Ideal space

by Ulrich Gehmann, Michael Johansson

1   Introduction

An ideal space is both space imagined, from the Greek idea and eidos; and space “ideal” in the words common use, denoting a space perfected [1]. In that latter meaning, an ideal space is an absolute model of how space should be. In this sense, it is also a utopian space. 

Ideal spaces are not only about architecture but about social dreaming and imagination, expressed in ‘ideal’ spaces with their impacts on architecture, art, and human hopes. We tried to show this via a combination of presenting ideal city spaces, active participation of the visitors molding their own spaces, and symbolic representation. Ideal Spaces is also a high-tech project that uses diverse technologies in new ways, also new techniques and programming developed by us. The exhibition deals with ideal spaces in a double sense: as spaces imagined and as spaces utopian, or perfected. In both its meanings of being ‘ideal’, an ideal space relates to utopian space, an old theme deeply embedded in our cultural memory which has never lost its actuality and appeal. With a look at recent conditions, we need to re-address it more than ever.

Ideal Spaces and/or Utopian spaces 

Since it is a mythic theme full of hopes and dreams, and at the same time, very practical. Today, the majority of human beings live in urban agglomerations which are far away from being ’ideal’ but chaotic, accompanied by an actual destruction of space unprecedented in history. In parallel, never before so many technical possibilities of imagining spaces existed, allowing for escape into worlds of fantasy, dream, and game. Space is lost, and at the same time multiplied.

But human beings need space, also real ones deserving the name, and they need community. Issues which have to be settled, urgently.   One first step in doing so may consist in re-framing them, to look at them anew, from different but nevertheless related perspectives. 

We did so by taking the theme’s archaic character as a background tale, the myth of a paradise lost and to be regained again [2], and by actively involving the visitors. Today, the question arises of what an ideal space actually is, or could be.  The epitomized place for an ideal space is that of the ideal city, also one of the formers’ favorized topoi in symbolic terms [3]. The ideal city relates to utopia, the eu-topia as a place of redemption and liberation in form of a second, and artificial paradise. 

What is “ideal” in the space?  The very term ideal relates to the Greek words idea and eidos, to have an ‘idea’ or an inner image of something; in case of eidos, also one which can become very concrete, and which may serve as a pattern or type [5] – e.g. for constructing an ideal city acc. to a clear and pre-given “inner” image. And as already mentioned in the beginning, ideal also stands for something perfected or ‘ideal’ in the common sense of the term: something which is an end state (‘perfect’), in other words [6]. Looking at these two meanings of what ideal denotes, it is of decisive importance when both these meanings coincide or overlap: when a city shall be constructed as an ideal space, covering both these meanings – even in cases where its constructors have literally ‘no idea’ what they actually are doing. That is, when they are not decisively and explicitly reaching for utopia but nevertheless built utopian spaces, in fact, by generating a spatiality of the “non-place” addressed by critics as Marc Augé [7] and others (e.g., [8]): a type of placeless spatiality generating real physical but essentially placeless (‘ou-topian’) spaces on the historical remnants of which we all live. 

In these cases, the imagery about an ideal space must not always, and not explicitly be utopian. Since in the original meaning of an ideal, an ideal space does not only denote a space perfected, something that has to be achieved as an optimized final state; but also a space which has been conceptualized at all: an inner image, an idea about a space as it shall look like [9], pouring into plans, concepts, and other concretized imaginations about spatial design; as in city planning, layout of logistic networks,  buildings, the construction of spaces for the public, and the like. These are examples which demonstrate that the notion of an ideal space does also include quite practical constructions needed for the purposes of daily life in its concrete terms.

But let’s return to the epitome of an ideal space (at least in the occidental realm), the one of an ‘ideal’ city. Concepts about an ideal city rely upon the idea of an ideal space constructed, to provide both base and frame for a proper unfolding of the human condition, for an ideal conditio humana.  According to our cultural imagery, the proper and genuine place for humans as “cultural animals” (McLuhan) is the city, from the start of human civilization onwards [10]. Thus, a city has to be erected which is ideal, constructed in such a way that the spatial conditions for that animal shall propagate the advent of the ‘positive’ traits of a general human nature; or, expressed in mythological terms: after the first, natural paradise being lost, a second one has to be created, a paradise regained by construction.  As an environment and a frame of living, these new paradises shall become man’s second nature to overcome the shortfalls of existing urban environments. 

For the first time in human history, the major part of humanity lives inside the frames and conditions of such environments; and judging from such a background, the topic of an “ideal” city becomes actual more than ever.  There exist two major distinctions as regards the notion of an ideal city.  In a classical ‘old’ understanding, an ideal city, as a term, refers to the search of urban theorists and others for a reconstruction of or reaching for the utopian Garden of Eden, for the creation of an ideal place in the metaphysical or religious sense of heaven on earth [11]. The other meaning is an ‘ideal’ city in the sense of making the best out of the actually available resources, circumstances, and geography, centering on the topics (and goals) of sustainability and of harmony with nature and culture.  These distinctions, we have to add, can be understood as directions of meaning as well, to conceive the topic of an ideal space in general. 

If we include its secularized variants, the interpretation of an ideal place refers to the utopian direction of meaning; the other, second direction of meaning is more pragmatic: it does not have to be the absolutely perfect end state but ‘ideal’ only in the sense of making the best out of the existing situation, the conditions which actually prevail. As does any other way of how to handle things in general and how to cope with reality, it presupposes a certain mindset – out of which things are handled in that way and no other, what is conceived as relevant, and so forth.  And this finally depends on ideals, on inner images as mental guidelines for how to tackle things in general – in their sum, the ‘world’ – and for which purposes.  So, even the most pragmatic mind cannot avoid ideals. If physics symbolically stands for the barely present, for that what is (also physically) in the moment, then we cannot avoid metaphysics. ‘Best’ solutions in this sense do not depend on physics, but on ideas, ideals: on inner images. 

