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The Forbidden Fruit – A Utopian City 0

From Lilliput to Damien Hirst 

Anna Iltnere

If you were given the opportunity to build a city, what would it be like? Most likely, it would be better than any other. The vision of an ideal city always embodies a society made up of happy inhabitants. Sometimes this is done through excellent urban planning, sometimes through worshipping the Moon gods – as did the Sumerians, the founders of the first cities. It is precisely this chain of causative events, with the objectives of happiness, peace and welfare, that has for millennia encouraged rulers, philosophers, architects and artists to dream up their versions of utopia – both extravagant and modest. According to Solvita Krese, head of the Latvian Contemporary Art Centre and curator of the Survival Kit art festival, a utopian Riga would be a city with a contemporary art museum and a concert hall. The two buildings that we are still missing. This year's Survival Kit will take place September 4-27, in Riga spaces that are otherwise empty and unused – in the former textile factory Boļševička at Ganību dambis 30, and in Vāgnera zāle (Wagner Hall), in Riga's Old Town. The theme of this year's festival is “The Utopian City”, a subject that will be examined by more than 50 artists. The international symposium, “Urban Utopia: Art and Culture As a Tool For Creating Awareness and Aiding the Study of a City”, will be held during the festival, from September 12 to14. 

Contemplation on the presence of a utopia is especially well-founded when a person has been given the power to build a completely new city from scratch. In this regard, the eyes of many are currently focused on Damien Hirst, the world's highest-earning living artist. Some of these eyes widened in interest while others rolled, and still others were shut in an attempt at blocking out the news – namely, that Hirst has been given permission to build his own city, Hirstville, which he had already planned out two years before. 750 residential homes, a school, shops, office buildings and a health center will rise out of the ground on the outskirts of Ilfracombe, a city on the southern coast of Devonshire. Hirst describes his architectural undertaking as “homes in which I would like to live in myself”, thereby revealing his disgust towards uniform and anonymous architecture. One critic has already managed to throw a barb by publicly calling the Hirst's vision a “Harry Potter village”.

Verity by Damien Hirst

It is clear that this ambitious British artist would not be satiated by just tinkering with the recently-released LEGO series for architects. In following Hirst's resounding steps down the catwalk of the world art scene (with individual outfits of his crossing into the realm of tenable tastelessness), both admirers and haters watch with titillating anticipation – what will he do next? What will his next move be? Although one could heretically imagine a future headline proclaiming – “And on the Seventh Day, He Rested” – creative characters diving into the business of real estate is nothing new nor condemnable. Especially if one owns a restaurant, almost half of the land in Beachcomber, and has a huge studio and gallery currently under construction. And, has erected a “dangerous monstrosity” (according to The Guardian), i.e, the sculpture “Verity”, which welcomes every ship entering Ilfracombe's harbor. The building of a whole city seems a quite logical next step, even if altogether pretentious. British art critic Jonathan Jones' 2012 description of Hirst as a “delusional dictator” comes to mind... 

Nevertheless, there are suspicions that Hirst is sanguinely hoping to build his own utopia, something that has been defined as an inescapable failure since the days of Thomas More – as soon as it is brought to life, it threatens to turn into a dystopian nightmare. Moore – a Renaissance humanist, British philosopher and statesman – is the father of the term “Utopia”, which he used to describe an ideal society on a far-off island in his 1516 book. From the Greek, “utopia” translates as “no-place”; the English homophone eutopia means “good place”. It is now taken to describe an ideal city that doesn't exist, despite efforts to the contrary. 


The utopian Broadacre City was a place that the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright dreamed about until his dying breath, but due to a lack of finances and support, was never realized. He came up with the idea in 1928, and was obsessed with it for the next 31 years. The blueprint for the utopian city was so extravagant (it was based not on the scale of a person, but rather upon the scale of a person in a car; Wright also believed that everyone should have their own helicopter) that it was broadly criticized by his peers, who were instead forecasting problems of overpopulation – an issue for which this sort of a model was nonsensical. Nevertheless, behind Wright's impulses was a yearning for bucolic, wide-open spaces and a loathing of crowded city living. It is not for nothing that Wright gave his 1932-published pamphlet the title of “Disappearing City”; in it he stressed that people need “more light, more freedom of movement, and more general spatial freedom”.

