Living the dream

In the ‘real’ Utopia, can architecture even exist?

‘There are fifty-four splendid big towns on the island, all with the same language, laws, customs and institutions. They’re all built on the same plan, as, so far as the sites will allow, they all look exactly the same.’ Thomas Moore, Utopia

Maps of fantasy places hold a special kind of fascination.  The first edition of Thomas Moore’s 16th century book Utopia came with a woodcut depicting the eponymous island on which his imagined perfect society lives.  It takes the form of a crescent shaped landmass with an interior river running around the perimeter.  Looked at obliquely, the drawing resembles a human head. The sails of a boat in the ocean suggest a goatee beard while the river traces the outline of the brain.

The third edition of the book featured an updated illustration by Ambrosias Holbein that re-arranged the elements to more literally resemble a skull.  The towns on the island have been positioned to suggest holes for eyes, nose and mouth. The earlier image appears optimistic, jaunty even, as if the book is a well-meaning parable while the later suggests a darker, more bleakly satirical intent.

Indeed, it has never been quite clear whether Moore intended Utopia as an epic send-up of contemporary European debates or a serious proposition. Some aspects of his fictional island were at odds with his own beliefs and the name Utopia – which literally means no-place – suggests an impossible dream or even a foolish ideal rather than a road map for a better world.

And yet Moore’s book has persisted as the touchstone for projects and belief systems that have at their heart a desire to improve the world. Its use can often be dismissive or even pejorative, as if any such attempt is automatically doomed to failure. The word utopia is used so often that we have long since lost sight of its specific origins in More’s complex and ambiguous book. For that reason it is worth revisiting because it is not quite what one expects.

The book takes the form of two sections: the first a conversation about contemporary politics and ethics between More and two other men and the second a record of Utopia itself. The first book forms both a prelude and a reflection on what follows, suggesting that 16th century Europe was too compromised and complex a place ever to place its faith in utopian ideals.

Life on Utopia is an inversion of ‘normal’ life. Gold is worthless. Only children wear ‘priceless’ jewels. Hard work is considered enjoyable. Free time is spent in study and self-improvement. Clothes are strictly functional rather than status symbols and everybody spends a period of their life engaged in agricultural food production for the benefit of all. 

They accept the pursuit of pleasure as the motivation for most human behaviour. It’s just that their definition of pleasure is definitely of the austere, ‘hair-shirt’ variety

As idyllic as some of this sounds, not everything in Utopia chimes with contemporary sensibilities. Crime is punishable by slavery (although good behaviour can eventually allow you your freedom back). Wives are beholden to their husbands and there are generally very puritanical attitudes to sex.

The utopians are also, to a certain extent, realists. They make no treaties because treaties always get broken. They aren’t keen on wars but are prepared to have one if absolutely necessary. And they accept the pursuit of pleasure as the motivation for most human behaviour. It’s just that their definition of pleasure is definitely of the austere, ‘hair-shirt’ variety. Most of the things that we might consider guilty pleasures such as gambling or drinking to excess are considered inexplicable to the rational and puritanical utopians. In a world where everyone has precisely what they need, the desire to acquire more, through nefarious or any other means, is thoroughly looked down on.

In Utopia, financial speculation doesn’t exist. For this reason, Moore’s book is often seen as a form of proto-communist manifesto. Private property, money, gold and other symbols of wealth and power are outlawed or despised. Everyone dresses in a 16th century form of soviet work-ware and there is – bar the slavery and some antiquated sexual politics – complete equality.

The 54 towns that make up Utopia are therefore absolutely alike. They serve the same function and there is no reason for them to be different. Each serves 6,000 households, divided into groups of 30 that elect a formal leader who then serves on a form of town council. Numbers are strictly kept and redistribution of the population – sometimes to adjacent islands – occurs to maintain them.  

Beyond describing their social structure, More devotes little time to the architecture of Utopia’s cities. Illustrations of it depict a generic collection of European medieval towns with spires and huddled houses. Which begs a question: in a society opposed to excess of any kind, what kind of architecture would you get?  Architecture is always a kind of excess – a surplus over and above what is actually required of a building. Perhaps – following the same logic that More applies to jewellery, it would result in the largest and most ostentatious spaces being used for the most ordinary uses. To reverse Nikolas Pevsner’s famous axiom: in Utopia, Lincoln Cathedral is a building but a bicycle shed is architecture. 

Charles Holland is principal of Charles Holland Architects and professor of architecture at the University of Brighton