Courtesy Bureau Spectacular.

The past year has felt like the highest-budget sci-fi movie ever made: rioting mobs swarmed the US Capitol, a deadly virus is still sweeping through the planet, and the Earth is nearing a critical climate threshold after 2020 rivaled the hottest year on record. It’s been stranger than fiction and yet all too real. So I escaped from our dystopia and found refuge in utopias.

Though now seems like the perfect time to explore the role of utopias—like dreaming of better days in times of hardship—utopian ideas have been around since time immemorial, from Plato’s Republic in 375 BC, to Black Panther’s Wakanda in 2018. In architecture, built utopias have taken the shape of a government-free town centered around a golden dome in Auroville, India; a self-sustaining community where nature and architecture coexist in Arcosanti, Arizona; and even a concentric, star-shaped fortress in Palmanova, Italy. 

Most utopias, however, never left the fictional world, leaving us with enough literature, movies, and drawings to fill a lifetime. And that’s the point: Utopias carry with them the promise of a world so perfect it’s unattainable. They’re not meant for the real world, and they’re not meant to be realized. Instead, they’re meant to be a tool that helps architects reimagine the possible—and take a long hard look at the present.

A dark purple and blue clusters of houses, forming mountains that seem to float over a misty abyss.
Residential Mountains, courtesy Liam Young.

Sir Thomas More coined the neologism in his 1516 book “Utopia,” to describe a perfect yet fictional island society. More created a neologism from two ancient Greek words: “ou” (no) and “topos” (place), meaning “no place.” By definition, then, utopias and dystopias alike are imaginary, and for architecture aficionados like me, this means a plethora of fantasy drawings where buildings can walk, cities can float, and the rules of gravity don’t always apply. In 1960s London, the avant-garde architecture group Archigram produced hundreds and hundreds of such drawings, pushing the boundaries of architecture—and our imagination.

“Archigram are like the Beatles of architecture,” says Simon Sadler, a professor of architectural and urban history at UC Davis, who’s also written a book about Archigram. “They’re a band from the provinces who turn up in London to cause trouble and ask: why isn’t architecture as exciting as rock n’ roll, and fashion, and science fiction, and comics, and movies?” 

In drawings that fused psychedelia with pop-art and structuralism, Archigram envisioned inflatable cities, plug-in buildings, drive-in housing and modular capsule homes. The group famously never completed a single building as a collective. Highly experimental and prolific, they used architecture as an agitator and rose to fame in the Swinging Sixties—a decade of rapid change punctuated by a postwar economic boom in the UK, flower power, political awakening, color TV, but also the space race, and of course The Beatles. But Archigram wasn’t the first group with radical ideas. 

The first wave of utopian architecture started with the Bauhaus in the 1920s and continued on with utopian cities like Constant’s New Babylon— a worldwide network of interconnected cities where land is collectively owned and labor is fully automated—and Yona Friedman’s Ville Spatiale, a city on stilts developed in response to the housing shortage in France in the late 1950s. Along with other architects like Lebbeus Woods and Vito Acconci, these avant-garde creators have spawned generations of experimental architects, the likes of which today includes architect and theorist Mark Foster Gage, and Bureau Spectacular‘s founder, Jimenez Lai. 

Lai has made a career out of the surreal. Known for his cartoonish drawings of outlandish cities, he has pioneered a different way of telling stories through architecture, particularly in his graphic novel Citizens of No Place. “The etymology of the word utopia, which leads us to talk about non-place, has been at the core of my work,” says Lai. 

The architect sees utopias as a tool that allows us to dial up the real world to an extreme and extrapolate conclusions from that extreme. He likens Star Trek to “a story about extreme office politics,” and he describes Blade Runner—by all intents and purposes a dystopia—as a hyperbole of our current society. It’s about exaggeration, but it’s also a form of social commentary, a fun house mirror that reflects an extravagant version of ourselves. 

Lai was recently asked to reimagine Downtown LA’s streetscapes and public spaces for The Downtown Center BID. Inspired by Yona Friedman’s Ville Spatiale, he picked out every tall building in Downtown LA with a semi-public space on top, and drew nothing but rooftops hovering in space. “It’s almost like a fleet of flying social zones,” he says. “Private rooftops are like cul-de-sacs. The value is in their exclusivity.” 

Through this experimental exercise, Lai has taken a fragment of reality—that rooftops are only for the privileged—and isolated it to emphasize its absurdity. There is an intrinsic value to speculations like these. More than asking “what if,” speculation forces us to contrast fiction against reality, which in turns forces us to look at reality with a more critical eye. 

The Flying Fleet of Social Zones, courtesy Bureau Spectacular.

In 2016, film director and architect Liam Young founded the Fiction and Entertainment MA program at the Sci-Arc architecture school in Los Angeles. His goal was to establish speculative architecture as a genre of architecture centered on critical thinking. Young himself operates in the spaces between design, fiction and futures. His latest project, Planet City, envisions a world in which the earth’s entire population would live in one hyper-dense city the size of Tokyo—or 0.02% of the planet’s surface. To some, this may sound like a dystopia more than utopia, but the terminology almost doesn’t matter. To Young, this is about a nuanced, alternative way of living. “Our futures are going to be complex, layered,” he says. “It’s not going to be a singular vision.” 

Planet City was inspired by the 2016 book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, in which biologist Edward O Wilson proposed that half the earth should be designated a human-free zone for rewilding. By pushing the concept to its absolute extreme, where 10 billion people would live in a city as densely populated as Kowloon Walled City once was, Young is looking at how architecture addresses climate change, but he’s also asking how we form communities, what identity means, or even how we draw borders based on shared cultural practices, not invisible lines drawn on a map. “The value of utopian projects isn’t in their potential to be implemented,” he says. “It’s in the cultural change, the discussion they open up.”

Utopias tend to have bad rap. Widely panned as markers of naiveté and senseless extremism, they’ve been giving way to “protopias”—a term coined by the co-founder of Wired to describe a future that can be better than the present, if only by a little. No fights for perfection, no fights for survival—just incremental progress. But are protopias strong enough to push the envelope of urban living and spark change? In 1966, when Archigram dreamed up its Walking City, the concept embodied freedom and mobility and sparked a conversation about adaptable cities. In October last year, a 1,700-ton building in China “walked” to a new location on 200 mobile supports that acted like robotic legs. As Young says: “It’s not so much a pursuit of more, it’s the human curiosity for alternatives.”