Plan Voison by Le Corbusier


A completely antipodal vision, and one which happened to be the reason for Wright's angry projection of his own ideas, was set forth by Le Corbusier, the French/Swiss architect and pioneer of modernism. Le Corbusier was convinced that architecture must be as simple and effective as possible, just like a machine. He modeled two cities on the wings of this sentiment: Ville Radieuse and Ville Contemporaine. Both would have towering skyscrapers that would house millions of people, both rich and poor alike. Parks and green zones would serve as borders delineating the city into divisions for recreation, work, and so forth. Although Le Corbusier continued to employ his stalwart views in his real architectural projects, neither of the utopian cities was built. Also worth mentioning is Le Corbusier's Plan Voison, which he presented in 1925 – it called for bulldozing the center part of Paris lying on the northern bank of the Seine, to make room for the 60-story buildings that he had already drafted in his plan for Ville Contemporaine, “The Contemporary City”.

New Babylon by Constant Nieuwenhuys


Le Corbusier's idea's were railed against by the situationist movement – which held as their highest objective the search for alternative life experiences, or “situations”. The movement's beginnings can be found at the start of the 1950s, with a group of artists and intellectuals that were fans of the French radical publication Internationale lettrist, as well as with the group “International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus”. At the core of the latter was Asger Jorn and other crossovers from the art group COBRA (an acronym formed from the cities in which they worked: Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam). Both of these groups were united in their interest in urbanism as an ideology. In their early manifestos, the lettrists Guy Debord, Ivan Chtcheglov and Gil Wolman speak of the “psychogeographic research method”. As Kaspars Vanags once wrote about the situationists in the magazine Studija, this method consisted of walking around without a definite route or goal in mind, either alone or in a group, in order to “study the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals”. 

“They use special psychogeographical maps. On them they mark observations on the psychological affinity between distantly separated neighborhoods, and they draw in borders in places where unexpected opposing moods instigate a feeling of splitting personalities. By following the indicated markings, the city's neighborhoods are shifted here and there just like geographical continents in the theory describing Earth's ancient, single global land mass, which then separated into several drifting continents. Just as useful in these travels could be absolutely any other map, and friends that had wandered around the Harz region of Germany with the aid of a map of London were praised with the words: 'Life can never be too disorienting'.” The situationists admired the Gypsies for not becoming attached to one specific place, and when local governments would brake the ancient tradition of letting wayfarers stay on public lands, the situationists would let the Gypsies set up their camps on land owned by their members. Crazy King Ludwig of Bavaria was called a pioneer of psychogeography because his fairy tale castles in Neuschwanstein, Linderhof and Herrenchiemesee ignored the conditions set by a practical mind. In an open letter to The Times, the situationists stated their support of saving London's old Chinese quarter; they were also extremely fond of nighttime walks through abandoned factories or slums which, unlike the deliberateness of functional architecture, provided them with the unknown. 

In 1998 Simon Sadler, an American professor of Architectural and Urban History, published the book “Situationist City”; by examining the situationists' manifestos, tracts and artworks, Sadler attempts to arrange into chapters their vision of the ideal city. One of the embodiments of a situationist city is New Babylon, a utopian, anti-capitalist city planned out and constructed into a scale model by the architect and artist Constant Nieuwenhuys, who worked on it from 1959 to 1974. In contrast to the trend of organizing urban life into functional zones, in New Babylon everybody would be able to eat, sleep, play and work wherever they wished. Nieuwenhuys' dream came to an end in 1974, when he exhibited all of his sketches and models at the Municipal Museum of The Hague; he did this so that afterwards he could sell the whole thing to the museum – he had simply run out of space at home.



In 1856, an ambitious community of vegetarians in Kansas faced the failure of their highly-hoped-for Octagon, a town inhabited only by vegetarians. Interest in the venture was so weak that in order to ensure a large enough population, they had to allow meat-eaters in... Since an octagon is an eight-sided figure, they used this shape in planning the city's layout, even building their houses in the shape of an octagon. 16 families moved to Octagon, but eventually, the drying out of the stream and the onslaught of mosquitoes and disease proved to be too much. Today the only testaments to Octagon's existence are some strange-looking old houses.



One can still see today the remnants of Fordlandia, a North-American city transplanted to the jungles of Brazil. In 1928, the successful automobile magnate Henry Ford came up with the truly utopian idea of building a real American city – with American workers and their families living their accustomed, American way-of-life – on the edge of a rubber tree plantation in the Amazonian rain forest. There were two main reasons for Fordlandia's failure. The first was that having a working day last from 9 to 5 was unbearable in such a climate – the locals had a much more logical tradition of working only in the mornings and evenings. As a result, the American workers revolted, symbolically breaking the factory's time clock. The second reason was a lack of knowledge about growing rubber trees. Having planted them much too close to one another, the whole plantation failed, and the Americans abandoned Fordlandia like rats fleeing from a sinking ship.



