Utopian visions

Architecture byHugh Aldersey-Williams

This column is being written, if not quite in an airport lounge, then certainly in passage between two of the world's great cities of stories, St Petersburg and New York. There could be no better intermission during which to consider the career of Rem Koolhaas, who is that rare thing these days, an architectural visionary.

Some of Koolhaas's recent projects are on display at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The ICA says: "Rem Koolhaas is one of the world's most revered and provocative architects. Creating buildings which embody his vision of the 'terrible beauty' of the late 20th century and unfettered by historical architectural lineage, Koolhaas is acknowledged as one of the few engineers of a direct approach to architecture which is as unpredictable as it is intellectual, and whose rhetoric is actually reflected in his work." Phew! Read those warning signals.

It became clear that Koolhaas was more than just another jet-setting international architect more than 20 years ago, when he published Delirious New York, "a retroactive manifesto for Manhattan" that combined writing and drawings layering real and imagined cityscapes. His 1995 blockbuster, S, M, L, XL has been still more influential.

New York's delirium is very different in nature from that of St Petersburg, and its architecture seems congruent with the city's writing. But St Petersburg's, already capably documented by Gogol and Dostoevsky, is in striking contrast to the place's classical beauty and spacious plan. Before and after the fact, cities may be imagined in ways that do not correspond with their physical appearance.

Koolhaas plays with the slack. Born in Rotterdam, he loves superficially unlovely cities. He has long lived in London. He has not built here, however. His major project has been the Euralille development around the Eurostar and TGV train station in Lille. The project includes his own grand palais, a conference and cultural centre that aims to make a virtue out of using the cheapest possible materials such as linoleum and corrugated plastic sheeting. He has done individual buildings for the Netherlands Dance Theatre, an arts centre in Rotterdam and housing here and there, but these days he tends to get jobs not to do mere buildings but masterplans - for Genoa, for Universal Studios in Los Angeles, for Hanoi new town. Individual building projects are laden with symbolic importance - the UN Human Rights building in Geneva, the Dutch embassy in the new German capital, Berlin.

Koolhaas works on a scale that suggests a fondness for utopian scheming that is somewhat unfashionable these days. People seldom state a wish to live in utopia, but there is a long tradition of architects designing them. Indeed, the attempt to realise utopia is the history of architecture.

Utopia means "no place", as John Carey reminds us in his forthcoming anthology of utopian literature. But the minute an architect begins to realise one, it becomes some place - and gains the capacity to disappoint. The no-places in Carey's collection retain their ability to delight or horrify (as Carey also points out, the term "utopia" does not exclude unpleasant no-places, although he admits the usefulness of the 1950 coinage, dystopia), but today the garden city is merely ordinary and the ville radieuse is discredited. Even drawing the schemes diminishes them, whether it's the (significantly) depopulated citta ideale of Piero della Francesca's time, the cartoons of Albert Robida or Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

"If you do a project on the scale of a city," says Koolhaas, "it would be almost sinister if part of your intentions were not utopian, if utopian means to be connected to an ambition to realise some measure of an ideal condition. But everyone involved in large-scale projects knows this has been a mixed blessing in terms of history. Perhaps an architect has an obligation to have a utopian vision and at the same time an equal obligation to be realistic about the futility of these utopian ambitions."

Certainly, utopias are cities more often than not, though there is nothing in the definition of the word that says it must be so. It is the case from Francis Bacon's New Atlantis to We, the 1920 dystopian masterpiece of Yevgeny Zamyatin, a Petersburger, with its glass skyscrapers. "Utopia is about organisation and therefore is almost inevitably connected to the urban," says Koolhaas. But he adds: "There is only utopian work in connection to utopian politics. Right now, I would say that worldwide there is no utopian politics and no utopian work."

Tsk, tsk. The government would surely disagree. Go to Hull, you'd be told. The city - twinned, as it happens, with Koolhaas's Rotterdam - has recently been visited by Richard Rogers, new Labour's Lord of Utopia, and is now subject to a £70 million plan by Sir Norman Foster to transform its prospects with a 30-acre city-centre redevelopment whose main feature will be a broad, glass-covered avenue. There is new recognition that such idealistic schemes need a reason to be there, in other words that utopia must be given its topos. So Foster's scheme is centred on a transport interchange and will incorporate a new theatre for John Godber's Hull Truck Theatre Company. The aim is for Hull to become the North Sea's answer to Barcelona, or Venice, depending on which architect you talk to.

Many British cities - notably Salford, Newcastle, Bristol and Birmingham - will shortly begin to reap the benefit of the millennium projects going up in their midst. Edinburgh will have its new parliament. Not to be outdone, Liverpool is angling to be the next beneficiary of the largesse of the Guggenheim Foundation, which is anxious to establish further colonial outposts of modern art. (But how much bolder and braver it would be to erect the next Bilbao in Belfast, as I have proposed in these pages before.)

Should our utopia be fragmentary rather than wholesale? Koolhaas's study of the evolution of cities has revealed something surprising. "I'm interested to see in every planned operation similarities to many unplanned situations. My theory is that there is perhaps a basic civilisation that manifests itself in planned and unplanned versions in a remarkably similar way."

"Comprehensive redevelopment" notoriously failed. Now we believe that a project or two by a celebrity architect may be sufficient to lift an entire city out of the slough of despond. Build an arts centre and let the housing and commercial sector follow as it may. A little planning, a lot of chaos.

It seems that a real utopia these days must be literally outlandish. The ICA exhibition includes drawings of Koolhaas's proposal to replace Amsterdam's Schiphol airport - whose inshore expansion he is superintending - with a new airport on an artificial island in the North Sea. (Think how many utopias are insular.) Imagined apiece, almost literally no-places, perhaps airports are the closest we come.

Cities are returning to the hands of their citizens, especially in the megalopolises of the developing world, where the daily permanent influx can amount to several thousand people. Urban theorists have been left gasping. "All our calculations are categorically superseded by events," says Koolhaas. "And that in itself is generating a kind of overall modesty which gives the current situation a pretty non-utopian quality."

One of St Petersburg's great visionaries knew it would come to this. The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky said: "A new architect is coming. It is we, the illuminators of tomorrow's cities."

"Living" is at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London SW1 from 24 July until 19 September; "The Faber Book of Utopias", edited by John Carey, will be published in October

This article first appeared in the 26 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, I took tea with Pinochet