So, all in all, ideal space and meta- physics seem to belong together; in particular when we speak about the future, and here about a future desired, a state of being which is not present yet, but which shall become present [12]. Moreover, those spaces do not just express some architectural constructions; they are symbolic spaces, spaces which are “standing for” additional meanings behind them [13], meanings which elicited their construction at all. These spaces shall, of course, become real physical spaces then. This addresses once more the aspect of imagination, and the symbolic aspect of these spaces: we, the spectators of their images presented, have to conceive them as real spaces, as parts of an ‘as if- world´ that can turn into reality.  This is, at the same time, a particular mode of experience:  we have to look at those spatial images as if experiencing a real world, and we can compare these experiences with those we made in our real spaces we are living in. 

The issue of experience and imagination is relevant for all the spaces of our exhibition: those presented as ready-made worlds, those made by the visitors themselves, and those which are symbolized and presented in the world disk. First and foremost, this applies to the worlds we wanted to present as “ready-made” ideal spaces (mostly of utopian character) which appeared in history. What has been called a concrete utopia [14]: space where humans shall live in an ‘optimized’ and planned way; and which has been constructed, or has to be constructed, as a concrete and carefully planned environment. 

 In other words, these constructions shall enable the ‘proper’ unfolding of human nature, as an ideal place to live in. And in these regards, it also has to be a space of management and control, a place of actual conduct for such a proper life, which very often has to be supervised to ensure that everything runs according to plan [15]. 

The basic intention of such conceptions was to create an artificial cosmos, metaphorically speaking, an encompassing ordo where everything runs according to plan, serving as a frame for the welfare of its inhabitants. All of our infrastructural networks rely upon such an idea. As an idea going back to Roman times [16], it was to construct an ideal space of functional networks serving as a base for the needs of many individuals [17], up to the actual post-modern state [18].

Seven snapshots of Ideal spaces

The cathedral

The reign of ideal spaces we put forward in our snapshots created originally for the 2016 architectural biennale in Venice starts with the Gothic cathedral. We took the example of Reims, since it represents one of the most elaborated and acclaimed cathedrals. As an architectural type, the cathedral is more than just a church or any other sacred building serving as a place for the holy. This it is, too, but it is not confined to that dimension of meaning. It also has others, and therefore, by being a specific kind of an ideal space, it is the very base of all the other ideal spaces to come, in a symbolic and a historical dimension. The cathedral stands at the beginning since it reflects our general background tale to be narrated in our sequence of worlds, the one of a paradise regained, in an almost perfect, and first and foremost original way: it is the symbol for regaining paradise, in both a historical and symbolical dimension. Although it markedly differs from them, it can be seen as the archetype of all those other spaces to come. Since for our general topic inside the terms of which our general tale is to be told, that of an ideal space, it resembles the very aim of constructing such spaces: to overcome history ‘as it is’, in search for a better, and final one – the one of a paradise regained at the end of all days.

The reign of ideal spaces we put forward in our snapshots created originally for the 2016 architectural biennale in Venice starts with the Gothic cathedral. We took the example of Reims, since it represents one of the most elaborated and acclaimed cathedrals. As an architectural type, the cathedral is more than just a church or any other sacred building serving as a place for the holy. This it is, too, but it is not confined to that dimension of meaning. It also has others, and therefore, by being a specific kind of an ideal space, it is the very base of all the other ideal spaces to come, in a symbolic and a historical dimension. The cathedral stands at the beginning since it reflects our general background tale to be narrated in our sequence of worlds, the one of a paradise regained, in an almost perfect, and first and foremost original way: it is the symbol for regaining paradise, in both a historical and symbolical dimension. Although it markedly differs from them, it can be seen as the archetype of all those other spaces to come. Since for our general topic inside the terms of which our general tale is to be told, that of an ideal space, it resembles the very aim of constructing such spaces: to overcome history ‘as it is’, in search for a better, and final one – the one of a paradise regained at the end of all days.

Provided that ideal spaces can be considered as relying on the idea of a utopia, literally, of a place for human beings that is an ou-topos, a non-place in terms of the now-existing real, then the very aim of creating such ideal spaces by construction is to generate exactly such a utopia, in the shape of a eu-topian, or “good” place: A place for humans being ideal in the double sense of a place being imagined (eidos, idea), and of one that is ‘ideal’ in the words’ common meaning, denoting a perfect place to live; or a perfected one, respectively, namely one to be achieved by construction, by acts of deliberate planning and making. It shall be a space that is perfectly suited for an assumed (positive) human condition, and one that can be made: that is constructed, i.e. created, and not just pre-given. Opposed to the original paradise from which humans had departed, and opposed to the new Christian paradise at the end of all days, that is, at the end of a history that has been so far, after the human kind had left his original paradisiacal state –which, too, is a paradise pre-given, made by God, not by man.

If an ideal space stands for a world to be reached one day, for a utopia to come, then one of its deepest roots lies in the Christian conception of history as a progress: from an initial paradise where there was no history but just a unity between man and nature to a second paradise where history ends again. The paradise myth, so investigators of a Western utopia, belongs to our culture as does science and a belief in rationality. Such a Christian perspective became converted into its secularized forms over time, and into utopias. With the conception to overcome history as it went so far with the help of some “final”, i.e. optimized construct as an ‘optimal’ place for humans to live, this Christian tradition is still alive.

The cathedral is a symbolic space, as are all the others we present. But here it also differs from the other spaces to come, and at the same time, it can be regarded as an embodiment of their very ancestor, their archetype because it is their mythological blueprint in the ‘ideal’ terms of imagination. As a symbolic space, it stands for the final ideal space of all ideal spaces, the one of a Heavenly Jerusalem at the end of all days. This is the ultimate good utopia humans can achieve, from a Christian perspective. The major difference of the cathedral as a symbolic space lies in its transcendental character. The other ideal spaces directly represent what they are: images of a future world to come, here on this earth. Opposed to them, the cathedral is a representation in a double sense: it symbolizes a space which cannot be reached in mere physical terms. As a concretely built space, the cathedral actually transcends its own physical existence, by standing for another kind of space, the really ideal one so to say: the space to come at the end of all human history, the one of final redemption, the Heaven symbolized in the form of a Godly architecture, the final city of all.

