Inventing an exemplary architecture: The function of utopia in architectural imagination

Nathaniel Coleman, University of Pennsylvania


Architects traditionally configured settings for social life. Today, most architects are alienated from this original responsibility. As a consequence, an articulated social dimension is missing from much contemporary work. Yet, not all architects abdicate their role. Such architects and their architecture are the central concern of this study. Utopia, as an imaginary similar to architectural projection, guides this exploration of architects who envision an exemplary architecture as a setting for social life. Such an architecture, like utopias, envisages wholes made up of interdependent parts. Interdependence of part and whole as constitutive of potential is a persistent theme of social and architectural imagination. Consideration of this theme includes close readings across disciplines, especially utopian texts, utopian studies, and architectural theories. Although exemplary architecture shares features across space and time, this study focuses on the part/whole theme during the two decades following World War II. It was during these years that the utopianism of modern architecture began to recede as ideas about social configuration came under suspicion—responses, in part, to the potential horrors of modernity revealed by the war. Nonetheless, some architects met these challenges with attempts to enrich and reform contemporary architecture. Among these attempts, Le Corbusier's La Tourette, Louis I. Kahn's Salk Institute, and Aldo van Eyck's Amsterdam Orphanage are examined (all were constructed between 1953–1965, each harbors a utopian dimension, and occupants and architects recognize them as exemplary). Like utopias, these buildings present ideas about alternative social conditions. Such visions so frequently have their roots in an exemplary past that conviction about what ought to be appears to require a past, even a mythical one, to discover its potential. In short, there can be no utopia, and no exemplary architecture, without a golden age to draw upon. Ultimately, utopia offers architects a way to re-collect their capacity to see the whole in the part and the part in the whole—a positive benefit for the theory and practice of architecture that could return architects to configuring social settings.

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Recommended Citation

Coleman, Nathaniel, "Inventing an exemplary architecture: The function of utopia in architectural imagination" (2000). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9989581.