Architecture or Techno-Utopia
Politics after Modernism
- Shortlisted for the 2008 RIBA Sir Nikolaus Pevsner International Book Award for Architecture
360 pp., 7 x 9 in, 77 b&w illus.
- Published: November 2, 2007
- Published: February 26, 2010
The first history of twentieth-century America's architecture that puts architecture and its institutions into a dialogue with the “underground”—featuring the experiments, practices, and polemics of the 1960s and 1970s.
In Architecture or Techno-Utopia, Felicity Scott traces an alternative genealogy of the postmodern turn in American architecture, focusing on a set of experimental practices and polemics that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Scott examines projects, conceptual work, exhibitions, publications, pedagogical initiatives, and agitprop performances that had as their premise the belief that architecture could be ethically and politically relevant. Although most of these strategies were far from the mainstream of American architectural practice, Scott suggests that their ambition—the demonstration of architecture's ongoing potential for social and political engagement—was nonetheless remarkable.
Scott examines both the marginal and the prominent: the Marxist architectural criticism of Meyer Schapiro; the curatorial work of Arthur Drexler at New York's Museum of Modern Art; Emilio Ambasz's introduction of ideas from environmental design, European critical theory, and Italian radicalism at MoMA; the counterculture's embrace of Buckminster Fuller's domes; psychedelic and intermedia environments; the video and architectural collective Ant Farm and the politics of ecology; the early experimental practices of Rem Koolhaas; and, connecting these earlier practices to the present day, the missed opportunities for political engagement in the competition sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation for the World Trade Center site. At a time of increasing receptiveness to thinking politically about architecture and design, Architecture or Techno-Utopia offers a detailed account of the ways in which the work of architects and designers can speak to the contemporary condition.
Brushing aside tired clichés on Modernism's crisis in the third quarter of the 20th century, Scott draws the compelling picture of a subversive laboratory without walls. In a network of American museum galleries, university yards and open fields, curators, grass-root movements, neo-utopian groups and Marxian theorists conspired to expose architecture's submission to the capitalist order. Architecture or Techno-Utopia—an echo of Le Corbusier's dilemma 'Architecture or Revolution'—skillfully scans these theaters, in which the search for a politically engaged architecture led to new forms and to the return of critical thinking in design.
Jean-Louis Cohen, Sheldon H. Solow Professor in the History of Architecture, New York University
'Architecture or Revolution', Le Corbusier warned at the end of Vers une Architecture, threatening political upheaval if modernist design was not supported. For Felicity Scott the alternative posed by radical designers 50 years later, at the close of the modernist period, was also bold: 'Architecture or Techno-Utopia'. Yet, unlike Le Corbusier and company, the protagonists of her brilliant book—from celebrated groups like Archigram and Superstudio to lesser-known collectives such as Ant Farm and Drop City—-resisted the disciplinary demands of Architecture, insisting instead on the visionary possibilities of Techno-Utopia. Scott does not naively reclaim these experimental proposals for our different present; rather, she 'traces these alternatives' in ways that 'question the disassociation of architecture from both its historical and political context as well as from its dreams of a better world to come.' At a time when many prominent architects are given over to formal navel-gazing or corporate branding or both, her call to revivify the critically utopian dimension of design is very bracing.
Hal Foster, Townsend Martin '17 Professor of Art & Archaeology, Princeton University
Scott deftly links seemingly disparate practices into a complex matrix...providing an overall picture of a profession trying not to lose itself entirely in the dematerialization and instrumentality of post-1968 revolutionary fervor.
Felicity Scott's Architecture or Techno-Utopia: Politics after Modernism brilliantly slices through the commonplaces of modern and postmodern architectural history in order to explore the key passageway to the present provided by a cluster of radical practices from the late 1960s and early 1970s. The protagonists of her story extend beyond the usual cast of characters. They include curators (Drexler, Ambasz), critics (Schapiro, Tafuri), technovisionaries (Fuller), and anti-architects and anti-architectures of various stripes (from Superstudio and Archizoom to Drop City and Ant Farm), all committed to establishing new critical, ethical, and political grounds for contemporary architectural practice. In Architecture or Techno-Utopia, these endeavors are reconstructed in order to pose the urgent question of the social, cultural, and environmental responsibilities of architecture today.
Jeffrey T. Schnapp, Director, Stanford Humanities Lab