Urban Utopias: The Built and Social Architectures of Alternative Settlements

Article excerpt

Malcolm Miles, Urban Utopias: The built and social architectures of alternative settlements, London and New York, Routledge, 2008; pp256, £22.99 paperback.

You might think that urban utopias, utopias of any sort, would not today be very high on the ToDo list of anyone who is concerned with the immediate problems of poverty, homelessness, pollution, hunger, insecurity. But, if they're not, then they should be, and this book provides ample reason for considering them seriously and practically. The fortieth anniversary of the events of 1968 is a particularly auspicious time for turning to re-examine broad-scale efforts to make utopias relevant to today's struggles.

Malcolm Miles sees utopias as a broad and inclusive category, departing from the conventional accounts which focus on physical schemes for the ideal city. He is concerned with attempts to radically rethink what a city should be, what an urban life should be, what a good community should be; physical forms are secondary. Thus he considers not only the classical utopias, e.g. Fourier and Owens; not only Garden Cities and socialist experiments, but also the summer of love in San Francisco, the May events of Paris and the '68ers' and hippie communes, religious settlements, and small-scale ecovillages. He argues, convincingly, that they are all of one piece, reflecting a fundamental dissatisfaction with cities and generally with the urban forms of life of advanced industrialism and advanced capitalism, and a willingness to think about and to experiment with fundamental alternatives. He sees these efforts, these 'urban utopias', as direct challenges to and illuminations of the shortcomings of existing relationships (precisely the poverty, homelessness, pollution, hunger, insecurity of such immediate concern) but also as challenging more fundamentally the commodification, the homogenisation, the repression and the suppression of full creativity. That is perhaps the single biggest contribution of the book, this broad view of the urban condition and the range of responses to it, and why it should be a provocative stimulus to everyone whose ToDo list is full of emergencies and deadlines without room for methodical thinking about the underlying basics and the long-range possibilities.

Miles' first of four sections (in 9 chapters and 9 short case studies) opens, traditionally, with the classic and well-known literary utopias. But his approach is fresh, focusing not on the blueprints but on the social and even psychological aspects. He views Thomas More's classic Utopia as a critique of his world, not a prescription, and placed in a remote setting to avoid censorship. In a typically thoughtful and open-minded commentary, he takes up, without resolving, Ernst Bloch's view of utopias not as unattainable visions but as incentives to urge on revolt. Then comes a chapter with an unexpected discussion of Descartes' architectural and verbal image of an engineer drawing a line as a metaphor for writers imagining utopias. In his subsequent discussion of Fourier the focus is on his views of sexual liberty and understanding of labour which underlie the images of the Phalanstère, seeing it all as a reaction to the economic relations of his society and their impact on the humanity of the members of that society. Contrary to many discussions, Miles sees Fourier's utopia more as a literary utopia, not a proposed actual one. Owen saw physical change as an adequate route to social change; Miles does not. Instead, he emphasizes, as do both writers, that their efforts were all grounded on the hopes for a radical change in people, a human transformation that would liberate potentials not given opportunity under existing conditions. Always Miles stays away from routine accounts and raises new issues, and provocative ones. This is no descriptive history of utopias (aldiough it contains carefully researched details on much of its subject-matter), but a sympathetic interrogation of ideas and experiments, always with an open mind and a fresh approach. …