And the ideal space is a space of abstraction and construction. The second paradise is a constructed, not ‘naturally’ grown entity, as is Heavenly Jerusalem, the City of God.  It might be of divine origin and great, but it is a construction; made by God, not by man, but still a construction. For this archetype already, as well as for its descendants, the ideal world, represented by its ideal spaces which reveal a part of it, is a world of construction, not of nature, after a primordial paradise has vanished forever, and the human kind was thrown into its own history.

Following the paradise myth, we may admire nature, but it is not our space. Ours is the one of a second nature, to address another mythological figure. And in its ideal terms, it is achieved by means of rational construction, as an ideal world that has been built, not grown; neither by nature, nor by history, that other ‘nature’ of man.

Although in another respect: what started with the construction of the Gothic cathedral is a design practice mainly dependent on the construction and function of the tools available, and on the dynamical use of them. Both effects liberate the possible constructions, but at the same time they capture the constructor inside of their own theoretical models and the tools made for realizing the building itself. The other (albeit related) aspect is that with this kind of construction and its inherent properties – which, too, become systemic properties since they are embedded in the method itself, in the very procedure of how to construct at all – an effect comes in that could be called “liberation by formatization”: by using always the same formats, as a constructor, I might be able to create a rich variety of forms; but this variety is only a seeming one since based upon always the same; I may generate diversity by this, but nothing really new and really unique. The variety achieved is that of the format, it is nothing really individual. 

What begun in the system space of the cathedral was prolonged, for creating ideal spaces, also in social terms that had to follow predefined functionalities, and geometries. The leading idea became to create an ideal space more geometrico, as an abstraction, and that such an abstraction should provide the real place for real human beings to live: as a real place for a real, and new humanity to unfold.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Functional City

His concept for a city, says Vercelloni, is not the city of just an imaginary future, but of a future that really could happen: in one word, the true ideal city, as he says. Opposed to the majority of conceptions for ideal cities in that epoch – and that epoch was rich in such conceptions, probably more than any other one before a 19th century to come – it is a city concept that really could work, in very practical terms. In comparison to the mostly visionary approaches of his contemporaries, so Vercelloni, Leonardo’s sketches (despite being sketches only) are masterpieces in city planning, an “urban abstraction of the city”, presented by a regular grid. And out of this, it is concretely imaginable in its structure –a structure that may change a city’s economics and way of life, and to do so entirely.

This clearly was the case when we look into the future, at the worlds of Tony Garnier or Motopia, because it is the general principle applied that proved to be of future relevance, not the respective cities’ concrete shape. If the Gothic cathedral was an already ‘modern’ construction in terms of methods applied and use of concepts based on formats, then Leonardo’s plan refines such a trait. His city, so Vercelloni, is a real city, one perfected through inventiveness, technique, and art. When we look at his ideal city, it is not so much about its concrete topic, in his case to embody a water city, a city where canals play a central role, an urban organism depending, in its very functioning, on the use and proper distribution of water. It is rather about the consequent functional logic of how this city is structured as such. How it is organized at all as a system in consequent, and completely functional terms. Therefore we called his concept not a “water” city but a functional city. In these regards, it is a truly modern city although it has been planned at the end of 15th century, long before modern functional cities appeared. With their gridded orders and sober zoning, driven by a mind-set to transform the world, at least that part of it conceived to be of relevance, into an object of functional purposes. In prolongation of a Christian view of the world, a mind-set equivalent to the mythical aim of dominating the world; now, in modern functional terms solely.  

The cathedral still is a world of the symbolical; Leonardo’s world is one of the real; which, of course, has its own symbolic then, first and foremost if conceptualized in such a consequent (and also rigid) way as Leonardo and the later functional city did it. In fact, and exemplified in the case of Leonardo as one of the early forerunners, it is not about a water city but about a world as a function. In this function, all the elements which are thought of making up, in their combination, a world of relevance become ordered accordingly: as an expression of merely functional purposes, like in a machine; a figure to reappear when other worlds are looked at; or, more general, a figure to order real life belongings (e.g., those of a city) in such a way that they become the expression of a technical system. Ars and techne, art and technique belong together, and the art of making such a system consists in making it as functional as ever possible, and to do so as completely as ever possible.

In terms of a view of the world (also understood in a very literal sense), one can focus the whole venture outlined here. What had started with the Renaissance paintings of ideal spaces, e.g. those well-known and beautiful city prospects in the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino, namely to design an abstract space on the base of a so-called linear – that is, centralized – perspective depending on the individual view, as Panofsky says, now can get enlarged in its intentional scope: As in case of da Vinci’s city, it can become a blueprint for a real world, and not only for a world of imagination. Abstraction, Summers states in his Real Spaces, is not only the (passive) process of comprehension, of condensing something real existing into a concept, but also an (active) process of posing the condensed – the abstract plan, the blueprint of how the relevant things are ought to be – onto the real, as on a plane. A space is produced, not merely conceived. And it is an abstract space, a space of an intended consistency and (finally) homogeneity. Of course, one could say, the cathedral is an abstract space as well; which it is,

but – and here is the difference – not as a concrete space of living. One could stay in a cathedral, but not constantly live there. This is what the Renaissance paintings with their prospects of ideal cities first are imagining: abstract living spaces that could look like those depicted, virtual spaces of the concrete, so to say; and what Leonardo then proposes for a real world: how such a space really could look like.

Abstract space, Lefebvre says in his Production of Space, is not homogenous; it is made homogenous. It is a space as an imagined, ‘ideal’ one how a real space shall look like, it is not the real space of a real world in all its variety and ‘chaotic’ diversity. It is a true ideal space, in terms of conception, as well as an ideal to achieve: in reality, then, from Leonardo to later functional modern cities. It is a world as a system, centrally ordered, and it is the world of an essentially technical system; in case of Leonardo, not only due to the use of the linear perspective, but due to the will of creating a functional cosmos, a frame of life for a new human condition – as for instance expressed in his “water” city.

