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Photo by James BunoanAt a lecture in Chapman University's Argyros Forum, we're looking at slides of between-the-wars utopian architecture concepts, the ideal future as they saw it in the 1920s: a traffic jam, a set of glassy skyscrapers, a river eddying inside a concrete-lined channel. It's an imaginary Moscow but an uncannily accurate Los Angeles, a quaint but almost bashfully recognizable city of the future.
The Russians who drafted this future knew exactly what utopia would look like. Before Stalin capped off a generation of idealistic revolutionary inspiration with a fusillade of rifle fire and a lot of long, lonely train rides to Siberia, a baby Soviet state had a few years in which anything seemed possible. And between some constructivist sci-fi fantasies—the flying suit and the floating cities—they somehow figured out the real future.
Chapman professor Dr. Wendy Salmond is wondering what has happened to the idea of utopia. Maybe, I'm thinking, we're already living in it.
The utopians of the 1920s were modernists when it meant something. Raised in the dirty brick-and-mortar warrens of the 19th century megalopolis, says Salmond, they looked to technology to pull society out of a literal darkness. The perfect modern buildings—designed by the constructivists in Russia and the Bauhaus in Germany—would house a correspondingly perfect civilization, a classless, egoless, futuristic incarnation of the human being. Not unexpectedly, says Salmond, flipping through slides of utterly convincing skyscrapers in 1920s Russia, they stalled at the razor-blade-and-glue-pot mock-ups stage. "It's astonishing how many ideas never got beyond photo montage," she says. "A feasible-looking fake of a future reality."
But drive around Irvine late at night, and you're suddenly immersed in that feasible fake. The glassy skyscrapers, the molded concrete berms, the wide and winding streets, even the master planners' predilection for repeating circular tropes when it came to arranging Irvine's little subvillages—ever hear anyone say OC feels like a bubble?—all echo the designs of the 1920s utopians.
There's a crucial difference. In this feasible fake, the city of the future is classless only because the poor—as in the 19th century—have been pushed somewhere else. It's communally based only in such public spaces as the privately owned Irvine Spectrum. It's the Bauhaus buildings reduced from social idealism to cold utilitarianism, the aesthetic impulse divorced from the social ideal, glassed-in corporate offices swept out at night by janitors who commute in from outside the bubble.
"This is a vision of utopia inverted, a sort of sad reflection," says Salmond. "Sort of an airport-lounge situation."
Failure is built into the traditional utopian dream, Salmond says. By definition, the concept itself is a paradox; dissected, the word translates to something like "beautiful place which cannot exist." And the utopians of the 1920s, for all their ambition, remained mired in an idea of utopia dependent on its very impossibility to maintain its allure. Communal bathrooms look great on paper, but any college-dorm rat can tell you exactly how that sort of utopia is going to break down.
Utopia-as-paradox is a peculiarly European attitude, however—or so says Jean Baudrillard, the French postmodernist whom you should have known was going to worm his way into this argument. Where the old world dreams, the new world simply does; America made the unimaginable imaginable—and tangible—where the Russians and Germans couldn't. In Baudrillard's utopia, there is no history to stand against the future; in Baudrillard's America, there is no history. And in Orange County—an environment locked into a feedback loop with the society it houses, a centerless suburb subordinate to nothing but money—there is only history as a wild animal: endangered, contained, detached from the everyday but recognizable somewhere out there on the margins. Yes, there are events, people, violence and ideas, but the cohering factors that turn the past into a real history are buried somewhere under the mini-malls.
We've inherited the world the utopians never built, Salmond is saying, but without the social philosophies to which they were so dedicated. But maybe that's why we could build the buildings they couldn't, invent the inventions they had to abandon (a note to constructivist Russia, circa 1922: we're still waiting for the flying cars). The utopias of the 1920s demanded the abolition of history so something new and better could take the place of the old. It never happened; by the 1930s, history—Hitler and Stalin—was about to swallow any stragglers who still hadn't gotten the message.
But America never had the confining history the utopians wanted to replace. These slides from almost 100 years ago have an almost preternatural familiarity to them—it's hard to shake the feeling that you're looking at the world you now live in. But you wonder: Is this—with the traffic jams, skyscrapers and concrete flood-control channels—the world the utopians really wanted?
Clicking into another slide of communal bathrooms and photo-montaged skyscrapers that were never built, Salmond is saying, "And the people of the future . . . that's us."