city where the narration of possible futures allows greater understanding of our own current reality. There are, however, many risks - especially in periods of technological strides like these - implicit in this concept of the possible city, a concept we could define as Platonic9, and indeed does resemble the grandiose neo-positivist dream. As has occurred cyclically in the past, today the concept of the network is seen as the solution to all our problems. The advent of the Internet in the Nineties saw fear of a still largely unknown world cause many observers to proclaim “the death of distance” (to quote the famous book by Frances Cairncross, i.e. the death of the city). Today that preoccupation seems to have waned and the network is seen as the answer to all ills. The magic of the web has also enveloped city planning and development. Administrators, politicians and cities all embrace the “Smart City” as a great functionalist dream about to come true. Yet even if the Internet will surely have a huge impact on urban efficiency, it must still be remembered that everyday life will continue to be conducted within physical space, and that spaces for human relations will continue to be the pivot of daily living.
The sensors and electronic networks that are turning our cities into open-air computers still have to be programmed. More especially, they must offer open-ended, flexible opportunities for individual freedom to assert itself and new utopias to be realized. For the risk is that technology might just be the latest, most sophisticated model of social control and all pervasive uniformity.
The enormous amount of real-time information available should become the main ingredient for new approaches to master planning. But it will always be ideas and narratives suggesting opportunities that will give birth to new social visions, not technology. Being able to understand needs in real time will be essential to making operational choices - also in the form of master planning - able to implement the initial vision. What is crucial in this context is the bottom-up approach in which citizens have a new, more creative and participative role.
In an era in which growth will be progressively sidelined in favour of re-use of what already exists10, the concept of the smart city is an extraordinary opportunity. Yet the greatest change will be brought about by the way the city lives and uses its relationship spaces. A few years from now Venice, Rome or Milan will probably not look very different from today. What might change radically is the quality of the ideas able to trigger new relationship processes among people. Sharing information will play a major role in triggering these (necessary) regenerative processes. Again it will be collective and private spaces that will act as architectural mega-structures defining the development and (social) progress of our cities. This is where the full meaning of sustainability becomes apparent11.
The fascinating thing about Friedman’s architectural utopias is that he saw technology as a feasible means of bringing something into being, and elementary communication, i.e. the means of representing visions, as the means of eliciting new ideas and new aggregate, collective models. This is exactly what Master Planning should be offering cities today: indications on how to build bridges that will allow new forms of relationships between individuals to emerge and so link different identities that all too often in the past have remained irremediably separated. What we need is to link cultures, neighbourhoods, communities, social conditions and different dreams while respecting the specific identities of all. It is now clear that cities are no longer the result of a draft plan developed at the drawing board. They are the outcome of uncontrolled growth where man’s input has had very little impact because it was aimed at the wrong thing: the creation of space and not the creation of relationships.
We firmly believe that the architect’s responsibility, especially in times like these of global economic crises, is increasingly about interaction among people in the physical world, and not just about the physical world. Moreover, it is those “in-between” spaces of contemporary cities that will contain the realisable utopias - bridges reaching out into a future still to be written - and re-discover the social role of the city12.
The task of the architect and town planner will increasingly be to desig bridges rather than cities - “city visions of relationships”. For it is in times marked by the “absence of utopian drive”13 that ideas become even more precious.

This short piece on city planning concludes a survey conducted over 10 editions of The Plan into the approach of as many Italian architects, their views on the contemporary city and the possible futures in store.
As curators of the survey, we, together with the editor and staff of The Plan, would like to thank sincerely to all the architects involved. Their contributions are greatly appreciated and will certainly help to take the debate on how to plan the future of our cities to new levels.
They have also helped build bridges between individual architects who increasingly find themselves isolated on account of the scant practical critical debate on current developments.

Andrea Boschetti, Alberto Francini



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