According to its detractors, the utopian ideals of modern architecture—whether those of social engineering or the "perfection" of form through stark functionalism—were pronounced dead at the scene of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex demolition in St. Louis in 1972. Out of its rubble, a neo-eclectic, humanistic style dubbed Postmodernism emerged, supposedly purging utopianism from the architectural lexicon and birthing the form anew.
That notion is being challenged by "Utopia's Ghost: Postmodernism Reconsidered," an exhibit on display through May 25 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), in Montreal. The exhibit grew out two seminars by Columbia University architecture professor Reinhold Martin exploring the premise that utopianism is not dead. Or alive, for that matter.
It was painstakingly researched and curated by Martin's graduate students, who combed through the CCA's extensive archives over a two-year period, searching for postmodern apparitions of utopia, a Greek double entendre meaning both "good place" and "no place"—the perfect location that does not exist, except perhaps in an architect's mind.
The installation itself, presented panoramically in the CCA's Octagonal Gallery, illustrates the contradictions in postmodernism through photos, sketches, and models of iconic works by Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, John Hejduk, Arata Isozaki, Aldo Rossi, Robert Venturi, and others. The collection is divided into five subjects: (In)human Scale, Babel/Babble, Islands, Worlds-Within-Worlds (Russian Dolls), and Roads to Nowhere, which, for example, juxtaposes postmodernism's predilection for broken stairs and interrupted paths with the literal "nowhere" meaning of utopia.
"Modernist thought, that functional architecture could reform—that is, change and improve—the world was rejected in the late '60s to early '80s," Martin says. "Nevertheless the ghost of utopian ideology has continued to haunt building designs to the present day."
Martin notes that while the exhibit is mainly a retrospective of the postmodern heyday, it can also be seen as a commentary on architectural works of the present and near-future, which continue to construct and reconstruct reality. "The way that public space is organized can be considered of as a series of islands, cut off from the rest of the world," he says. "This is how utopia was originally conceived, though the result can be a paradise or prison, depending on your perspective."
Giancarlo La Giorgia is a freelance journalist and bestselling author based in Montreal.