His ideal ’water’ city basically consists of a two-layered grid: The lower level is that of the infrastructure, a rectangular grid of mainly roofed canals and associated ways, the upper level is that where the city in its true sense is placed: the space of the streets, piazze and representational buildings making up, in their composition, a visible and inhabitable cityscape, a space where one can really live; opposed to that infrastructure below, the infra below the ground of where a real city life takes place. At every 180 meters, the grid of the street system above crosses that below, and probably, both these levels have been connected with spiral staircases and ramps at those intersections. But to establish a functional connection between these two levels (Leonardo surely had thought about that) of such a stratified world is not so important when compared with the other characteristic: it is a two-classed society which is expressed here. In Leonardo’s own words, the upper level, the one of a city in its true sense, is reserved for persons of higher social rank; and the lower level, that of infrastructure, belongs to “normal people” (Leonardo) and vehicles of transport. The modern idea of an infrastructure appears, of a structural network of functionalities lying below (infra) the visible surface – which is the one where ‘real’ city life takes place, compared to the other life in that city, that of services and their normal people. Social space, Lefebvre says, is “the space of social practice, the space of the social relations of production and of work and non-work”. Here, it becomes expressed very clearly. With all his ingenium, an engineer decided not only on canals and streets, but also on how to fix social terms; an early precursor of what later – then, in modernity – has been called social engineering: to achieve desired social relations as a system (like those of other functions) to be managed and controlled.   

Karlsruhe missing 

Tony Garnier, the Industrial City

Architecture, said Oscar Niemeyer, co-architect of Brazil’s modern capital city, should have the aim of improving society. Normally, he says, the architect works for the rich, for governments and enterprises; in the very same way as in former times he did for kings and dukes. He did, and he does so despite the fact that the poor are living under absurd conditions, in miserable spaces and compressed into favelas or comparable structures. Under these circumstances, architecture is nothing but an excuse. Instead, the architect is fulfilling its task only if he comprehends his profession as a political deed.

Basic Conditions

Finally, such an architecture must be concerned with cities. For an occidental self-understanding about a general human condition or conditio humana (to express it in classical terms), living in urban contexts makes up what McLuhan called us, namely to be cultural animals. Since Aristotle, the human being is a zoon politikon, a being that lives in the polis, the city. Although the basic conditions of city life have changed drastically since Aristotle’s times, urbanity and being human belong together. In particular today when, for the first time in human history, the major fraction of the world population does live in cities, and not on the countryside any longer: a situation that reveals its full acuteness when the favela is regarded. City life and being human seem to belong together, and it is not without reason that all the ideal spaces we are showing are the ideal spaces about cities, and not of idyllic landscapes, natural panoramas, beautiful parks or the like. 

Although right from its start, living in cities seemed to have been an ambivalent venture. On the one hand, it was a precondition for generating surpluses, growth and security; on the other, it was accompanied by the effects Niemeyer wants to change. It is reflected in old images embedded in our cultural memory, condensed into their respective mythical settings: Kain was the founder of the first city, and Gilgamesh – founder of the first city in Sumer, one homeland of the origins of civilization in the Old World – had a friend Enkidu, a being still bound to nature; but Enkidu died – the bonds to nature vanished. And Gilgamesh remained, bound to the city. As regards those images and the basic mythological figure underlying, also for the construction of ideal spaces we show here in our exhibition, city and culture seem to belong together, ever since. According to those images of our cultural memory, there is nature and culture; which became nature or culture, also as regards the nature of humans. The human nature is to live in culture, and not in nature; an image that will recur, as a topic, again and again in the ideal spaces we show, either overtly or hidden. So, is the city really an ideal space? According to recent findings, too, a ‘natural’ state of living might have been the better one. But this first paradise is lost, we are living as civilized beings, after Kain the latest. Civilization, epitomized in the classical works of Lewis Mumford (who was also a member of a committee for city planning), is equivalent to some kind of machine; and this machine is bound to cities, with all its positive and negative effects for a human condition.

This is the general background tale for all utopian attempts of creating ideal cities, as ideal spaces, also for the one to come, Tony Garnier’s ideal city. In his times of city life, the second half of a 19th century characterized by capitalist cities with smog, poverty, extensive urban growth, slums and mass production, to live in cities really became a problematic issue, except for some privileged people at the top of social hierarchy. In other words, the old mythic image recurred with all the impact of quite concrete belongings. As an investigator states, since 1850, an urban transformation of unprecedented scale took place, changing “both the prince’s capital and the merchant’s town of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into the modern metropolis.” 

The Cité industrielle, something completely new at its time in both architectural and conceptual terms, is the space for a socialist society. Recalling the old ideal of the polis, it is a state- or city-socialism that gets expressed here, but adapted to radically new conditions. Formulated by Zola whose novel Travail (Work) was one of Garnier’s guidelines, the realization of the socialist world order would be in collaboration with the arts, and referring to old images, mythically coining is his sentence about the achievements of such a collaboration: “The earth must become, through cultivation, like an immense garden, and labor, through its organization, a vast concert.” Nature and culture are united again in a genuine second paradise, for all humans willing. Before it has been left over to individual progresses of technologically perfected spaces for individual consumption, spaces to unfold during and after modernity, this could be an aim worth to be pursued. First and foremost when looking at its principal alternative, the capitalism-molded cities of those days; and when looking at the favela, not just of those days alone. 

Garnier was not only ‘modern’ in a way a modernist movement wants to have him, says Vidler. He also incorporated classical forms into his city, next to his innovations: A city of which Le Corbusier said that it was “an attempt to establish order, in conjunction of utilitarian and plastic solutions.” 

It was the search for a new, ordered unity the main protagonist of Travail, an engineer, had in mind when looking at the forges of the old city of production: to purify that sink, that ancient prison with its iniquities and cruelties, “finally to heal mankind from its age-old corruption.” To overcome the civilization machine as it went so far, in particular in its recent capitalist shape. And the engineer, etymologically the person with ingenium, mindful inventiveness, “would rebuild on that very spot the City of Truth, Justice and Happiness, whose white houses he already saw.” Besides its strong resemblance with the City of God, in Garnier’s plans, this new future city is placed next to the old one; which surely is more than just a matter of plain topography. The new city was a white purist utopia, Vidler resumes, a modern Acropolis. Even the old town was equally transformed, its general aspect “was that of an immense garden, where the houses had been naturally spaced amidst the verdure, from a need of fresh air and free life”, Zola denotes in his blueprint for a Cité industrielle. Private property does not exist, nor do prisons, police stations, or churches. All remnants of a dreadful past are eradicated, so that the new world can start to begin, in all its splendor and magnificence; a real ideal space for an ideal, since really liberated, human condition.

