BUT IS THE WRONG WORD UTOPIA?
Utopia is one of the most misunderstood words in the English language. A concept with inherent sociopolitical implications, its Greek etymology entails that there is no such place. Coined exactly 500 years ago in an eponymous publication by Thomas More, Utopia remains as elusive today as it was upon its inception. The original work outlines an island of immaculate citizenship; More’s story is a dream of Platonic dimensions. It is a mirror that reflects the idealistic teachings first laid out in The Republic. For where else would citizens transcend the blunders of materialism? Where else would the ultimate ideal rest within the political realm of public service? Where else would society compromise individual gain, to achieve a common good? Where else would an imaginary land provide an alternative program to the ‘status quo’? Where else could Utopians live?
Ever since 1516, Utopia has concurrently inspired images of new beginnings and fatal endings. Mountains of material reveal a fixated obsession with Utopia—film, text, drawings, paintings, photography, architecture, and even complete ideologies and political regimes aim to achieve both: dreams of an ideal society and mirages depicting a cataclysmic collective collapse. So like a chameleon, Utopia adapts its form and remains ceaselessly entangled in its own dialectic. Therefore, it is no coincidence that despite its clear etymological origin, Utopia has been boundlessly transformed by the words of Virilio and Foucault, of Baudrillard Houellebecq, Borges and Morrison. It warps and misshapen in the ministerial buildings of Orwell’s 1984; reaches ecstatic dimensions in the soma pills of Huxley’s Brave New World; recalibrates and re-computes familial bonds in Zamyatin’s We; hides in the room of Tarkovsky’s Stalker; comes to full architectural exposure in the Broadacres of Frank Lloyd Wright; and it disappears in its entirety on Malevich’s Black Square.
Half a millennium since its first utterance, Utopia has become ubiquitous: it is etched into the masonry of the highest tower and the strongest fortress. It is imbued within the ultimate beauty of the work of art, but also in the latent danger of ethnic cleansing, misery, and furnaces of war. For every bountiful citizenship, there is a part of Utopia with prisoners and slaves. For every group looking for freedom in Utopia, there is a group building a wall around it. The intrinsic potential of Utopia is also its menace, as its clear definition has not stopped the endless flood of interpretations from washing away hope and disillusion at the same time.
So what if, rather than imagining a newer, more concrete definition of the word Utopia, architectural knowledge could operate on the misreading of such a concept? Would it be utopian to challenge the definition of the word Utopia? What if, after all, Utopia is the wrong word?
Born as a utopian project, WASH wonders about the fleeting, effervescent, and nostalgic characteristics of a word that keeps challenging definition; a word that embodies the lure of the most fantastic visions of the collective imagination, whilst casting the omnisciently ominous shadow of terror and nightmares in times of uncertainty and cosmic threats.
WASH reevaluates the social, political, linguistic, and architectural imperatives of the word Utopia not only as the ideal and imaginary, but also as an operative project that oscillates from More’s solid gold toilets and concubine nakedness, to the narratives of communist hangars collapsing with the weight of time and neoliberal freedoms crushing workers mercilessly. The inaugural issue of WASH investigates the dialectical conflicts of the word Utopia in its quincentennial anniversary. It presents—through fictions and realities, through narratives, manifestoes, and interviews—Utopia as a word in evolution. A word free for (mis)interpretation. WASH acknowledges that Architecture operates not in absolute definitions, but on the morphing properties of ideas (in victory and defeat), in inventive allure and pessimistic observations.
Rather than focusing on concrete evidence, WASH is interested in the hyperbolic and the sublime—the literal quotations and particularly the misreading of Utopia. WASH gathers words and pictures of utopian assemblages and collages. It presents simultaneously Utopia as critique, and critiques of Utopia through both fictional narratives and site specific interventions. WASH rediscovers the topographies of Utopia through contradictory positions and dialectical confrontations. It presents Utopia in the ideal scenario but also in the unremarkable banality of everyday life. WASH presents Utopia as a battleground where positions gain momentum, while their contradictions lurk, stalk, and counter-attack.