In 1952, Mel Johnson presented prospective investors with his wonderful idea of building a city entirely founded on alcohol. Every street would be named after a type of liquor – such as Gin Avenue, Bourbon Boulevard or Scotch Street – and the city would have its own currency: instead of dollars, there would be “BoozeBucks”. “The peace” would be kept by the Party Police – they wouldn't arrest anybody, but would just give the over-imbibers some aspirin and make sure that they got home safely. “A resort centered entirely on the culture of alcohol,” is how Johnson fervently tried to shill his idea to investors. Bars, clubs and liquor stores would be open 24 hours, and children, of course, wouldn't be allowed to enter the city. Parents would be able to leave them in a special camp right outside the city lines. Mel Johnson's utopian idea never garnered any support, and soon enough the dream of “Sin City” had pretty much been embodied by Las Vegas. It stands to mention that the above are only a few of history's utopian cities, for there are many more – some actually brought to life, but most just dreamed about. 


“Up till now I had thought that utopian, completely planned-out cities were, happily, a thing of the past. But in Europe, it is now in fashion to revive ideas that historically never panned out,” is how Krišs Salmanis, a Latvian artist, replies to my request to dream-up his own vision of a utopian city. “I wish that Riga could become my ideal city,” he adds, basically in complete agreement with the concept of the upcoming Survival Kit 6

After several days of thinking it over, the Estonian artist Marko Mäetamm writes to me that he probably wouldn't even want to build a city. “There are a lot of great towns in the world already, and I believe that the best ones are those that, for some practical reason, make people want to stop and stay, and start their lives there. I would probably do something else with the money that would otherwise go towards building a new city.” 

Although both artists evaded my question, the birthing of utopias, and contemporary art, have much in common. Two years ago, Hatje Cantz publishers came out with a book named just that – “Utopia & Contemporary Art”. This compilation of essays mentions the ARKEN museum in Copenhagen and its “Utopia Project” – exhibitions on the theme of utopia, held from 2008-2011. In this case, “Utopia” was a metaphor for “a future museum for a better life”. For every year of the program's existence, an artist was invited to create a large-format installation in twelve-month's time; the work was to fill the 150-meter-long space in the museum called “The Art Axis”.

Din blinde passager by Olafur Eliasson

The project came to an end in 2010, with the Danish/Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson – a grand master of utopian situations even if one just recalls the fabricated sun that he conjured-up in the Tate Museum's Turbine Hall. In “The Art Axis”, Eliasson constructed a 96-meter-long tunnel of mist, “Din blinde passager” / “The Blind Passenger”, in which the visibility was just half a meter, and the foggy mist was illuminated with a rainbow of colors. Whatever utopias humanity may yearn for, forecasting the future is done rather blindly. We can only feel the way forward with an outstretched hand. On a side note, Eliasson has just opened a new exhibition, RIVERBED, at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, just outside of Copenhagen. It is an impressive installation – having brought nature – basically a river – Into the museum's West Wing, it turns on its heads the relationships between the museum's inside and outside, and between nature and culture.

In the introduction of the book “Utopia and Contemporary Art”, the essay's author, Richard Noble, states that utopian artworks are characterized by two trains of thought: firstly, the vision of a place that is better than the one we are currently living in; and secondly, the feeling that the dark is “breathing down the back of your neck”, or in other words, the objections and constraints that drive us to pull ourselves out of the current situation and head toward something brighter. Among the many utopian artists of the current day, Noble cites two – Antony Gormley and Ilya Kabakov – as the most utopian of all. 

At the beginning of the summer, the Grand Palais in Paris presented the latest project from the “Monumenta” series of commissions – “Strange City”, by the Russian-born artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. Under the vaulted glass and steel, a city had been constructed out of white Styrofoam, with the way being shown by a huge, sounding cupola – a gigantic, spherical dish under slightly, but constantly, changing lighting, and which emanated uninterrupted, almost celebratory music. In the city itself, one could visit the Center of Cosmic Energy, observe a person meet with an angel, and look at the always-open gateway between life and death.

At the beginning of the summer, the Grand Palais in Paris presented the latest project from the “Monumenta” series of commissions – “Strange City”, by the Russian-born artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

“We cannot create a real utopia, that is obvious, but we can continue dreaming about it and attempt to create it in art,” said Emilia Kabakova in an an interview with before the opening of “Strange City”. Initially, the name of the work was “Utopian City”, but the word “Utopia”, as the Kabakovs see it, was overused during the break-up of the Soviet Union (a “utopian” world power itself), a time during which there was a euphoria of imagined freedom and a better life for everybody – but this “new utopia” also never came to be. “To talk about a “utopian” city right now is even more “utopian”; it's even stranger than before,” said Kabakova. 