The new city itself appears as a kind of carefully planned artificial organism, each sphere of life being separated from the others and yet connected with each other, to achieve a consistent structuring of different functions; for instance, by the combination of housing areas with schools, or by the separation of different forms of transportation. As such an organism, the whole looked as if embodying a cosmos, and, at the same time, each part of the city was designed in such a way that it retained the potential for further growth; each part could develop independently from the others. It was a cosmos, although not a rigid one as the ideal space-cosmoses of Garnier’s forerunners still were (with the remarkable exception of da Vinci’s world), including all those Phalansteres and ideal production sites since Ledoux. The new ideal world, expressed in Garnier’s city, is still of an ordered coherent unity, in that sense still a cosmos: of an ideal space as home for real, i.e. really liberated human beings. But it is one that came to life, allowed to modify, and to develop. As in case of da Vinci, the idea of a modern system shines up, an order of functionally closed circuits; but which are flexible, also in spatial terms.  

What Garnier intends is a moral issue, finally (explicitly stated by him), and not primarily a mere architectural one: the creation of a new society by means of a new architecture. As one author said, it is a humanism modernized. In the old ideals of the Greek polis and the Renaissance, the human was the measure of all things; and this was revived again, but now adapted to the conditions of an industrialized society. It is the conception of a harmonious city, also adapted to the surrounding landscape, which has been conceptualized for human happiness, a city of reason inside which “every functional aspect is, at the same time, an expression of a humanist mind-set.” At least in social terms, it is the closed cosmos of a new, socialist human being. According to the motto of the Biennale 2016, to create an urban universe that is in accordance with the human (Delfante).

Garnier’s ideal space is that of a new society based on community, work, and respect, of a socialist society deserving the name. He puts the program of his city into one sentence, posed on the wall of its central building, the maison commune: the human law is to work; but also, the cult of the beautiful and mutual benevolence is sufficient to make life splendid. Land is in public property, alimentation and health care services are provided by the state, and prisons, police and courts of justice are not needed because there is no place for them, due to the peaceful and just societal conditions. In fact, it is a closed and harmonized social cosmos unfolding here, located in an ideal city for an ideal society. When living here, a Heavenly Jerusalem indeed becomes obsolete. Instead, it became a modern Acropolis without gods, wars, or social injustice. Anatole France, living in the same epoch as Garnier did, proposed to revitalize Antiquity for a modern world, in order to renew the latter. Despite all way-breaking modernity that is expressed in his city, says Ruth Eaton, it is the very combination of classical with social harmony which is present in all of his works.

It is a “new aesthetic for the society regenerated by labor”, and the close resemblance to Zola, Vidler states, already appears in the central location of the maison commune, the communal house. On the outer walls of which sentences from the novel had been placed, according to concept, to be visible for all the city’s inhabitants: For epochs of peace, one reads here, “rails are needed, rails and yet more rails, so that all frontiers might be passed over and so that all people united, might form a single people, on an earth entirely furrowed by routes“. These were the steel ships of the future, one reads, bringing richness and abundance to all; not the present steel ships of war, but those of solidarity and fraternity.

And there will be a big feast, in the rural surrounding outside the city but near to it. It is held in a vast field “where the high corn sheaves stood, like the symmetrical columns of a giant temple, the color of gold under the clear sun. The colonnade stretched to infinity, to the far horizon…”

There is a problem lurking, in the midst of such a peaceful, and final society in its cosmic closure. What it shall have to do with progress, that colonnade stretching to infinity? For a self-sustaining society, progress can become very dangerous. And this society is self-sustaining because it has everything it needs – seemingly. But: the routes earth has to be entirely furrowed with have not been those of fraternity in progress, but of networks for the use of individuals consuming in progress. So, what happened?    


What Tony Garnier tried, admirable as it is, never has been put into praxis. Even if it had been, the question remains if it would have worked; because one can either rely on progress via continuous production and on growth, or on a closed cosmos – which his world was, at least in its social terms. 

But perhaps this does not have to remain a contradiction. Perhaps we succeed in combining these contradictory forces of a closed cosmos vs. growth and progress, even more so since we have realized some devastating results of the latter – the point in history where Motopia enters the scene, at the beginning of the 1960s, according to its creator a point where humans have alienated from nature and now live in two worlds, a biological and a mechanical one after having succeeded to lift themselves, with the help of mathematical sciences, above their former animal state. At the same time, humans still remain to be animals, bound to their physical existence, as Jellicoe, the creator of Motopia, states. 

This generates conflicts and frictions, and it raises an old topic anew: what could be an ideal surrounding under these circumstances, in our terms, an ideal space suited to this new human condition? Motopia tries to answer this, as does the world to follow afterwards, Babel IID. We need some solutions because we have been overwhelmed by the forces of a technical civilization, as Jellicoe says. According to him, this holds particularly valid for the car, by its essence, a technical instrument that allows the human being to perform something very unnatural: namely to propel it at will to distances and at speeds that certainly have never been nature’s intention. All the historically grown cities had one thing in common: They were planned for pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles, and even the railways were confined within certain limits. The human being had time to adapt itself to that new instrument, the car, but not its surroundings. 

Contexts of Construction

What applies to the car applies to modern human surroundings in general. Man, says Jellicoe, today finds himself bewildered by circumstances which he alone has created, and by his own free will. For a pedestrian in its wider sense, a naturally moving human being, for the most time in human history, humans remained subsidiary to their natural environment. Feeling, rather than intellect, has created a deep faith in a world beyond the visual world, he says, expressed inter alias in the cathedrals. At the same time, the outlook towards nature was that of a conqueror. A symbol of this was the ordering and regimenting of nature into classical and geometric shape, as expressed, for instance, in the formal layouts of the Renaissance or in Baroque constructions.

