Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Ideal city Invisible cities


Colin Hardley, Folly for a forgotten future, 2006.

In 2006 the exhibition Ideal city/Invisible cities touched the issue of the ideal city, through the realization of site specific works, in Zamość, Poland and Potsdam, Germany, both cities that were the results of ideal city planning. The text below is the concept of that exhibition. The artists involved were:
Tarek Al-Ghoussein, Francis Alÿs, Carl Andre, Archigram, Colin Ardley, Tim Ayres, Mirosław Bałka, Daniela Brahm, Pedro Cabrita Reis, Rui Calçada Bastos, Brian O’Connell, Constant, Jonas Dahlberg, Tacita Dean, Jarosław Fliciński, Carlos Garaicoa, Dan Graham, George Hadjimichalis, Rula Halawani, Franka Hörnschemeyer, Craigie Horsfield, Katarzyna Józefowicz, Jakob Kolding, Ola Kolehmainen, Lucas Lenglet, Sol LeWitt, Teresa Murak, David Maljković, Gerold Miller, Matthias Müller, Daniel Roth, Albrecht Schäfer, Kai Schiemenz, Les Schliesser, Melanie Smith, Monika Sosnowska, David Tremlett, Anton Vidokle, Lawrence Weiner, Krzysztof Zieliński, Tilman Wendland.


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.

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