Utopias and the Unbuilt

I recently started listening to the podcast 99% Invisible on my commute. The short episodes are about various facets of architecture and design, or in their words, “all the thought that goes into things you don’t even think about.”

Last week’s episode, “Unbuilt,” coincided with the week’s readings for the first-year M.Arch theory class, on utopias, “L’architecture dans le Boudoir” by Manfredo Tafuri and “The Beauty of Shadows” by Jorge Silvetti – tough, dense readings that all of us struggled to decipher. The 99% Invisible episode was a much more accessible and pleasant experience thinking about utopias.

Le Corbusier's Plan Voisin for Paris, 1925.

Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin for Paris, 1925.

It begins with an imagined funicular for transit between San Francisco and Oakland from 1910, a would-be gloriously fast connection between the bays. Amazing, right? I bet there are a lot of people in San Francisco cursing the person who vetoed this one.

“From Call Building to Oakland City Hall in 5 Minutes” from the California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibiliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside. Courtesy of 99% Invisble via The Urbanist.

“From Call Building to Oakland City Hall in 5 Minutes” from the California Digital Newspaper Collection.

Jumping coasts, host Roman Mars later turns to Robert Moses, twentieth century master planner of New York City, and a figure known for an extensive, polarizing influence across the country. Some utopian ideas it seems ridiculous that no one has taken it upon themselves to see built, and some utopian ideas are just ridiculous. Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin for Paris (raze & rebuild the historic city center) is a classic example. Robert Moses is another iconic failed-utopian, but unlike Le Corbusier, many of his large-scale plans were actually built.

Roman explores the Lower Manhattan Expressway, one of Moses’ unbuilt projects. He shares a very cool endeavor by the artist Andrew Lynch (goes by Vanshnookenraggen), who redraws Manhattan as though Robert Moses’ extensive highway projects had all been realized, highlighting how dramatically different an experience walking through the city would have been.

A Robert Moses project that actually was built: the West Side Highway in New York. Photo credit ShareAlike 2.5.

A Robert Moses project that was actually built: the West Side Highway in New York.

We only fully understand how counter-productive some of Robert Moses’ plans are to urban living because they were built. Unbuilt projects get to live on as ideals, perfect what-ifs, while the poor utopian designs who have faced realization inevitably disappoint. It’s easy for the San Francisco funicular to sound good when no one has had to deal with the reality of it.

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