As regards these ideas, there seems to exist a dichotomy deeply embedded in a Western culture: in its Greek terms, between physis and nomos, the naturally given and grown (also historically) and the human-made law, the geometries of order imposed. In his attempt to draw a human history of nature (as he calls it), Moscovici summarizes that type of world building as follows: the human creations come equivalent to the creation of a new nature, that of the constructed; at least in its occidental mode. Expressed in Christian terms of world understanding, it is about a myth of a second creation – performed by humans, not by God. 

The first major step that has been taken by Western civilization with regard to a modelling of human environments, and of city and country alike, says Jellicoe, was a separation of geometry and biology. Geometry, he says, was at the beginning of all: “In the beginning, and out of chaos, geometry preceded biology as a phenomenon of the universe.” According to him it was the relation between geometry and technique that liberated humans, also from natural bonds. This is the new condition, the new conditio humana applying to us, and referring to the old connection between art and technique, ars and techne; it is a context of the mechanical arts. 

From our very basic occidental understanding, technique itself is an activity adverse to nature, long before the advent of cars. According to Aristotle, technique is exactly what nature is not able to deliver. Mechanics originally meant mechane, a term used for all kinds of machines, first of warfare, then for means to tame natural forces (irrigation channels and the like) and, with building, the making of walls; with architecture, in other words. In Latin, ars as technique had to do with arms and the making of weaponry. Also embedded in our cultural memory is the idea of a machina mundi, a world machine. First, it was reserved for the world as such made by an act of divine creation (for Plato, and Christianity), then it was widened in its conception to encompass also nature, and to understand nature as a kind of a mechanical system, by abstracting it from its real belongings in all their variety and diversification. The concept of a machina mundi appeared in the epoch of the cathedral, with the upcoming of mechanical clocks. The basic idea was to conceive a world that is not only made but which follows certain laws, and that these laws are reasonable. Later on, such an approach to the real could be applied in a literally ‘mechanical’ way to natural phenomena of all kind, and then to the construction of worlds of own rank and being, also to the ‘ideal’ spaces presented here, in the cathedral’s shadow.

Motopia as Ideal Space 

The straight line and the circle, Jellicoe says, are the rudiments of all geometrical patterns of landscape. It was the combination applied to Motopia, a regular gridiron pattern consisting of lines and circles. For Motopia, planned for a total population of about 30.000 inhabitants, he adopted a gridiron plan because, in his opinion, it combined two advantages: First, it is the engineer’s simplest layout for a town, through history and even today. And second, its regular circular structures provide internal architectural courts that are in contrast to the open space of the rectangle, i.e. of Motopia’s overall structure. The internal court, he says, is the center of its neighborhood; it contains the essential shops, the public house, infant’s school, and so forth. Moreover, the quadrants of the rectangular grid provide additional individual spaces, shaped as naturally looking areas of greenery and water. They make up a contrast between individually shaped segments and an anonymous, abstract overall structure. Tall buildings are confined to the periphery of such a structure to ensure the impression of a continuous landscape. The horizontal structures, the lines of that grid, are at some parts standing on pillars, so that one could walk from one of these natural segments to the others. They are large enough to contain even “luxuriant indigenous forest trees”; some of them have lakes, and no landscape of a segment repeats another one. One can live in Motopia a full and happy life without a car, and in good weather, one can walk in any direction. 

This applies as well to the town center which is located at the periphery, at the entrance of Motopia, a single huge structure one mile in length. It has been located there because it also has to serve a surrounding population five times that of the town itself – as a “concrete” utopia, Motopia is located in the vicinity of London – and it was essential to keep this service traffic from using the roof roads of the horizontal structure (we will see). The center has roof parking areas and allows for outside approach by road, rail, and helicopter. Its principle of design is that of a linear shopping street, and it has to be seen as a Stoa, as its historical precursor, the Stoa of Attalos in the Agora of Athens; also the Stoa of Motopia is a center for meeting friends and for leisurely discussion, and it is the complementary to the individuality of the home.   

The latter one has been posed in the insides of the horizontal structures. There are the dwellings of the inhabitants (in addition to those in the circles), the social “cell, the home which must be individual to each family and which must have absolute privacy.” These basic social units, apartments varying in size and all modernly furnished, are provided for middle-income people. They often have balcony gardens resembling those of the hanging gardens in Babylon, Jellicoe says. And, seen from below, standing on the ground of one of these natural segments described above – according to Jellicoe, the preferred position that world should be looked at from – this gives an impression of the horizontal structure’s silhouette (the structure making up the grid) that “is unusual and rather tranquil and beautiful in the summer light”, he says. Traffic noise from the roof roads on top of these horizontal buildings is fenced off from the apartments by technical means, as well as is that coming from the mews roads below the roof roads. In their entirety, these horizontal buildings of Motopia shall lead to an intensive, and direct contact to nature via the balconies, small gardens in themselves, and them looking upon a designed ‘natural’ garden in the respective segments. 

The social idea of Motopia was a separation of mechanical and biological man, Jellicoe says. The only public transport is provided by water buses which travel on a canal system connecting the different lakes. Car traffic is confined to the level of the rooftops, those “roof roads” mentioned which are placed on the tops of the lines of the grid; and to the level beneath it where the cars can park. The latter is the mews road, a one-way street with specific parking space for one car per dwelling – the dwellings of the inhabitants are located inside the lines of the grid as well – and additional space for visitors. From the mews roads, large enough to allow also for delivery vans, ramps curl up to the transit streets of the roof roads which are located at the top of the horizontal buildings making up the grid in its total. In fact, the intended separation is achieved by placing car traffic on the top of that world, on its very roof, so that it does not disturb the world below which embodies an altera natura in a new dimension.

Babel IID

is a really utopian construction. From its overall appearance and style, it could be even placed out of this earth, on any planet anywhere. It originated in the 1960s, the same era when Motopia and other technical cities were designed. Essentially, it was dedicated to the same goals: to overcome human misery in the contemporaneous metropolitan areas. The very aim of future city construction, Babel’s creator Paolo Soleri says, must be to relieve man from such misery and constraints. In his constructions (of which Babel IID is only one), “the best hopes for contemporary man have been fulfilled and the urban medium has been cleared of slums and cleansed of ills and grievances.”

