Reality Check: Using fragments of utopia to generate a societal response

The following essay describes works of art and architecture that have reinterpreted the traditional representation of reality to cause reactions from society. These instances exist in the work of Constructivism, best described by Christina Lodder and Victor Margolin, in pursuit of social and political change. Deconstructivist instances also support this desire for change, this time in the form of social and technological, as described in the assembled writings of Anthony Vidler and Peter Noever. Neil Leach includes writings from architects in both movements, while questioning the need for such convictions. His interest lies in the cause and effect of utopian visions for society, as does Margolin in his analysis of the work of the Constructivists. Notable also is the underlying importance of the image in all writings as a method of awakening public consciousness and influencing the creative process. Juhani Pallasmaa explains how image is absorbed by our conscious mind, stored in our subconscious, and resurrected in the combined creations of our unconscious and conscious. A common thread found in these texts is a perception of such an image-based reality as fragments. Whether it is the work of artists from the Constructivist period, world-renowned Deconstructivist architects, or artists of modern culture, a destabilized architecture has come to most accurately represent this reality. Modern artists have understood the absorptive properties of the mind by generating fragmented images, allowing our creativity to construct the missing parts. All techniques act to snap society back into reality, an effort made to gain any sort of reaction out of a drifting assemblage.

Utopia is an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect.[1] The operative term here is imagined, implying that utopia can never be achieved. Utopian visions result in dystopian realities, or nightmares as described in Architecture and Revolution: Contemporary Perspectives on Central and Eastern Europe.[2]  These nightmares however, provide a stimulus for social change. The Russian Revolution and following Civil War agitated artists, who in response developed Constructivism.[3] This art movement was an approach to working with materials, finding a way to harness their potential as tools for social and political transformation.[4] Integral members of this movement, and the subjects of professor Victor Margolin’s The Struggle for Utopia, included Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, and Moholy-Nagy, all whom were working during times of political revolution and believed that it was the artists who made visible the characteristics of utopia. Though Lissitzky wrote that art and politics should be separated, he followed the idea of a phenomenological utopia, which views the object as a greater promoter of human thought.[5] The theories of these Constructivist artists proved influential to future generations of architects, especially following the political and social struggles of the mid-1960s, where architectural firms like Coop Himmelblau looked to renew this avant-garde utopianism. Instead, however, Coop Himmelblau took the Deconstructivist approach of phenomenological utopia, calling it “Expressionist Utopia” in an exhibition in 1994 and looking at the anxiety that a desire for perfection induces on society.[6] Another Deconstructivist typology of the imaginary utopia was Michel Foucault’s heterotopia, which he defines as “the space we construct ourselves to inhabit.”[7] Given the imaginary nature of utopia, it is open for interpretations like these. Whether it be representations of utopia through social and political change by the Constructivists, or the re-assemblies of dystopia through social and technological change by the Deconstructivists, the ability to enact change relies on society’s engagement in the current condition.

A disinterested society becomes easy to control, particularly through the use of imagery. Architect and professor Juhani Pallasmaa describes contemporary society as being “ceaselessly bombarded by visual images” and goes on to say that this imagery is representing a reality beyond the physical and human worlds. These are images that dictate, manipulate and condition; or emancipate, empower and inspire.[8] This complacency can give way to a secret control of behavior. An example of manipulative imagery, propaganda became a huge communicator of Communist ideals during the years following the Russian Revolution.[9] Nazi propaganda, too, illustrated a misleading reality.[10] With imagery as a cause to effect societal reaction, artists and architects have the power to be social activists through making. As expressed in Lissitzky’s Of Two Squares, there is a direction for the reader to act by building something. In this way, Lissitzky is illustrating utopia using the book as a means of communicating social change.[11] One of the first social reformers to comment on the importance of the avant-garde artist in modernity, Olinde Rodrigues describes the role of the artist best when he writes:

It is we, artists, that will serve as your avant-garde; the power of the arts is indeed the most immediate and the fastest. We have weapons of all sorts: when we want to spread new ideas among people, we carve them in marble or paint them on canvas…We address ourselves to the imagination and feelings of people: we are therefore supposed to achieve the most vivid and decisive kind of action; and if today we seem to play no role or at best a very secondary one, that has been the result of the arts’ lacking a common drive and a general idea, which are essential to their energy and success.[12]

This interest in awakening mass consciousness has changed from a subliminal method, as in manipulative propaganda, to an explicit one. Walter Benjamin, philosopher and social critic, asserts that society receives art and architecture in a state of distraction, an “optical unconscious” as Anthony Vidler describes it in Warped Spaces.[13] Deconstructivism calls for a “shock” effect in a culture overly exposed to imagery. Benjamin is discussed here as well, however, this instance asks to transcend Benjamin’s definition of image to one that combines image with action, ultimately creating architecture.[14] These variations of image again provoke ideas of the imagination, previously described with utopian visions, as both words are semantically related.[15] Imagination is essential in keeping a society creative.

