Shane Reiner-Roth is a writer and co-founder of Tall Work (Instrumental Plausibility). Through publications, exhibitions and speculative projects, his work examines the means by which certain objects appeal to an economy of expression by communicating higher values than their own on the cheap. He is currently a research fellow at the MIT department of architecture.

Compulsions: Philosophical Inclusion versus Architectural Autonomy in the Aspiration of Utopia

While the true definition of a Utopia is much stricter than the way I have personally identified it for the purposes of this essay, I view that this misnomer is necessary to discern a fundamental difference between the discourse of philosophy and that of a closely trailing architecture. For while it appears as though both philosophical and architectural discourses are similar in their most radical states as idealistic, they contrast greatly in their treatment towards their respective “readers” or followers. The discernment lies primarily in their contrasting faiths in their readers’ ability to discover their environments ‘anew,’ either after reading the philosopher’s text, or after experiencing the architect’s building or urban plan. The former has a faith in the citizen as a social agent, while the latter only has a faith in their building as the construct of a social agenda. Guy Debord’s most architectural statement, Naked City, will be discussed in contrast to Constant Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon and Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin.

Guy Debord created a map for Parisians to carry with them, called ‘The Naked City.’ To describe its intent, Alison Sant writes:

“In reaction to the rational city models embraced by Parisian postwar planners in the 1950s, he [Debord] and his colleagues co-opted the map of Paris, reconfiguring the experience of the city through its authority. [25] By manipulating the map itself, they intervened in the logic of the city, constructing an alternative geography that favored the marginalized, and often threatened, spaces of the urban grid. Torn from their geographical context, these areas were woven together by arrows inspired by the itineraries of the drift or “dérive.” These “psychogeographic” maps proposed a fragmented, subjective, and temporal experience of the city as opposed to the seemingly omnipotent perspective of the planimetric map. As mapping is used as a tactic to bring together personal narratives about urban space, the Situationist maps provide a useful example of visualizing a subjective view of the city.”[i]

It is important to note that the directions given on the map, described as dérives (derivatives), were abstracted to the point at which they could not be accurately or objectively followed. General maps, even those without directional arrows, illustrate the single most efficient route between any two locations through unbiased cartography, and in so doing represent authority, clarity, and singularity of method. Debord’s map, on the other hand, is authoritative only to the point of proposing the plurality of perception. The big red arrows suggest bold movements within the city, but it is clear that the specific dérives one might take should be purely intuitive and not informed by Debord. Essentially, Debord believed that Utopia could exist within the formerly existing city, while the perception of that city must change.

Le Corbusier, thirty years prior, proposed to bulldoze most of central Paris north of the Seine, and replace it with sixty-story cruciform towers, placed in an orthogonal street grid and park-like green space. The ability to perform dérives within the Plan Voisin would be impossible. And while this ability was viewed as needless for Corbusier, his contemporaries scorned the prospect of a proposal with so much architectural authority. So while Debord proposed to keep the city intact but not its general perception, Corbusier proposed to construct a new city entirely, and once built and inhabited, its general perception would go unchanged.

Constant Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon is the synthesis of Debord’s Situationist philosophy and Le Corbusier’s architectural tendency to build anew. In reviewing the contemporary state of Metropolitan cities, Constant believed that

“The layout of neighborhoods, old and new, conflicts with established patterns of behavior and even more with the new ways of life that we are seeking. The result is a dismal and sterile ambience in our surroundings.”[ii]

In response to his understanding of the contemporary city, Constant envisioned a new city on land never before built upon: New Babylon. As Mark Wigley writes,

“New Babylon envisages a society of total automation in which the need to work is replaced with a nomadic life of creative play, in which traditional architecture has disintegrated along with the social institutions that it propped up. A vast network of enormous multilevel interior spaces propagates to eventually cover the planet. These interconnected “sectors” float above the ground on tall columns. While vehicular traffic rushes underneath and air traffic lands on the roof, the inhabitants drift by foot through the huge labyrinthine interiors, endlessly reconstructing the atmospheres of the spaces.”[iii]

The inhabitants of New Babylon would be the transplanted youth of Paris, willing to endure the shock of a radical new urban layout.

But while the appearance of New Babylon is not one of architectural authority, its physical presence, if it were built, would be treated, with time, with the same level of oppression that any intent-driven design would. No matter how many alternative routes the design of New Babylon would have offered its citizens, the number of these routes would be operationally and programmatically finite. In other words, New Babylon maps out the advisable dérives for the citizen, rather than letting him decide it for himself. New Babylon is different than the Plan Voisin in its intent of construction in opposition of reconstruction, yet it is unfortunately also different than the Naked City in its objectivity; an admittedly inevitable product of an architectural proposal, rather than an ideological one.

Though these radical proposals are only three examples of many, they exemplify the grave difference between the inclusive proposals of the philosopher and the autonomous projects of the architect.

Most visions of Utopia have at their heart intent to leave the city and start a new one in formally uninhabited terrain, most commonly a desert. This indicates a loss of faith in popular society, so that while the new autonomous Utopia can have its own unique history, the rest of general society will grow and advance without it. But while most philosophers believe that their writing can make a change in general society if read widely enough, architects tend to side with the Utopians formally mentioned, and therefore favor autonomy; or, in other words, their buildings against the world.

It seems impossible to find the solution to this problem, yet it is most logically in recognition of context and the attitude of inclusion. For while most conceptually built architecture appears hermetically sealed, where the inside is presented as perfectly executed while the outside is viewed as bleak and ignorant, this philosophical faith in the citizen as a social agent, rather than the customer (or victim) of a social agenda, in the guise of an architect might be the way to include the participant in the discussion of a perfect metropolitan society.

[i] Intelligent agent vol. 6 no. 2 interactive city. Redefining the Basemap.


[ii] Internationale Situationniste #3. Another City for Another Life.

[iii] Wigley, Mark. 1998. New Babylon. The Hyper-architecture of Desire. 010 Uitgeverij.

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