The recent urban contexts, he says, can be represented in a map – a map of despair, as he coins it. He quotes the catholic philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, a man coming from the domain of the cathedrals but concerned with evolution: Man can be understood only by ascending from physics, chemistry, biology, and geography. Man is, first of all, a cosmic problem. And in this respect, Soleri states, we cannot remain inside the frames and terms of understanding: that megalopolis and suburbia are the only tenets, because next to the concrete misery they generated, they are utopian by their inner contradictions and their detachment from life.  

He refers to Doxiadis’ vision of a world as a network and says: this is a frightening world map because the natural, although still existent, has been confined to holes in the mesh of cities, or, more precisely, of that mega-organism that formerly consisted of cities. Those holes are large but, nevertheless, they remain holes; such a world becomes nothing but a human backyard, he says. With a look at todays’ conditio humana, which is that, for the first time in history, more people are living in cities than on the countryside, this proved to be a prophetic saying. “The teeming human ants are everywhere, and everywhere are human ants. Nor will the holes be spared. They will not be pockets of farmland or wilderness. They will be dotted by sub-colonies and will be invaded weekly by waves of schizophrenic vacationers and seasonally flooded by a tide of discouraged suburbanites given to temporary nomadism.” Modularization and fragmentation will supersede any attempt to bring relief to such a world within its own terms of meaning, he continues, and with its own instruments and principles. “The Athens and the Florence of the Golden Ages will be stamped out in thousands of copies – ten thousand of them for a mass of one billion, one hundred thousand for a mass of ten billion, and so on.” It was a particular trait of a general human condition which, inter alias, was responsible for such a utopian concept in the bad sense, one that generated a ubiquitous loss of place, as well as for the present day situation of Soleri’s time: the erroneous assumption that humans were beings of the surface, of merely covering the earth. Now, we have flooded it.  

This is the point where Soleri’s concept settles upon. We have to reconfigure ourselves, he says, and to abandon such an assumption – also in quite concrete terms since, finally, it is about concrete belongings related to humans as concrete beings who have to live in concrete entities, namely cities. Until now, he says, man has generated a technosphere; but what would be needed for the future is a homosphere, a sphere of living really adapted to, and suited to, a human condition that is sustainable. And in these regards, miniaturization became the “conditio sine qua non for the development of the social, collective animal contained in the towns and cities of the world.” Therefore, the maxim must be “miniaturize or die”. Man has to concentrate in order not to vanish; as in case of the cathedral, to focus on one spot again, one relevant place or topos. In terms of Soleri, he has to miniaturize. 

This has to be reached by the general approach of arcology (the word a mixture of “architecture” and “ecology”), an ecological architecture that is, at the same time, multi-levelled and topographically concentrated. It is an architecture that builds one-structure systems (in his words), condensed and large but not sprawling over the earth’s surface, opposed to the constructs of a recent modern urbanity. The aim of his new architecture is to retain an unspoiled countryside and, therefore, to attain a maximum population density.

Soleri’s construction appears as a somewhat strange mixture between both these mythical spaces, a Babylonian tower and a Heavenly City. It will be a focal structure, in his words, the unmistakable expression of man the maker and man the creator. And it would be surrounded by nature, “an uncluttered and open landscape”. In symbolic terms and for a homo faber molding his own environments, it is a new Babylonian tower, and a new cathedral at the same time – secularized but mighty, reconciling nature with culture as well as reconciling the old contradiction between Babylon and the City of God. In a way, it resembles the idea of a machina mundi, a world machine. This is an idea which explicitly came up in the times of the cathedrals and which can be refined now. In the words of Soleri, his construction equals a large-dimensioned sheltering device that contains all the elements which make physical city life possible, by fractioning three-dimensional space into large and small subspaces, a construction which makes its own weather and its own cityscape – a technical second paradise posed in the midst of natural surroundings.

Interesting in all these utopian regards is the idea of dictatorship. In prolongation of the Platonic utopian tradition, he and other “influencers” of his days believed that it needs a dictatorship to save earth, because human beings would otherwise not be capable to do this. We see how the “classical” utopia works: as a perfect organization placed by (nearly) omnipotent minds. We see not only a Platonic and a Christian, monotheist tradition unite, but also a decisive judgement about human nature: man is not only an akosmeton genos, an a-cosmic being as the Greek tragedy writer Aischylos said [*]; but moreover, nature, and the world as such, has to be saved from him. Therefore Soleri’s concentration of spots populated by humans (his new Babylons) in the midst of an unspoiled nature.

Out of his manifold constructions (all in all, 30 cities or “arcologies” planned by him), we took the city of Babel IID as an example, destined for 550.000 inhabitants. Its focal elements are three towers surrounded with supporting structures. The central tower for example is nearly 2 kilometers high and, at the base, 3 kilometers in its overall diameter. The base contains industrial plants and central service facilities, but also parks and promenades at its outer rim. The central cone of the tower measures 1 kilometer in diameter and consists of housings and other facilities. Its construction is based on modules which can be varied, depending on different functional and spatial conditions. It is built up following the concept of an organism whose skin is a mosaic of thousands of minds, embodied in specific and different persons, as Soleri says. The homes of the inhabitants are open to both nature and culture. “The home is then positioned as connector between two environments, as participant to both – the outer a vast sweep of the land, the inner circumscribing the neighborhood.” 

The inhabitants may gaze at the landscape, at the natural surroundings outside their mighty cityscape. But according to his own words about a human condition this remains to be just a view, and nothing more; because the inhabitants are not a genuine part of nature. The connection between the two environments he intends is not a real one, in other words, nothing but a gaze at the outside, that other domain of the world which is not human. In symbolic terms, the Tower of Babel – or the new Cathedral – looks at its surroundings.    

It seems to embody an ultimate structure. In the original meaning of nature as physis, that what grows out of itself by own powers, the alternative to such a mighty world mountain would only be unregulated growth, disorder in wider sense, the chaos of the unplanned. This is represented, both as a reality and as a symbol, in our last world to come. Although even here, something other is beginning to emerge. We will see. 

