Before and After Utopia:
Thursday, September 15th to Sunday, November 20th
Abandoned America, Ordos, China, Arcosanti, Arizona and Masdar City, Abu Dhabi -- four distinct models of modern urbanity telling us something important about our 'now.'
The 'now,' which BEFORE AND AFTER UTOPIA: images of urban abandonment, absence, and aspiration calls to mind, is the present moment in our cities -- the moment between past and future, the convergence of reflection, innovation, and transformation. The famed philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre posited that humans always face an existential moment, a moment when we must project ourselves into the future, to imagine a mode of being for human living. In our mechanized, industrial centers we face that existential moment now.
A decade into the millennium, we witness civilization amidst crisis and challenge in modeling, powering, and maintaining its metropolises. Our modern cities are an urban jumble that evolved from the dominant utopian models of the twentieth century, expressions of the humanist imperative to move societies from scarcity to abundance, poverty to wealth, inequality to equilibrium, and ignorance to enlightenment. The results have been mixed, with many people ignoring or exploiting nature to further their dependence on materialism and excessive consumption.
Though it is common to think of 'utopia' as referring to impossible perfection tainted by a flawed humanity, the reality is more nuanced. From Plato's Republic to Le Corbusier's Radiant City to Andres Duany's New Urbanism, humans have often modeled their societies on utopian visions. In planning our modern cities, skyscrapers were first imagined as pillars of steel and glass connecting earth to the heavens, suburbs as secure communities situated between nature and the industrial center, highways as automotive individualism, and the city center as the thriving urban marketplace. Of course, far too much of this was predicated on unlimited energy, endless resources, and non-stop consumption. Skyscrapers became banal, suburbs became sprawl, highways connected malls with shoppers in oil-guzzling SUVs, and our once-utopian visions for 'progress' and 'modernity' came to affect an increasingly dysfunctional, economically downtrodden, and ecologically-unsustainable dystopian reality.
In America, industry and infrastructure crumbles around us, and public initiatives to rebuild our roads, bridges, schools, and hospitals are abandoned as city and state budgets are slashed to suit self-interested, ideological agendas. Matthew Christopher Murray's striking photographs of Abandoned America offer the viewer an opportunity to rediscover and explore these lost and forgotten landscapes, to meditate on the ethereal grace and stillness that saturates such environments and to give a sense of the awe-inspiring beauty and profound sorrow that lingers after life has ceased and only echoes remain.
It is here we begin our journey with what came 'after utopia.' What we face now is the moment 'before utopia,' the moment when we must re-examine and re-think our urban metropolises.
The provocative images of Michael Christopher Brown, Joshua Lieberman, and Michael Meysarosh, pose questions for how we may re-envision our urban environments. What can we learn from cities like Ordos -- ghost cities built to garner investment and raise the country's GDP, with vacant doppelgangers continuing to sprout across the contemporary Chinese landscape? Is what began as a public-works project designed to house, employ, and entertain 1 million people in Inner Mongolia, now a mere Chinese version of American sprawl and consumption? Can Arcosanti's marriage of architecture and ecology be a useful model for environmental sustainability? Focusing on compact urban planning, Arcosanti, as envisioned by Paolo Soleri, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, is a living laboratory for an anti-sprawl city. Has this experimental city in the American desert inspired the utopian ambitions of Norman Foster's zero waste, carbon-neutral Masdar -- the world's first eco city to be powered solely by renewable energy sources?
It is easy to dismiss materialism, but humans do have all-too-real needs that are steeped in the emotional and material, aesthetic and functional. More deeply, can we qualify a new urbanity that merges meaning with materialism while integrating ecology with technology, garden with machine, nature with culture? We know that there are few final answers, as evolution is always in flux. But in these images we find suggestions of how it is possible to cultivate our cities and amass progressive, sustainable, and economically viable ideas for modern living.
esterday's planners are today's politicians, and undoubtedly those that oft have the upper hand fit snug in the deep pockets of corporate lobbyists with their mind on their money and their money invested in practices that will bring civilization, as we know it, to its ecological demise. The course of human destiny depends on our actions today, as we enter a critical 'now' demanding of us ideological evolution and transformative design.