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The Subtle Difference Between Utopia and Reality

Babau Bureau and Maike Gold

Carta del Buonsignori.jpg

© Haus der Architektur

Carta del Buonsignori, Florence 1584/94

“Throughout history, architects and planners have dreamed of “better” and different cities – more flexible, more controllable, more defensible, more efficient, more monumental, more organic; taller, denser, sparser, and greener. With every new plan, radical visions were proposed; visions that embodied, not only the desires but also, the fears and anxieties of their time.”—Dan Wood and Amale Andaraos, Utopia Forever1

Thinking about architecture resembles thinking about dreams – to imagine what architecture could be and to create a vision of what it has to be. These thoughts have troubled architects throughout history and led to frequently asked questions. They resulted in different solutions—more or less realistic, abstract, radical or prescient—full of future-oriented concepts: Utopia is born.


All varieties of utopia have the same basic characteristics: their proposals are usually radically straightforward. So, the idea starts to show and propose aspects how to operate with an architectural and an urban scale—human, building or territorial. They mostly base on a simple idea of dealing with these scales by repetition and developing them for evolution on the core of strict organization in grids. An important aspect of infrastructure, organization in different levels; space, dealing with private and public; or energetic use as well as including an open structure for customization determines the design. When all these qualities are combined in the utopia, it ends up in a monumental conclusion—more or less realistic, with an absence of time and space.


The most known utopian concepts are as far away as possible from realization and exist only as a theoretical structure. This illustrates the potential of a nearly endless intellectual game played by creative architects in every decade of the last centuries. In the 1970s, studios and also movements like Archizoom and Superstudio dealt with the limitlessness of imagination in their manifestos, showcasing the possibility of creating “a city without architecture”2 in their purest form and designing unlimited constructions for potentially endless buildings. Then again, modern utopia takes over these concepts, but without searching for a possibility of construction. A more contemporary utopia was born: DOGMA’s vision. The picture of white and blank volumes overlaying the context declared the absence of architecture to represent the absence of architecture—an image of blank space.


Yet, some utopian drafts did not remain just on paper. Several architects had an interest in realizing their visions and searched for specific solutions to create utopian atmospheres and constructions in a particular context. In the middle of the 1950s Oscar Niemeyer, together with Lúcio Costa, worked on the drafts for Brasília’s public buildings. They proved the possibility of transferring a large-scale draft into built reality.

Brasília, the new capital, can be counted as an example of excessive utopian planning, which Niemeyer himself described as not very successful in 2001.3


The attempt to realize smaller utopian dreams was also dared: Aldo Rossi encompassed the essence of built utopia in various of his projects and competitions. Among others, Rossi’s competition contribution for the Cemetery of San Cataldo in Modena (1971–78) fuses the conception of a cemetery as a series of parts—as seen in the design of 19th century Jewish cemeteries—with an overlapped strict grid.4 Together with his partner Gianni Braghieri, Rossi worked with an interplay of scales and created a concept around the separation of the relationship between the facade and the urban space. A simple idea of a relation to the urban scale of the city was formed—the square windows of the buildings were sized in relation to the scale of the planed square in the complex. As an element of design, the window was used in many different scales and a several repetitions were characteristic to create the impression of a space between absence and emptiness. Thus, Aldo Rossi’s built utopia could be summed up in a simple structural system: “the frame within the frame within the frame”.5


Another of Rossi’s utopian projects, “Locomotiva 2”, was an entry in an open competition for the design of Turin’s new central business district in 1962. It had to function on a metropolitan as well as on an urban scale and to present itself as a monumental exception within the city. Aldo Rossi and his co-workers Luca Meda and Gianugo Polesello chose a radical solution: a solid megastructure. “Locomotiva 2” was a response to the political and ideological underpinnings of the idea of a city center and was also considered as architectural, polemical and critical. “The proposed Centro Direzionale [Locomotiva 2] defines the characteristics of urban growth, simultaneously embodying the modern concept of centralized facilities and vertical transportation, permitting a concentration of structure and services and representing an advanced technical solution.”6 Rossi and his partners combined different aspects and created a new relationship with the city. In doing so, their elements were taken out of a built context and became analog and textural. This does not correspond to a single idea or manifestation of reality.



