Idea

Since early modernity, visual artists have been intensely interested in the
idea of the ideal city. Utopian-architectural designs and free artistic works
have thereby often entered into indissoluble alliance. This is as true of the
architectural fantasies of Bruno Taut and the German group ‘Die Gläserne
Kette’ as it is of the designs of the Russian Constructivists such as Tatlin,
Malevich, and El Lissitzky and continues as far to Constant’s “New Babylon”
project and the works of the Archigram Group in the 1960s.


In the last 25 years, however, this idea has no longer played a noteworthy
role in artistic discourse, although many artists deal with the thematic field of
space/house/city in their works. The general absence of utopian thinking in
the political and societal realm is manifested in the arts also in this respect.
Whereas the city as utopian design, as “housing” for a free and humane
society, occupied artists well into the 1970s, today it is the house, the
individual shell of existence, that serves as starting point and material for
many installations and sculptures. The list of artists who have addressed this
theme is meanwhile unsurveyable. It extends from Gordon Matta-Clark and
Dan Graham through Mario Merz, Rachel Whiteread, Pedro Cabrita Reis, and
Andrea Zittel to younger artists like Monika Sosnowska. Conspicuous thereby
is that current works hardly ever submit architecture to a fundamental
criticism with artistic means, which was still the case with Matta-Clark and Dan
Graham’s early works. Rather, artists create “archi-sculptures”, housings,
cells, caves – symbolic or real sites of retreat.


The idea of the Ideal City was always tied to the question of how the world
should best be set up. So thinking about the form of the ideal city often
developed in parallel with political-societal utopias. The conspicuous lack of
interest in the theme of the “Ideal City” is surely also based in the suspicion
of totalitarianism under which utopias in general meanwhile seem to stand.
This fundamental mistrust is quite justified in relation to the planning of ideal
cities. A totalitarian or at least clearly authoritarian aspect inheres in the great
majority of plannings.


Following geometrical regularities, usually planned in the form of orthogonal
grids, ideal cities were regarded as a sign and expression of human
rationality. The use of the grid for city layouts often found its continuation in
the individual buildings, whose façades and forms of construction vary similar
basic modules. The actual inhabitants of the cities were supposed to and
required to submit to the given grid. The one-dimensionality of the plannings
extended into everyday human life. Often the inventors of the new worlds
also determined a generally mandatory new dress code, a new language, or a
new calendar. Standardization, strict hierarchies, and social control often
characterize the ideas of ideal cities.


Only a few ideal cities were ever partially or completely built. In particular, the
ideal city plannings that were closely tied to societal utopias usually remained
unrealized – they may be called the invisible cities. Italo Calvino’s collection
of city portraits, published in 1972 under the title “Le città invisibili”, adds
poetic ideal cities from the spirit of imagination to the historical ones.


But in Europe, as well as in North and South America, there are a number of
visible cities whose shape is owed to the concept of the ideal city. Among
them are, above all, princely foundations like the Renaissance cities
Sabbioneta and Pienza in Italy, Zamość in Poland, and Baroque
city constructions like Potsdam and Vila Real de Santo Antonio in Portugal.
While in these cities the clear gridding of the city’s layout and the uniformity
of construction have in part survived to this day, the social potential of the
ideal city is more palpable in the settlements that arose from the spirit of
Utopian Socialism in the 19th century, for example Godin’s “Familistère” in
Guise in northern France and in workers’ settlements like Karlsruhe-
Dammerstock and Berlin’s Hufeisensiedlung, which developed as late heirs of
the idea in the 1920s, especially in Germany.


Today, the fascination exerted by the idea of the ideal city is primarily
aesthetic. But the strict grid and clear structuring are not exhausted in the
charm of the surface; the utopian spirit beneath it is palpable – including in
its ominousness. Especially today, when the discourse about form and
development of urban space is governed by actual political themes like
‘Shrinking Cities’, it seems necessary to review/give the concept of the Ideal
City a fresh glance.