Creativity exists in both thought and action. Its process consists of extracting from both the conscious  (experiences) and unconscious (instinctual) minds. Without realizing it, memories and unconscious experiences contribute to the making of a project while simultaneously collaborating with the conscious ego.[16] Modern cities are overwhelmed with images, which are translated into visual and social stimuli for the conscious mind to pull from. Again, Benjamin describes the distracted urban dweller as absorbing or resisting fragments of this multitudinous imagery, which over time appear as fragmented memories in the unconscious mind. Creative thoughts in the form of fantasies distort memories through fragmentation also, confusing the chronology of happened events by inventing fictional ones.[17] Besides thought, creativity manifests in methods of making, collage being one method of making that is heavily image based. Renowned specialist Christina Lodder describes how in Constructivism, photomontage used ‘ready-made’ pieces from photographs and magazines “to produce images that would destroy the complacency of the post-war world.”[18] Pallasmaa also speaks of collage as a non-linear field, where initially unrelated fragments achieve new significance by joining with other fragments. This artistic strategy also suggests a presence of time through layering.[19] Editor Peter Noever, in introducing the lectures he assembled in Architecture in Transition, notes that Deconstructivism uses demontage as a method of making, or un-making, as one might dismantle a collage.[20] In the same text, Wolf D. Prix of Coop Himmelblau describes a simultaneous methodology of drawing and building, where a model evolves at the same time a drawing does.[21]

No matter the technique, there is no defined method for creativity. Vidler describes fragments of the city as objects, rooms, buildings, and areas that exist at such varied scales. He compares these fragments to those being produced by modern methods, “the film and the photograph but also the assembly line and the conveyor belt, implied a technique…of the fragment that allowed for its reidealization in terms of the ‘real,’ a literal and material piece of a new constructivist world.”[22] In this sense, an idea of fragments exists both metaphorically and physically. The architect has the role of piecing together the metaphoric to generate something physical.[23] Again, Pallasmaa turns to the excess of images as unconscious fragments of a discontinuous world. He views these fragments, however, as stimuli to the imagination.[24] A contemporary example of the imaginative stimulus of fractured images is artist Toba Khedoori’s architectural fragments. Through the depictions of singular pieces of architecture on a white background, Khedoori leaves the scale, the context, and the story up to the viewer.[25] Physical fragments are more noticeably created, often the result of a disruption. Deconstructivist architect Bernard Tschumi craves such an event to generate an architecture for new Europe, one of “disruptions and disjunction” representative of the fragmented culture it exists in.[26] Foucault also refers to an event as collapsing and erosive to its setting, but a turning point rather than an end.[27] For example, the Russian Revolution was an event that inspired Constructivism, in a setting of political and economic disruption after World War I.[28] Disruptions create fragments that provoke imaginative solutions.

The imagination is responsible for developing utopian visions, promoting engagement in society through visual stimulation, combining this stimuli with that of the self in the creative process, and using disruption to continually change the stimuli that exists in society. Constructivism and Deconstructivism act as precedents of evoking social change, the former in conjunction with politics, and the latter with that of technology. Based on this cycle, one speculation then asks what pairing of today needs to accompany social change, if any, and in what manner. The advancements of twenty-first century technology have changed the way image impacts society; people themselves choose to view image in an even more fragmented manner. This fragmentation and constant barrage of visual stimuli will influence our process of creativity, and the unknowing lies in the question of how.

[1] “utopia” in New Oxford American Dictionary, 3 ed.

[2] Neil Leach refers to events in of the 1990s in Eastern Europe as examples of utopian dreams degraded into dystopian nightmares. One example is Romania and the idea that an opposite vision of society exists between dictator and citizen, 9.

[3] Christina Lodder describes the experiences of Revolution as ingredients for the development of Constructivism, 47.

[4] Lodder, 1.

[5] Victor Margolin explores how each of the utopian convictions of these artists influenced their work in a greater effort to influence society, particularly Russian and Hungarian society. Lissitzky himself was very much influenced by Malevich, who the term phenomenological utopia was coined for. Because Lissitzky’s position in politics was noncommittal, his style lent more to Suprematism than Constructivism. Suprematism, to Malevich, should be a representation of the human spirit. This is best understood by the ambiguity of Lissitzky’s Proun paintings as well as his children’s book Of Two Squares, 5, 10, 66-67.

[6] Anthony Vidler mentions the guidance of post-structuralism in defining utopia. The Deconstructivists seemed to look at utopia from the other end of the telescope, instead of imagining a place of perfection, distorting the contemporary scene to a destabilized and ambiguous place. Coop Himmelblau at the time was dedicated to an attack on the architectural status quo, 187-190, 208.

[7] Noever, 127.

[8] Pallasmaa’s description of an idealized representation of reality resonates with utopia, and infers a question of actual versus social reality. This is done by two opposite types of images: political/consumer and poetic/artistic, 14-16, 21.

[9] Lodder, 4.

[10] Vidler, 78.

[11] Margolin, 38.

[12] Margolin places this Olinde Rodrigues quote from “L’artiste, le sevant et l’industriel: Dialogue” (1825) first. It most applicably describes the artist’s role in society as an instructor to act through constructing, 1.

[13] Vidler is quoting Walter Benjamin from, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Warped Spaces, 81.

[14] Noever publishes a lecture by Bernard Tschumi, who references Jacques Derrida when discussing the notion of “shock,” 127-128.

[15] Pallasmaa, 16.

[16] Pallasmaa, 65.

[17] Vidler refers to the studies of Freud on fragmented memories and fantasies, 38-40, 152.

[18] Lodder, 186.

[19] Pallasmaa mentions collage as an architectural technique as well and the nostalgia of ruins, 72-73.

[20] Noever, 7.

[21] Included in Noever’s published lecture, Wolf D. Prix’s “On The Edge” describes a method of making similar to Lissitzky’s. Both assert action as a design technique, 20.

[22] Vidler uses “constructivism” with a lower case letter, however the context of industrialization and object making implies a reference to the art movement of “Constructivism,” 152.

[23] Leach, 56.

[24] Pallasmaa, 15, 30.

[25] Vidler, 151-153.

[26] Leach includes this section from Tschumi’s Architecture and Disjunction, 146.

[27] Noever, 127.

[28] Lodder, 47.


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