The Favela

After all these ideal spaces, it is time to return to reality again. To do so, we have chosen the antipode of those spaces presented so far, their nearly absolute negation: the favela, a Portuguese word from the place where they first were named so, in Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of 20th century. According to recent estimates, nearly half of all city dwellers in the developing world, about 1 billion people, are living in squatter settlements, i.e. in slums, or favelas. Slums or ‘favelas’ are a distinguishing characteristic of today’s megacities, as a recent report concludes, and cities like Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, Manila or Hong Kong would be different places if slums were not part of their landscapes, it says. We have to compare scales to judge that phenomenon properly. A census of 2014 reported that more than 54% of the total world population lived in urban areas – for the first time in human history, more people live there than in the countryside, the reversal of a classical relation – and that by 2050, an overall increase of urban population by 66% is to be expected, worldwide. According to United Nations reports, more than 90% of this increase will take place in Asia and Africa.  All in all, the world’s urban population is expected to surpass 6 billion by the year 2045; that is, not in a distant future, or a medium-termed time range, but in historical terms right now, in the very next decades. In 2014, total urban population has been estimated to come close to 3.9 billion people. If it holds valid that an estimated 1 billion of these live in slums or ‘favelas’, it would mean that a quarter of the entire urban population today will live in these conditions; and that at least for one fourth of the urban population, this is the ‘normal’ conditio humana today – of a being that had been characterized to embody a cultural animal and, first of all, a zoon politikon, an animal that lives in city-conditions – and has to live there, in order to prosper; and not in those of recent slumming.

This re-issues the entire topic of an ideal space or, more precisely as concrete human conditions of dwelling are regarded, that of an ideal city. Are such constructs confined to the happy few, the privileged people – as for instance in the new ideal cities which are built as “smart” cities, i.e. technologically perfected spaces with full internet devices etc., an urban agriculture as a new form of reconciling the old dichotomy between nature and culture, and free plus healthy individuals expecting an old age? What about the rest of a worldwide urban population for whom the second nature has not become culture, but culture in the shape of an overcrowded civilization existing in marginal conditions? Does it make sense to speak of “ideal spaces” any longer, in the context of such conditions?

The topos of the favela has been addressed in Janice Perlman’s The Myth of Marginality, a first in-depth account of life in the favelas three decades ago, and violence, drugs and arms became outstanding problems during that period, next to the others already existing: poverty, lack of infrastructure, sanitary conditions and crowding. 

What is needed, so an investigator operating with favelas (J. M. Jáurequi), would be other spaces than those which are still predominant, namely spaces designed in a new way: as contemporary piazzas, surrounded by places of rendering, trade, manufacture, services and cultural events, functioning as “potential attractors on the border between formal and informal”, linked by public transportation and “including nature fragments capable of rebalancing the green mass-built mass relation.” The goal is to establish “urban scale shaded Agoras” to allow for producers and expositions of various kind, even for some kind of popular university, he says, “by forming innovation and production centers based on the characteristics of each social group.” 

Or, translated into the terms of the symbolic: We don’t have to start with the worst case imaginable to start with, at the first glance, namely with a slum, the apex of human deterioration as regards actual living conditions. In our presentation of worlds, we have chosen the slum as a stylistic figure as well, a symbol of a dystopian space full of “bad places”. Next to our other intention: namely to show, at the end of all spaces presented, one which really exists, and which is the epitome of an endangered human condition. The human being, although it is a zoon politikon and a cultural animal (to refer to earlier sayings about being genuinely ‘human’), has to live in such circumstances; 1 billion living in slums is not just a fact, it is a sign for a general human condition to be expected for a large fraction of a worldwide population. 

To draw a very general, rough sketch: due to the side effects they generated in the course of their unfolding, it were the myths of growth, progress and functionality, addressed in the foregoing, which led to such circumstances – in the final, when combined with capitalist circumstances (to abbreviate different historical processes). It were certain myths of order which generated their very opposite, in terms of a view of the world, and of actual relations. These myths stand for (a), the typically modern belief that a relevant world, i.e. the total of ‘made’ spaces where humans have to live, can be made: can be constructed, at least in its relevant parts; and (b), that such a world can be designed as a system of networks of functionalities, i.e. as a system which is essentially technical. It is a myth that became applied full-scaled to city space for the first time in the Renaissance, as we have seen. In other words, it is one which has a long-reaching mental anchorage in our ‘cultural’ memory, based on the belief that the world can be dominated, and that this is possible in literal technical terms. Or, as the anthropologist Levi-Strauss formulated it, it is equivalent to a magic ruse to ban the Being: through transforming it into a set of functions, a system of control. 

All this has to be doubted in the face of such developments.

But: What if we would be enabled to erect utopia, the eu-topos or “good place” by our own, without the dictatorship of predefined and pre-given orders? What would be if we really could decide by our own which places we want to live in – not as an internet escapism, but as a real physical space? What would be if we, in trying so, refrained from the myth of a second paradise? By not trying to achieve some final end state but one that is allowed to evolve, that remains flexible and vivid? Wouldn’t this be a great idea? 

Of course, this might sound naïve, and most probably it is. But, as Oscar Wilde said, already in a 19th century full of metropolises and their slums: A map without utopias is not worth to be drawn. Or, expressed in the words of a novelist from the 20th century, an “age of extremes”, as a historian had it: Who wants the world to remain as it is does not want the world to remain. 

Today, we have thought first that utopia is dead. Then we re-detected an idea of a counter-utopia,, the idea of a strictly individual paradise of relief and consumption, Schlaraffia. and that this new state of being, enhanced by a neoliberal capitalism and a boost of technical means, will annihilate the utopian necessity forever – a new mythos of consumption, and of liberation. Seen from the background of an ever-increasing urban population. According to an estimate, by 2050, 68% of the worldwide human population will live in urban agglomerations, and ⅔ of them in favela-like structures [19]. In other words, utopia turns into both a dystopian and probable scenario.  

We should look at this, instead of superficial reflections about ourselves through other superficial reflections. 

Ulrich Gehmann, Michael Johansson

Ref. [18] From Blumenberg, Hans (1996): Arbeit am Mythos: 363