Art, Design & Architecture, Language, Symbolic Sight
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Architectural Culture: Practically Perfect

Is a utopia the opposite of a dystopia?

Dystopia refers to “an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.” (New Oxford American Dictionary).

Utopia calls to mind an ideal place – with all the desirable qualities for a wholesome human society. 

Sir Thomas More introduced the term in his 1516 novel Utopia, about a fictional island society. And while that society was located in the south Atlantic Ocean, the word utopia translates from the Greek into English as “no-place”.  So actually, a “utopia” is, in its very code, a promise of perfection with an underlying belief that such a place cannot exist in the real world.

Dystopia often calls to mind George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But since that novel was published in 1949, dystopian science fiction stories and films have inundated the mainstream.

Think of the stories that can be described as “utopian” – how many can you call to mind?

Of course, an emphasis on dystopian patterns must have shaped the way that generations of people in western societies have consciously and unconsciously perceived the world, its possibilities, and human potential.

Here we are in the 2020s, with utopian (dis)illusions and dystopian narratives strewn about, but also real environmental crises challenging core beliefs. And I have to ask: from the point of view of someone considering their world view and what formed it — is a utopia actually the opposite of a dystopia? Or do they serve as one vicious cycle — as a loop restricting human imagination, actions, and potential?

What if we revise our understanding? Moving away from dystopia, there is a happy dream and vision. Moving away from utopia, there is a practical process. There is a design and site plan. There is a lived reality, rooted in personal responsibility and social cooperation.

So perhaps we can now appropriately identify the opposite of a utopia-dystopia vicious cycle:

Baukultur.”

The German term Baukultur refers to “the production of the built environment and how we interact with it, including planning, building, remodelling and conservation.”

As architect and urban planner Reiner Nagel (Chairman of the Executive Board of the German Federal Foundation for Baukultur) explains in an interview with journalist Torsten Meise:

“We definitely regard Baukultur as a synonym for sustainability. But it includes more than just environmental aspects…Sustainability in the sense of architectural culture also includes the resulting man-made spaces and the process of creating them. In other words, how do we get there?” (Interview auf Deutsch)

To align and resonate with Baukultur then, is to first and foremost believe that spaces with all the desirable qualities for wholesome, sustainable human societies can be — quite simply — real places. It is to establish a virtuous cycle, where we are all responsible for our built environments – as well as what we contribute to the consensus reality from our thoughts, perceptions, and writings.

If the concepts of utopia and dystopia linger a while longer, let us remember that they create and reinforce a loop of illusion and disillusion — like quicksand on a mental map. Steer clear.

Baukultur is about nurturing a vision of future human societies rooted in practical processes and real places. And that gives us something to build on.❂

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