The Individual and the City: Abstract and Concrete
In what follows, the role utopia plays in the imagination (and imaginary appropriation) of buildings and cities is discussed. As the setting upon which individual and social life unfolds, the city in general, and specific works of architecture in particular, provides the context for solitude and sociability alike. The built environment is not neutral; it can evidence either the inscription of engagement or alienation. Although urban settings are inevitably bound to the time of their creation (and thus to the social and political conditions of that time), all works of art are also future-directed, oriented toward reception by experiencing subjects not yet born. In this sense, a work of art-an individual building, an urban setting, or a monument-may project either a future perfect, or future imperfect conception of the time of its creation as a foundation for as yet unimagined possibilities. In this way, works persist through time as commentaries on their own moment and the future alike, which becomes the work’s fugitive context in a shifting present (so long as it is not destroyed, or even then, so long as it is remembered). Arguably, this is the potentially utopian dimension of all creative projects (for cities and buildings alike); a claim based on the notion that projecting, as inevitably prospective, ever entails a fundamental re-description of reality of a utopian kind. But unlike literary utopias, designed projects, in particular those that enter into and alter concrete reality, promise to transform conditions here and now, for individuals and collectives alike. Affirming this possibility, it seems to me, also begs for some criteria for distinguishing between those architectural and urban projects that might alter the real for the better from those that might enter and alter it for the worse. Consideration of such criteria in relation to individual experience is the central aim of this chapter.