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Architects still dare to dream of utopia Add to ...

Utopia is out of fashion these days.

There are several reasons why this is so. One is the spectacular disaster of utopian political regimes such as fascism and Soviet-style communism. Another, closer to Canadians, is the widespread conviction, strongly reinforced by Jane Jacobs in her heyday, that architectural modernism’s optimistic programs of urban renewal and large-scale planning did more harm than good to North America’s cities. (Indeed, downtown Toronto would have been ruined by the massive expressway schemes put forward by city bureaucrats in the 1960s, had a powerful citizens’ coalition not rallied behind Ms. Jacobs and stopped them.)

But despite often valid ideological discouragements, and the real-world economic pressure on architects to keep their noses to the grindstone, wild dreams about the city, technology and engineering still proliferate in the studios of certain artists and designers around the world. That’s one thing we learn from the new book called Utopia Forever: Visions of Architecture and Urbanism (Gestalten, $75).

Overseen by Gestalten publisher Robert Klanten, and thoughtfully assembled and introduced by Lukas Feireiss, a Berlin-based artist and author, this 256-page portfolio features about 70 futuristic proposals and scenarios for buildings, landscape interventions, gadgets, new towns and even a manufactured planet.

A few of these projects are intellectual entertainments, woven from the fragile, glittering threads of science-fiction fancy.

Many, however, are serious bids to address pressing contemporary issues such as shortages of conventional energy, the concentration of millions in cities and climate change. (One section is devoted entirely to responses to the rising ocean levels that could some day threaten coastal settlements.) And more than a few of these designers toy imaginatively with new findings in biotechnology and cybernetic design.

If the predictions about the future in this book are accurate, for example, we should expect to hear a lot more soon about pond scum and such. French architect Vincent Callebaut, in a scheme presented here, posits a series of freight-toting airships lifted by algae-produced hydrogen. (Mr. Callebaut’s green vertical dirigibles look like milkweed pods. Quickly leafing through these pages, the reader finds that the preferred style of the future is art nouveau, with all the supple lines and wispy idealism of that design movement.)

Getting energy from seaweed is not as far-fetched as it seems. Scientists have already invented a genetically altered variety of algae that secretes diesel fuel. But commercial applications of such technologies, if they can be realized at all, probably lie in the remote future.

A handful of the projects showcased here, on the other hand, might be visible on skylines in fairly short order. The Beijing office of MAD Architects has crafted a beautiful, sinuously sculptural tower that could be built today in its intended home city, Chongqing. We know it could, because MAD principal Yansong Ma has already shown that even highly unusual high-rises – item: his pair of curvaceous Absolute condominium towers in Mississauga – can be successfully raised and marketed.

But Mr. Ma’s Chongqing tower is not typical of what’s in this book. The fare is more fantastical, improbable, off the wall. Because practicality is not an obstacle to utopian thought, plans can be impossibly enormous or complex without being necessarily irrelevant.

The Italian office of OFL Architecture offers, for instance, an award-winning idea for a linear city to be constructed along the whole length of the famous old Silk Road between Venice and China. No metropolis thousands of miles long will ever be built, of course.

But never mind. OFL is envisioning a time (which has already come in parts of the world) when cities and urban networks will touch each other over long distances and across national boundaries, creating mega-regions that require transportation and environmental and land-use planning, along with other administrative controls, on a very grand scale. To make these dense urban clusters work properly, the citizens of burgeoning regions, such as the Greater Toronto Area, surely need to recapture a bit of the old modernist zest for painting on large canvases.

Some of the projects in Utopia Forever are delightful, intriguing, daring. Others, like the artificial planet, I am glad we will never see.

The best thing about this book, however, is the news it brings us about men and women who are not afraid to think expansive thoughts. Utopian fantasy, after all, can liberate people from glum resignation to the status quo of society and culture. It can inspire critical attention to the world’s current political and economic arrangements and lead us to formulate ways to instigate change. It’s good to know that architects in many countries are pondering the future mindfully and devising solutions to the real problems rushing toward us down the road to tomorrow.

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