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Nobody's perfect

Charles Holland

Charles Holland finds conundrums in the best of all possible worlds

All architecture is utopian. Or rather all architectural proposals are utopian.

Literally speaking, utopia means ‘no-place’, a vision of something that doesn’t yet exist. Even the humblest architectural drawing assumes a certain level of perfection. But once built and inhabited architecture becomes part of the endlessly compromised ‘real’ world.

Can architecture make the world better? Heal its wounds? Certainly many people have tried. Take James Silk Buckingham, journalist, publisher, politician and all-round autodidact: a pretty typical 19th century reformer in other words. In 1849 Buckingham proposed a model town called Victoria, a design so utopian that it had no site and could belong anywhere.

Buckingham proposed to answer society’s ills through architecture. He started with perfect geometry: the plan of Victoria is a square, measuring one mile by one mile. It is sub-divided by eight radial roads, each named after an improving aspiration – Faith, Hope and Charity just to start with. Houses, shops and offices are organised in diminishing squares as the plan marches towards the centre.

In a self-published pamphlet called National Evils and Practical Remedies, Buckingham enlarged on the architecture of Victoria, describing in painstaking detail, the design of balconies and colonnades and the precise use of Corinthian, Ionic and Doric orders. 

Architecture: inert, immovable, inviolate. These are the assumptions of the utopian.

The architecture is intended to orchestrate events, establish clear codes of behaviour, delineate class hierarchies and enshrine high-minded (though somewhat vague) social ideals. Buckingham’s title makes this purpose clear. Society has created the problems, architecture can solve them. In a typical section he writes: ‘From the entire absence of all wynds, courts, and blind alleys, or culs-de-sac, there would be no secret and obscure haunts for the retirement of the filthy and the immoral from the public eye.’

Architecture: inert, immovable, inviolate. These are the assumptions of the utopian. In order to separate people you need architecture. To tell them who’s boss you need urban planning. To improve their mental outlook you need monuments and public art and clear vistas pointing to a centre in which – at least in Buckingham’s case – we find an octagonal tower, 300 feet high and containing an enormous light to illuminate the town’s inhabitants.

From our vantage point it seems almost impossible to share either Buckingham’s faith in the power of architecture to achieve such clear social goals or his certainty that they are worth achieving. Both his architecture and his society are presented without context. There are no compromises, no other towns to adjoin or butt up to, no tricky topographies, budgetary constraints or pragmatic considerations. No one shirks their responsibilities, or moves into the wrong house or runs away. Spatial containment and social cohesion are united. Everything works.

What would a contemporary reformer’s utopia look like? Would it accept human frailty, weakness, self-indulgence, laziness and the desire to cross roads when the red man is showing? Or to get drunk, drive too fast, kiss the wrong person or forget to do your tax return? Could you make a utopia out of compromise? Or one that allows for a particular lack of virtue?

We might begin by at least acknowledging such failings. Instead of the Avenue of Concord we could have the Backstreets of Drunken Discord. And in place of a grand central square of civic amenities there might be the Circus of Officious Bureaucracy. We could celebrate our insecurities with Avenues of Non-Specific Angst, Indolence and Absentmindedness, all of them radiating out from a thoroughly underwhelming central Tower of Vague Indifference.

In naming and recognising these things we might alleviate some of their harm. Like a collective form of built environment therapy, we could lance the boil of failed urbanism. Choosing to live in the Suburbs of Disenfranchisement or the Inner Circle of Urban Alienation might at least grant us some self-awareness. 

This is the opposite of the search for Adam’s House in Paradise, a half-hearted root around in Eve’s Apartment of the Everyday perhaps. There is a paradox here though. I am in danger of building my own ivory tower, enshrining in built form a set of anti-ideals every bit as autocratic and inflexible as James Silk Buckingham’s. A realistic utopia is still a utopia, the imposition of a-priori principles to the messy realities of everyday life. 

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