Indeed – a dream and dreaming are at the sweet core of utopia, which rots away as soon as the utopian world is realized. If one compares utopia to the apple of Paradise, the Forbidden fruit, – which cannot be bitten into if you want to stay within the gates of Paradise – then it can be said that art is the one field in which no one will be outcast for biting into the “utopian apple”. It is not for nothing that a whole slew of utopian societies inhabit the pages of novels. Yes, even Damien Hirst is an artist, but his wonderland is about to become reality, and no longer just art.

One year ago, the Hermitage held the exhibition “Utopia and Reality. El Lissitzky, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov”. This assemblage of three artists – the Russian avant-gardist and conceptualist El Lissitzky and the Kabakov pair – in one exhibition project was a step towards revealing the soviet utopia phenomenon in all its dramatic and contradictory whole, from the revolutionary era to “socialism with a human face”. “Utopia and Reality” is a project that clearly illuminated the main idea behind Kabakov's works, especially those of the last 20 years – to represent no more, and no less, than all of soviet civilization as a whole. Because according to Boris Groys, Moscow's theoretician of romantic conceptualism, the only civilization that disappeared not way back in history, but in our time, was the soviet civilization. In 2012, the Kabakovs presented the following museum project in Moscow – a peculiar memorial to soviet civilization in the form of a gigantic, labyrinth-like bomb shelter with many sections – like a huge, communal apartment flat. Perhaps that is what a utopian city would actually look like? 


“During the Cold War, Sweden was one of the most militarized countries in the world. Somewhere around one thousand underground caverns/bunkers were built. The government authorities were supposed to move out of the capital and go underground, in the forest-covered mountains in the countryside,” is what the Swedish graphic designers RITATOR wrote to me via FaceBook; some of their clients have been Swedish governmental agencies (including the country's central bank), museums, theaters, an art university, and businesses such as IKEA. Aware of what flights of fancy RITATOR's ideas can be, as well as the fact that their wings are rarely clipped, I wanted to hear what kind of utopian city they would build if given the chance. 

Gustav Granström and Oscar Laufersweiler of RITATOR continue: “During the time this was planned, the authorities had to keep records of everything on paper, which required large numbers of people working in administration, as well as spacious facilities. An area called “the zone” was built, in which a great number of underground locations were put beside each other, like a cluster. There were places for national archives, public television and radio, hospitals, the railway and important companies. Of course, the military had the largest number of square-meters allocated, with depots, a communications center, ammunition factories, fortifications, and control centers for the air force, navy and the army. It is written in the Swedish constitution that government decisions have to be made on Swedish soil, so if Stockholm (the capital) were attacked, the parliament, government and the royal family (who until 1974 had real power) would have to be housed somewhere else in order to function as leaders.

The zone. Photo: Anders Karlén 

“The largest mountain in “the zone” housed them. It had a parliament chamber and other facilities that made work and life possible for around 4000 persons. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sweden was demilitarized and the mountain caverns were either sealed or turned over to alternative uses, such as heavily protected server rooms, whiskey storage facilities, and so on. “The zone” was built in an old mining district that had large numbers of mines and processing industries. 

“This could be a good place to build a Utopian city. Instead of taking an untouched piece of land, a basic structure could be reused. The underground caverns have the best internet connection in Sweden because they contain important nodes. The bunkers could be made into production facilities and workshops where citizens could come in and work and build things. The city itself could be built as a dense version of a Swedish countryside village, with small houses; there is plenty of room since the forests are huge. The forests and the ore could serve as perfect raw materials, and the streams in the area could be used for electricity. An underground tram system/subway could be built between the caverns. Local farms and food producers could grow in size, and new ones could be added,” is how RITATOR describes their scrupulously thought-out vision. “A utopian city in the countryside, where most of the industries and communication systems are hidden underground, thereby making more room for humans, agriculture, farms, culture, fishing and hunting.” 

If you just got carried away reading these musings on life in such a utopian city – especially taking into account the currently threatening political situation – take a minute to remember Jonathan Swift, who brought to life several utopian societies, including Lilliput, in his book “Gulliver's Travels”. Do you remember what the the two Lilliputian fronts were up-in-arms about? About how to correctly peel a boiled egg – from the narrow end or the wide end. It was a conflict on a national scale. But if you wish to read something new, Jonathon Gibbs came out with a novel this summer called “Randall”. Gibbs invites the reader to imagine today's art scene as if Damien Hirst had died in 1989. A world without Hirst. A sarcastic utopia.