WASH asks if Utopia is the wrong word to describe Bas Princen’s depictions of the edge of a city, in which the end of urban expansion meets the contraction of nature. It wonders if Utopia is the wrong word to describe the decayed Soviet monuments on Simona Rota’s Ostalgia series, with their flaky layers of paint over solemn and muscular forms.
WASH questions if Utopia can describe the catalogs of Ikea with its always smiling ‘Aryanesque’ cisgender couples, or if Utopia is the wrong word to explain the act of ideological confrontation as orchestrated by Andres Jaque in his series Ikea Disobedients.
WASH ventures in the dialectical fringe between opposites, as images depict fictions and fictions are assembled in the language of reality. WASH questions if Utopia is the wrong term to identify the fantastic constructions of Filip Dujardin, with their impossible cantilevers and sublime compositions. It wonders if the appeal of its Fictions lies in its dramatic detachment from reality, or in the fact that even the most unusual architectural form remains a plausibility in a world sculpted by ideas.
WASH contemplates if Utopia is the wrong word to describe architecture as interspecies diplomacy in WORKac collaboration with Ant Farm for their floating 3.C. City. It ponders if Utopia can describe the ambition of an artifact, whether in the form of a symbol hung from a Helicopter over a sacred mountain in South Africa, as in Wolff Architects’ Halo, or as LAMAS’ Underberg narrative of a benevolent iceberg that glides through New York City to be hung up as a floating poly-programmatic architectural device.
WASH reflects on the viscosity and flexibility of the word Utopia and inquires if it can be expanded to include the radical indifference, and the lack of functional ambition in vanity projects, as narrated in Fala Atelier’s design for a tower ‘that we don’t need’. It speculates if it can account for the irony of failure in the house-monument for aspiring-stars-cum-servants in Andreas Angelidakis’ Hand House, in Los Angeles. WASH explores if Utopia is the wrong word to describe a humorous tribute to the crushed dreams of “young men and women that arrive with stars in their eyes, only to end up serving coffee in Starbucks.”
WASH mingles positions and oppositions, as Utopia is juxtaposed and challenged by practitioners, writers and thinkers. WASH wonders if Utopia is the wrong word to explain the ambitions of drawings, mixed media, the conceptual mission of collages and the deconstructive effects of rhetorical sharp shooting. It questions if this word can describe systematic critique and storytelling as acts of subversion; if Utopia would be the wrong word to define how WAI Think Tank aims to construct utopian scenarios as a means to undermine the definition of the word utopia. It explores if Utopia is the appropriate concept to describe the contents of a ‘Wunderkammer’ filled by Perry Kulper with unconventional twists, fast twitches, operative drawings, and bird houses.
It examines whether Utopia is the wrong word to glimpse the subtle contradictions and implications of architecture in the metropolitan edifice, as Marshall Brown’s Chimeras reveal dynamically changing landscapes, showcasing vibrant, yet at times, hauntingly estranged populace combing the strange axialities of collaged cityscapes.
Can collage carry utopia if collage is not Utopia? Is the poet Utopian in his quest to assemble the world into rhetorical structures? Is Utopia really the wrong word when discussing film and architecture, or as Aaron Betsky points out, is Utopia just wrong? Is Utopia a word for forms of reality, or is the concept a description of a medium? Is critique what is meant when Utopia is mentioned? And if so, do we need critique now or do we need to redefine Utopia?
Like astrophysicists studying Black Holes, WASH observes the lure of Utopia not through its contents, but in the behavior of events, objects, and imaginaries that orbit its gravitational pull.
WASH contemplates the legacy of the word Utopia five centuries from its ‘invention’. Amidst uncertain times, WASH looks at how desire, ambition, contemplation, belief and skepticism motivate words, images, and ideas. Wash makes us wonder if Utopia is the wrong word, or is the wrong word Utopia?