Map of the New Island of Utopia from a 1518 edition of Utopia by Sir Thomas More

Shifting Utopias

This article has been exchanged as part of an on-going collaboration with Bniuews of TU Delft, and originally was published in Bnieuws 54/01 – Retrospective (2020/21).

What are utopias? We might solve this question by remembering Thomas More and the precise etymology of the word: utopias have no place in reality. And yet, carrying a handful of notions on how the world should be, we stubbornly insist on improving what we think is wrong out there. What is, then, the nature of these ideas in architecture? How have they changed over time? Are they concrete possibilities for a better future? Or mere fictions that can only inhabit our imagination? I talked to some graduates from Faculteit Bouwkunde (abbr. BK; The Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at TU Delft) and this is what they said.

‘I studied from 1950 until ’58,’ says Herman Hertzberger, 87, from his office in Amsterdam. ‘At that time, in the Faculty, there was still a sort of battle between the Delftse School, which was the traditional side, […] and the Modernists, what they called the Modernists. It was also called right wing against left wing. So the Delftse School wanted to, so to say, keep all the old values including regionalism just in the rebuilding of the country, and the modernists were, of course, influenced by CIAM, especially Le Corbusier. They were dreaming of a new democratic [society] with the emphasis on social housing and better cities.’

Amid this confrontation of ideas on how to rebuild a nation, perhaps one of the few scenarios where utopias have a practical role, Herzberger picked a side, not without first recognising the limitations of balance of the two. ‘I’m faithful to the modernists, and I will stay faithful to the modernists until the end of my life. But they were not a hundred percent right. They made too much open space, and they neglected the idea of belonging, they neglected the social side of it.’ Later in the conversation, he leaves for a moment and comes back with the prints of two images of a family having dinner amidst the ruins of Aleppo, in Syria: ‘This whole story is telling that: even when the world completely falls apart, there still will be the force of the social coherence. Which was, in fact, part of the conservative story, you know?’

Today, more than half a century after making that choice, Hertzberger now knows that utopias can’t survive reality without adapting along the way: ‘They changed with the world. I mean, the world has changed. Today, when you ask [for] the utopia of this time it is in fact, this may sound negative, to “save the world”. I mean, this idea of “we can make the world” has changed into “we can save the such a choice: “For me, there is a looking for a world”.’ For architects, this new paradigm translates into the need for making ‘the conditions, I would say, try to make conditions for social cohesion. That’s the main task of architecture today.’

In the mid-1980s, when Hertzberger was already a teacher in BK, two students, Els Bet and Francine Houben, were graduating after nearly a decade in the faculty: ‘I think we were all afraid of starting life. You know, just extended it as long as you can,’ says Bet, now a teacher at the Department of Urbanism of BK. With the student movements of the 70s, this was a faculty in constant reinvention. As recalled by Houben, ‘we had the possibility to put and to set up our own projects: we often developed what we wanted to do ourselves and selected our own teachers, and our own subjects.’ ‘They made a lecture series, they made the readers, it was the first time of the copy machine so you didn’t have to stencil it all with this machine, so we all copied projects and plans, and we gave it to each other,’ compliments Bet.

When asked about the utopias of her generation, Bet says that there were three: ‘“take care of the world”, “make love not war” and “equal rights for everybody”. And that had not much to do with the School’. In fact, the Faculty was far from having a unified agenda, and distinct groups coexisted under the same roof, all with different programmes and with easily identifiable followers: ‘We had a lot of architectural schools, [but] they were also a kind of life attitude differences,’ she explains. ‘It was, you might say, just as now: this kind of architecture school with I think quite a buzz, but also very, very strongly divided. You belonged to this part, or you belonged to that part, or you belonged to that part.’

