Whatever happened to utopian architecture?

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Might part of the problem be that most of us can’t afford to hire a revolutionary architect to design us a unique, stylish house that won’t fall down? It works for Google, but my budget is more limited.

Maybe when we abolish work and live in a neo-communist utopia, we will all be architects. But not yet, sadly.


And whatever happened to those cool typefaces from that era that were unnecessarily costly to make, impractical and aged poorly, anyway?

My God! I think I just answered both questions!


I would love to live in many of these buildings, but it’s also kind of inconvenient to have your benches set in cement. Many utopian buildings do not allow inhabitants to improvise with the spaces in ways needed to make them comfortable and usable. This trend, at least, carries on in ‘smart’ buildings that won’t let the occupants decide for themselves when to draw the shades.

In some senses, architecture is like typeface. It needs to be able to fade into the background and let people get on with making use of it.


In a cement building, improvise in cement. Every time I redecorate my Brutalist structure, my furniture gets bigger and the rooms get smaller. Yes, I know it sounds crazy, but in my own defense I am quite mad.



These things were never designed for human scale living. They were designed to look cool. Polished concrete is great for floors, not so great for furniture!


I don’t know anything about that six-lobed concrete thing in the middle of a lake which is pictured at the head of the article.

But if that’s what is considered “dreamy architecture” please wake me up. It looks like something that Bruce Willis is trying to escape from in Fifth Element II.


Good air quotes. Obviously some new usage of the word “smart” where “smart”=“stupid”.

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Yeah, I think you’ve put it fairly succinctly. The problem with utopian architecture is that it tends to be rather prescriptive in the way that space is developed. The problem persists in much post-utopian architecture, but to some extent we forgive it when it isn’t promising any better.

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What happened is that the author has chosen to be stuck in the past.

Have a look at now.

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My favorite utopian architecture is seemingly always eminently practical, yet somehow impractical as hell.

For example: Montreal’s Habitat 67, a Brutalist masterpiece, which was supposed to be a test case for similar prefab structures all over, but never caught on, mostly due to its unexpectedly high cost.

Or Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti, which looks like a Tatooine dwelling made of concrete, but its massive domes and tunnels are meant to funnel desert breezes and capture warmth during the day, helping the place be self-sufficient. (note: the article at top says that “people left & it became a tourist attraction”. It’s had an active community and has been a tourist attraction since the 70s. Tourism is their primary means of support, along with selling bells they make on site)

One of my favorites is the house concept designed by Roger Dean in the 70s, made of spray concrete over wire forms; it was ripped off blatantly by Florida’s Xanadu home.


The TWA terminal is a huge failure with modern travel for one main reason: Stairs. With rollaboard luggage being everywhere those stairs are a total fail. We stopped curb checking because it costs $25 per bag and now fight for overhead space. Having been in there it’s impractical for how we live now.

This pretty much sums up most of that era. Fallingwater is literally falling down and has huge maintenance costs because a river runs over all the concrete. Well, duh. The wine-warmer is impractical because the paint is poisonous. Well, duh. These building are beautiful but not practical for people. That’s, like, half the job of architects in the first place.


Yeah, but what would’ve made Jackie Treehorn’s house, if not for concrete furniture?


We just need to change people. The architecture is lovely.


A lot depends on the attitude and intention of the architect. Arcosanti and Habitat 67 were both meant to be very practical solutions for living, but were too far-out and expensive to catch on. Fallingwater was never designed to be a practical living space; Wright famously ignored his client’s requests for changes to make it more livable, because he saw it as art.

While I was attending design school, architect Peter Eisenman built a new building for our college; when it was done, we discovered staircases that went nowhere, halls that narrowed to be impassable, and classrooms without facilities such as electrical outlets. When he visited, staff & students confronted him about it and he said, “This is a sculpture. It’s not my problem if you decide to use it as a building.” I’m surprised he made it out of there alive.


As clients and end users become more savvy I’m seeing more practical work come out of a lot of offices. There will always be “starchitects” whose sculptural designs supercede mere human requirements, but when the people who hold the bag of gold realize the latter is more important and they can exert control the buildings end up being better off for it. Cough Hadid. Cough Calatrava.


I visited Arcosanti back in the… wow, was it the 90s? It was envisioned for thousands and built for hundreds, but I think about a dozen people lived there at the time. So technically, not all the people left, I suppose.


That’s when I visited it, too. Soleri’s master plan was for a massive metropolis that’d house thousands, and his “phase 1” plan was to be an actual city, but I think it housed about a hundred at its peak. There were maybe 20-30 people living there when I visited, but a lot of the residents are students, so I’m not sure how many people permanently live there.


I wonder: are the spaces created within utopian architecture less livable than say, living in a loft space in a former factory, or even a yurt? And are traditional American wood frame houses ( ranch, saltbox, cape cod, etc.) better or are we just used to them? Were those traditional designs based on what was ideal to live in, or based on what was easy to build with the materials at hand?


The other problem, besides cost, was/is that a lot of technologies developed for sustainable design have been patent-locked, never to be used until the patent expires.

See: 3D printing; the core techniques involved were invented and patented in the mid-twentieth century, and only recently expired, allowing everyone to make use of them.
(I forget specifically which ideas, but that’s what happened)