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Ritchie and Pearman on Utopia

In the Winter edition of the RA Magazine, Ian Ritchie makes the case for utopian visions, and Hugh Pearman, editor of the RIBA Journal, presents an opposing view.
The RA is showing Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 from 11 February to 17 April 2017

Utopia, RA Magazine Winter 2016, Ian Ritchie + Hugh Pearman


We need utopian visions to wake us up from the slumber of the status quo, argues architect IAN RITCHIE RA

‘Utopia’ derives from the Greek ou (no) and topos (place), meaning ‘no place’. Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) depicted a perfect society on an imaginary island. His was a literary vision, as were Plato’s Republic (4th century BCE) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).
In a world devastated by war, the Russian Revolution of 1917 set out to create a real utopia.
As the RA’s show of Soviet art reveals, architecture, art and design, integrated as part of everyday life, were to beget human progress. Technology would be extended to its limits and the earth, under mankind’s dominion, be subservient to human needs. Avant-garde architects and artists across Europe joined the modernist effort. A torrent of new ideas, theories and institutions resulted, including two lasting phenomena: Suprematism and Constructivism. Subsequent disillusionment with utopian thinking after the war was linked to parallels between utopian thinking and revolutionary ideology, and because utopian architects may have had little trouble imagining a desirable goal, but few had any idea how to get there or the unintended consequences.
‘Current technology gives us the means to create a global society, which is why utopian thinking in architecture has never been more important’
Architecture is often quoted as a reflection of our society (Mies van der Rohe: ‘Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space’). In fact, we are the first animal on the planet capable of imagining and realising new environments that in turn shape us and evolve as we evolve.
Architecture can thus be defined as a neurodesign learning loop.
We now live in built spaces resulting from the realisation of another kind of utopia: the capitalist vision of individualism, consumerism, materialism and an insatiable appetite for the ‘new and different’, fuelled by advertising, that drives an unsustainable world economy. It is a utopia that has woven a seductive web of habit, inertia and automatism around the world’s cultures, which commerce exploits – and this particular loop is destructive.
Sometimes there are paradigm shifts that move society forward. The developments of current technology give us the means to create a global society, which is why, in socio-political and economic terms, utopian thinking in architecture has never been more important, whether it be poetically polemical or philosophically believable and implementable. A utopian vision is about escaping the status quo – waking up.
I believe in the value of utopian thinking, and as an architect I am driven by an ambition to synthesise poetic and philosophical thinking to realise my dreams and visions of a better future. To have shared in the invention of structural glazing in the early 1980s – which gave credence to Mies van der Rohe’s utopian transparent skyscraper – is an example.
My measures of a utopian vision are: does it have value, can it be built and will it change lives for the better? But it is the questions we ask about a city’s relationships, networks and flows – including the flow of money – and the true costs of buildings that govern architectural and urban projects and design strategies.
Architecture can begin to describe spaces that link private and public domains in ways that are not solely dictated by divisive economic perceptions and consumerism. Architects can engage with technology and the biological and neurosciences to create buildings on the basis of scientific knowledge – not ego, ideology or fashion – to enhance the well-being of their users.
But there is no point in creating these piecemeal without knowing what you want your city to become. What engages are the ideas: optimism, hope, a new process and a set of principles to guide an exploration of architecture – a committed plea for a lived reality using social understanding, innovation and technology that can lead to better futures for societies worldwide.’