What has become of the eco-city

 

This poster was made for a talk that I did last week. The image I chose for it shows a new town centre which is being constructed in Gwanggyo, a municipality to the south of Seoul. The ‘vertical green spaces’ of its ‘termite-like’ buildings are designed to improve natural ventilation and reduce energy and water consumption. You can find out more about the development here if you like.  But I want to think about the image itself.

First of all, of course, we cannot actually see Gwanggyo town centre above – this is an architect’s representation of Gwanggyo town centre. As such, it has a strange status: simultaneously descriptive of an imaginary future, and yet highly constrained by the complexities of the here-and-now. One foot in the world of dreams; one in the real world.

At the very edge of this representation, the ‘real city’ makes an interesting appearance. Its jumbled messiness contrasts starkly with the bounded spatial order of the new imaginary city.  If the old city beyond the boundary evokes the unpredictability of social processes, the new city is static: a fixed ‘plan’ which will guide particular actions. It conjures up a space necessarily stripped of temporality.

Should we therefore understand it as utopian? I’m not so sure. Confusingly, utopianism seems to have become a term of abuse, aligned with escapism at best, and disastrous irresponsibility at worst; those in pursuit of utopia – including believers in the ‘free market’ – seem quickest to make such accusations. But could it be, as Ernst Bloch (1986)* argued, that all of our daydreams and aspirations are essentially utopian?  That our dreams and hopes allow us to negotiate the future even if they don’t actually describe it? Utopianism is not, in this sense, politically problematic (or problematically apolitical), so much as generatively ‘pre-political’.  It gives rise to the political contestation out of which plans are made, and “reaches its end as soon as it becomes institutionalised” (Ganjavie, 2013:6).

The architect’s drawing, then, is no longer fully utopian, nor yet ‘applied’ in the real world. It marks the representational outcome of a pragmatic process of negotiation between different pre-political visions and the materially entangled social processes of the real world. The accusation of utopianism would mark a failure to understand that:

The utopic is not a normative prescription, blueprint, or master plan, but rather a productive force

(Gunder & Hillier, 2007:477).

I rather think we need plans in the world. Plans take the form of representations, and I’m unconvinced that non-representational thinking can itself give us a framework for action. Representations are shaped by utopianism, but are not themselves utopian. And utopianism is alive and well; it seems to be part of the human condition, and infuses our everyday individual and collective lives just as much as it ever has done in the past.

13 May 2014, London

 

References

Bloch, E. (1986). The Principle of Hope. Oxford: Blackwell.

Ganjavie, A. (2013). On the future of urban design: Fabricating the future through Bloch’s utopians. Planning Theory:1473095213513256.

Gunder, M. & Hillier, J. (2007). Planning as urban therapeutic. Environment and Planning A, 39(2):467 – 486.

 

Notes

Image used on poster with permission of MVRDV architects (Holland).

* I really should get round to reading this one day, but its three-volumedness acts a deterrent.

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