Chapter 4: Trouble in Utopia
This chapter focusses on architecture and the search for Utopia. Hughes expresses the view that the drive of modernist culture was the belief that social transformation could be achieved through architecture and design. Throughout the chapter he examines many Utopian schemes, from architects such as Le Corbusier, many of which were never realised (e.g. Le Corbusier’s Voisin Plan for the redevelopment of part of Paris).
He examines the use of new building materials (steel, reinforced concrete and sheet glass) which enabled new and bold schemes to be developed, including the skyscraper. Also the move to dispense with ornamentation and create buildings with functional clarity and no superfluous details (developing into the International Style). He links this back to the Futurist movement.
He then looks at the success of the Bauhaus in Germany, particularly in relation to applied design and then at de Stijl, with the paintings of Piet Mondrian (who abstracted nature, with his grid forms rising out of orchard trees, sand dunes, and flat skies and seas).
Finally, Hughes looks at the failure of Brasilia, a new capital city build for the car but inhabited by people.
This was an interesting chapter. Whilst not primarily concerned with the visual arts it did raise a number of interesting issues for me, including that conundrum on whether art can change lives. The idea of an architectural Utopia also reminded me of Thamesmead Housing Estate (I once worked very close to this development) which was built in the sixties as an estate of the 21st century but with its bleakness, high level walkways and blind corners (which became idea spots for anti-social and criminal activities) is slowly being demolished and replaced with more traditional housing.
Hughes, R. (1991) The Shock of the New. London: Thames & Hudson.