If the generation of Hertzberger was occupied with the reconstruction of a continent, this was a moment where students were resisting and reacting to the established order. Bet says that after witnessing, ‘Thatcher and Reagan, and this cutting off the welfare state […] came Punk time, with this kind of nihilism. You said “well, it’s a shitty world. It’s all shit, so let’s party.” But that did not change your ideas on Utopia.’ For Houben, who at the time had already founded the team that later became Mecanoo, this spirit of resistance was expressed through architecture: ‘This was an extremely important statement for myself, but of course also the group I was part of: that social housing should also be beautiful. Because that was totally not the attitude, I can tell you, by my teachers or my colleagues, the other students. It was very much like “it has to be affordable”.’ 

Internal division, as noted by Bet, has been one of the defining characteristics of the Faculty for the last 70 years. Nonetheless, in the previous decades the perception of this issue changed, and fragmentation turned into the source of diversity. For Bas Horsting, an architect and urbanist graduated in 2002 who answers my questions from his houseboat in Amsterdam, ‘Our time was an exciting transition period, where three flows connected: you still had the contact with the era of Hertzberger and Aldo van Eyck, the start of the starchitects, and there was this independent group of young teachers and professors that were all somewhere [else],’ the latter defending a kind of architecture that was less exuberant, and more focused on a, ‘sensible, small-scale intervention and approach to architecture.’ Stan van der Maas, who graduated three years later, coincides in this view: ‘there were many different points of view within the faculty, and many different studios and teachers experimenting or practising different ways of doing architecture.’

Despite this wide range of choices, for van der Maas one of the ideas shared by his generation, ‘was “pragmatism.” I also remember this phrase of Koolhaas when he speaks about New York, “An architecture that relates to the forces of the großstadt,” is what he says, […] as a surfer to the waves. And I think this is the way we were also practising at the Faculty, how we were taught to think. It was not about realising big dreams, it was more about realising big projects. It was not about having a theory or a line of thought or putting yourself in historic perspective, it was more about a concept and developing a concept.’ As a comment on this attitude, Herzberger says that: ‘We had the Koolhaas’ generation, from the 1980s on, and Koolhaas was for limitless possibilities, the Latin would say Carpe Diem. I remember a sentence of Koolhaas directed to me, because he knew that I played the piano, he said, “You should use the whole piano and not just one side of it.” In fact, what he was saying was, “You don’t use all the possibilities of our time.” And this is, of course, part of the neoliberalism of the market and the idea of growth, but I defend Koolhaas in the sense that he really used imagination.’

In the first decade of the 21st century, the Faculty went on fire and, fuelled by a never-before-seen flow of people and information coming from all over the world, it also became the international environment we know today. For Alankrita Sarkar, who graduated from the track of Urbanism in 2017, the first reaction to this environment was trying to compare things. What was there in India and what was here now.’ Driven by this inquisitive attitude, during her time at BK she became interested in ‘this idea of comparative study, and also how that can inspire other places. It is not necessarily so that things happening over here are not really [happening] at all in New York. There are always some points or principles that can be taken to any place. So, I think I believed in that thought, and I did a lot of comparative studies during my study years.’ In contrast with the Dutch-centred debates of the past, global dreams were now forged inside the rooms of BK.

On the other hand, as the faculty widened its programme’s offers and increased the intake of international students, it also lost the slow-paced and debate-centred atmosphere that it once had. Programmes were shortened, and space and time for thinking were reduced. In this regard, Bas Horsting has some interesting remarks: ‘If I speak to students from the Faculty, they hardly have time to look well into history and to investigate their own position in history. That’s really a pity.’ He continues, ‘what I notice is [that in] the University now you have to be quite strict on your path, and there’s not much time to reflect on what you’re doing.’ As a student, I couldn’t agree more.

So, what are Utopias? Apparently, they can be concrete visions for a new world, dreams in the ideal state of things, or ways of relating to knowledge. Nonetheless, and despite the lack of consensus on the shape they have, there was a common ground in their role. In all cases, utopias were revealed as the ideological compasses that let individuals navigate through a sea of uncertainties and risks, ‘your touchstone. Because you have to stay clear, you have to keep a clear mind on what you’re doing,’ says Els Bet. They are an absolute system of reference in a world of relatives. Or, as put by Hertzberger, ‘What you call utopia… I would rather talk about horizons.’