Under the premise that architecture makes life ‘better’, architecture is often presented as the ‘solution’ to social problems, made ‘green’ when promising sustainable futures, or fetishised as a cultural object for the creation of urban identities. Yet what is it exactly that links architecture so closely to the pursuit of a good life? How does this link come to effect in this ‘constant state of crisis’? In what ways do world views and belief systems influence architecture’s capacity to deal with crises? To what extent, however, is the discipline itself marked by crisis? To answer these questions, this thesis explores the conceptual commonalities of utopianism (meaning the pursuit of a good life), crisis, and architecture from a philosophical perspective. This not only gives insight into the strong interdependency of conceptual worlds with material reality, but also reveals the extent to which assumptions underpinning these concepts are multifarious, complex, power-ridden, and thoroughly contested. As such, they lead to varying presumptions and expectations about architecture’s responsibilities in times of crisis.
While the pursuit of a good life is intrinsically human, several intellectual shifts at the end of the 20th century have led to great scepticism as to the possibility of a transformation of social reality in a positive direction. Within architecture, this has led to a retreat from social responsibilities and to a structural decline in imaginative capacity – even in a discipline which has made this its key trait. As a result, utopia(nism) as a mode of conceptual thinking has been pushed to the side, while utopia remains a synonym for the fixed contours of the ideal city. As such, it is linked to totality, finality, and perfect-ability. To this day, the fact that it is dismissed and mistrusted rests on precisely these assumptions and as such on a limited understanding of what utopia(nism) might be about.
This is not only surprising given the substantial ways in which architecture is linked to utopianism. Today, in fact, contemporary architecture is met with high expectations that it has the ability to provide a good life, if not a better future, for cities and their inhabitants – indicating a heightened degree of ideological power play. The analysis thereby points to one of the discipline’s central contradictions: rejecting utopianism as a critical mode of thinking, while embracing the creation of materialised utopian fantasies. Whether in the form of Degenerate Utopias (time-spaces of superficial happiness and the disavowal of crisis), Junkspace (time-spaces of omni-crisis, devoid of utopianism), or Techno-Utopias (time-spaces in which solution-oriented thinking comes to a head, rendering architecture as a ‘solution’ to a specific crisis); such power-induced forms of architecture propel the idea that in fact nothing needs to change to tackle the crisis – all that is needed is the right design (1).
As a result, imagination within architecture is limited to the creation of objects and the manipulation of form. Space is therefore abstracted and reduced to its physical aspects, whereas relational understandings of time and space – which would inherently politicise architecture – are removed and architecture decontextualised. This not only leads to narrow understandings of the concepts that shape society but decidedly influences architecture’s development as a problem-solving discipline and a powerful tool for capital accumulation.
Eager to rethink how architecture is being taught, thought of, and (re)produced, this thesis not only gives insight into the limits of a discipline focused on problem-solving rather than spatial question-raising, but also analyses pathways for alternative understandings of architecture. In exploring the transformative potential of radically rethinking architecture’s focal concepts (such as utopianism, crisis, space, and time), it introduces a method of utopian speculation for theory-led spatial practices ambitious of social change: an embodied utopianism of care which combines utopian speculation (as method) with the concept of care (as content). Based on processual and non-idealised accounts of utopianism, and care as a multidimensional analytical as well as normative concept, this method explores how imaginative thought could overcome the discipline’s dualist, determinist, and positivist ways of thinking. As a method which conceptualises the imaginary as performed, this method is desirous of social change through bodily utopian practices; and not in the long-distant future but starting today.
This thesis thereby explores new ways of conceptualising utopianism, crisis, and architecture. Most importantly, it stresses that architecture as the socio-political, spatial, and projective project at once contains an inherent utopian dimension and as such offers huge potential for the transformation of material realities. Given increasing alienation and unsettlement in today’s societies, caused by a growing interference and control of social space-times, these reflections therefore appear crucial for more meaningful and convivial ways of life. While largely theoretical, the author asserts that an in-depth examination would nevertheless have a lot to offer, not only for the discipline itself, but for the very people who would experience architecture – and ultimately live ‘the good life’.
(1) Crijns, Carolina. Architecture in Times of Multiple Crises: Embodied Utopianisms of Care and Radical Spatial Practice. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2023.