22/23/24 October 2010, Saline Royale (Royal Salt Works), Arc-et-Senans
After the utopian movements of the 1960s and 70s – Archigram, Architecture Principe, Utopie, Superstudio, Archizoom, the Metabolists, Yona Friedman, Paolo Soleri, Buckminster Fuller, Haus Rucker Co. or Coop Himmelb(l)au – utopian discourse and projects have disappeared from architecture and urban design. Utopia no longer appears to be a useful tool for architectural discourse or practice.
If we consider our current condition, in part determined by a condition of atopia (Gregotti, 1991) – the non-places in large urban developments and individual housing (“The non-place is the contrary of utopia: it exists and doesn’t allow a single organic society” Marc Augé, 1992) – and on the other hand by a dystopian vision of imminent ecological disasters, it is surprising that there hasn’t been a reemergence of utopia as a means of imagining better places, other conditions, changes. Certainly there have been some utopias, but of a regressive nature – to quote Manfredo Tafuri – they attempt to stop time instead of advancing, they hide from reality as is the case with numerous gated communities where surveillance systems monitor the fragile borders of their utopias. But there is an absence of progressive utopias.
What is a utopia ? The term has many significations, to the point that it appears to mean anything and nothing, both positive and negative. Certainly utopia is a mirror by which we see and judge reality (“Utopia isn’t pure illusion but an updating of a positive system of norms that, independently of any reference to their possible realization, gives the sole/true measure of what is happening” Lucien Sebag, 1964), but it is also a place that remains better than we wish to create and/or think capable of creating.
That brings us to the hypothesis that under the weight of capitalist and neo-liberalist logic – the Empire referred to by Hardt and Negri (2000) – and the absence of place that it provokes (atopia), that any changing of the current condition and therefore any revival of utopias, appears impossible. In fact the only urban practices that seem to escape this logic today result in social mapping that is purely descriptive or else in interventions at the micro-level without global impact. At the same time, the dystopic visions of a future full of ecological disasters has not produced utopias like those of the 70s, on the contrary architecture and urban planning have become subjected to this logic, so too have the schools which are now focusing on producing “eco-designers” or “bio-architects”. Zizek refers to ecology as a new opium for the masses (2007).
Karl Mannheim (1929), considers utopia in relation to ideology and defines the two as symptoms of malaise in relation to the human condition, but only utopia is capable of changing this condition. Even if this definition is somewhat limited, it appears useful to discuss utopia in relation to ideology. We could argue that the social and ecological concerns produced ideologies to which architecture and urban planning have been subjected, without creating a utopia or an ‘ecotopia’. If all utopias come from an ideal, it is the opposite of ideal – ideology – that seems to haunt current discourse and practice in its submission to capitalist logic.
In addition to the difficulty of explaining utopia, the question of its absence today raises the need for new approaches and definitions. These approaches could look at scale – does utopia present itself more locally today? It could also consider the difference between utopia as form or process (David Harvey, 1996) or the difference between utopian and utopist (Henri Lefebvre, 1974) and the difference between a spatial and temporal utopia. It calls also for the question of the relationship between architecture/urbanism and actual or future forms of energy and their influence on the former. And what is the role of new technologies? Is the virtual creating a new outlet for utopias?
These are some initial thoughts resulting from an analysis of the contemporary condition as seen through the lens of utopias and their absence. This conference proposes the use of the concept of utopia as an indicator of the current condition of architecture and urbanism and these disciplines subjection to a neo-liberal logic, but also as a means of escaping this logic. It will raise ethical and aesthetic questions. It will furthermore investigate the role of energy and thus of sustainability not only as ideology.
The conference will take place at the Saline Royale by Ledoux, as a “partial” incarnation of an 18th century utopia it provides an “ideal” reference and site for this subject, not least of all for Ledoux’s ambiguous motives. The site hosted an exhibition of ‘utopian’ architecture in 1965 including projects/propositions by Architecture principe, Archigram, the Metabolists, and Paolo Soleri.
The conference will have a contemporary focus, but that does not exclude historical investigations that address the current context, nor does it exclude interventions that do not focus exclusively on architecture or urbanism. The conference intends to question current practice, the role of utopia in the work of architects and urban planners today. It will provide a platform for interdisciplinary discourse: researchers and practitioners from all disciplines are invited to submit propositions of a maximum of 2000 words with a CV to the e-mail address email@example.com before July 16, 2010. Presentations can be made in English or French. Information on accommodation will be communicated.
There is no conference registration fee, but participants must cover their accommodation and meals at the Saline. Information on the options available will be communicated to the participants after confirmation.
The conference is organized by the Ecole Spéciale d’architecture together with the Saline Royale and the Hochschule Luzern, Technik und Architektur
Keynote speakers will include David Harvey (New York) and Christian Hönger (Hochschule Luzern), others will be announced.
Scientific Committee: Johannes Binotto (Universität Zürich) Andri Gerber (Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture), Johannes Käferstein (Hochschule Luzern), Brent Patterson (Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture), Michel Pierre (Saline Royale)
Organization and conception:
Andri Gerber, Brent Patterson (Ecole Spéciale)
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