“There is a play between the real and the abstract, between the scale of objects, and between the familiarity of objects which breaks down conventions that are attached to meaning, abstraction, form, and scale.”—Ariane Lourie, Ten canonical buildings



Architects use the medium of drawings and pictures to transport their visions—mostly without showing the scale and context of time and place—to create a utopian feeling. But there is a profound difference between the recent utopia and that of Aldo Rossi’s ideas. Rossi created a feasible one, that was realized in its own context, unlike other utopians that only tried to explain an intellectual expression in their works. The difference between the old utopia and DOGMA’s recent one is in the stratification. To abstract the lines does not correspond to abstracting the projects. Instead, it corresponds to the absence of architecture. DOGMA and other recent utopians have risen to the standards of the old ones but without searching a possibility of construction—their drawings show that there is no interest in doing so. The utopian intention is only created by an image—a concept without any architecture.


An impressive image of a utopia was also created by Superstudio in 1969–70. Their project “The Continuous Monument” tried to use architecture as a tool to understand the order of the world. It was a new vision for a near and possible future—with a single and continuous environment as its potential. Superstudio developed a grid of square blocks, closed and immobile objects. It only focused on its own use—as an “architectural model of total urbanization”.7



“The grid is, above, all, a conceptual speculation… in its indifference to topography, to what exists, it claims the superiority of mental construction over reality”

—Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York



A concept in-between utopia and reality—a real utopia—was drafted by Babau Bureau and Studiospazio in cooperation with students in Summer 2018. The interpretation “Infraçade” is a proposal for the district Puntigam in Graz, Austria. It concerns the possibility to cross the infrastructure’s connective capacity with the urban expression that only a series of façades can provide.


“Can you imagine an architecture able to connect the fragmented composition of urban elements produced by the suburbia?” Puntigam as a complex district composed by different models of a city: all these typologies of suburbia create a very heterogeneous city texture, in which the mobility system consists mostly of cars. This results in a huge amount of space between the buildings and even more between the buildings and the streets. This situation does not encourage any human interaction, as it does not offer any qualities in the public space.


The design proposal consists of a thin and long metal structure, modular and abstract. It is able to intercept the different landscapes and build homogeneous linear infrastructure, which occupies and reactivates the gap between the buildings and the busy road. Crosswise it is very permeable, whereas longitudinally it hosts paths on different levels for both bicycles and pedestrians. Along its length it is combined with the existing buildings, transforming their perception from isolated boxes to a homogeneous composition This gives the structure the possibility for future transformations. It is a space for different activities and programs, that can mix among the existing and the new buildings.


“Infraçade” provides the district with a public space, where pedestrians and cyclists can move freely on separated levels. It is a grid with a regular frame rhythm, which gives order to any future district expansion. Its dimensions include three different scales. In the cross section we see a “portico”, the human scale. In height we see the building scale and in length, we perceive the territorial dimension. The frame-structure can generate energy from the environment. A turbine produces electricity from a canal water power station. Integrated solar panels assimilate sunlight and wind turbines collect energy from the prevailing north-south winds.

In between the radical utopia and the long-term scenario “Infraçade” is a concrete vision for the future of the periphery. It refuses the vividness of the object being an open structure ready for any customization and reminds of dreams from 1960s.


Throughout its long history, the results of utopian urban development—in all their qualities and variations—have been proving the importance of thinking about utopian dreams. Utopia portrays the overlapping of realities and shows a distorted picture of it. There are various projects in which utopian ideas have been realized successfully, as we have seen before. But every time a tiny piece of the utopian dream was given up—it emphasises the subtle difference between utopia and reality.

1. Klanten, Robert (Hg.): Utopia Forever. visions of architecture and urbanism, Berlin 2011, 49.

2. Capdevila, Pablo Martínez: The Interior City. Infinity and Concavity in the No-Stop City (1970-1971), 130-132.

3. Haberlik, Christina: 50 Klassiker. Architektur des 20. Jahrhunderts, Hildesheim 2001.

4./5. Lourie, Ariane (Hg.): Ten canonical buildings. 1950 – 2000, New York 2008, 184 – 188.

6. Steele, Brett (Hg.): First works. emerging architectural experimentation of the 1960s and 1970s, London 2009, 78-89.

7. arch122 term assignment: The continuous monument: an architectural model for total urbanization. arch122 [online], Juni 2012, Abrufbar unter:, Stand: 17.10.2018


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