Grey Room

Notes on Utopia, the City, and Architecture

Antoine Picon


The shortcomings of modern architecture and urbanism, such as their disregard for the practicalities of everyday life, are still commonly blamed on their supposedly “utopian” dimension. This narrative, whereby modernist planners and architects were blinded by a drive for unrealistic, superhuman perfection, takes for granted that there has always been a relationship between utopian thought and urban planning and architecture as we know them today. After all, we are told, buildings and cities figure prominently in the writings of all manner of utopian thinkers since Thomas More.

But if the relation of architecture and utopia has been a mutually interested one, this mutual interest is far from simple or straightforward. In this text, in order to unfold a far more complex relationship between utopia and the built environment than has generally been assumed, I question how urban and architectural projects were marshaled by utopian thinkers.1 In this light, urban planning and architecture appear not as concrete objectives but as crucial mediations that enabled the utopian message to gain momentum. Conversely, the very idea of calling any architecture “utopian” begins to be problematized when we reconsider the link between the legacy of nineteenth-century utopian thought and the projects of twentieth- century modernist urbanism and architecture. In the case of Le Corbusier and others, where “visionary” might be a more appropriate qualifier, we may no longer be able to call any architecture “utopian” at all.