Thomas More writes of an island society of perfect organisation, a place (topos) that is good (eu) and non-existant (ou): eu-topos, ou-topos, utopia. The physicality of an island, individual and contained, has remained key to utopian thinking ever since. Written in a feudal society in which religious and political non-conformity would eventually cost him his life, More’s proposal for religious, gender and political tolerance was very radical. It is perhaps because of More’s context that Utopia was written, as an expression of dissatisfaction with the present and a means of projecting a possible future: the utopian projection is a symptom of anxiety with the present. As Foucault says, some 450 years after More was writing, while utopias do not exist, they do reflect (even in the negative form) their contemporary society.[1]

Le Corbusier, Chandigarh

In Of Other Spaces, Foucault goes on to discuss the heterotopia, a form of utopia that has been enacted: an attempted, constructed space. Through production, the utopia has become real (reflecting both its society’s hopes and unwanted defects that enter the projection) yet remains unreal exactly because it has been undermined by the interference of reality, society, and practicality. In this way, the utopia is both absolutely real and absolutely unreal, rather like a mirror. It is a heterotopia. We see ourselves in it both as we aspire to be and as we are in reality. Cities in the sky, such as the Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens in Bow, provide a concrete example of heterotopias, being at once evidence of their architects’ utopian dreams of improved living standards and the dystopian interruption of low-cost construction restrictions, social immobility and crime.

Vahram Aghasyan

Heterotopias are often places of transition, the heteroptopia being a site of exchange between utopia and dystopia. Foucault talks of the crisis heterotopia, a space or instance of shift: the boarding school is a site for the adolescent transit from child into adulthood, occurring away from home and the public eye. In the same way, an Old People’s Nursing Home is the site of transition between life and death, real and unreal, as is the cemetery. The location of these heterotopias is important: they are in liminal zones, at a remove from the centre of town and society. A cemetery is often walled and gated, and jettisoned to the suburbs – or, in the case of Venice, on a separate island. A honeymoon and motel, possible sites for new or adulterous liaisons, occur on the road, the road being a space that leads somewhere but is itself anonymous and liminal. All these spaces and their heterotopic quality are assigned this identity by social constructs such as taboos surrounding abjection: what is out of place, unclean or unacceptable alongside what is deemed desirable, orderly or appropriate. Many of Marc Augé’s non-spaces such as airports are heterotopic in their collision of utopian and dystopian. An airport’s characteristics of cleanliness, brightness, surveillance, and control of smooth passage set it in an ambiguous space between ideal and nightmare. If the airport can be an illustration of our surveillance society as a whole, then all space is heterotopic, containing a mingling of projected utopian energies and dystopian infringements.

Vahram Aghasyan

Foucault writes of the heterotopia’s feature of juxtaposing several non-compatible spaces, using the planned garden as an example of how diverse landscapes can be brought together in an attempted order, their wild natures forced into neighbourliness. Libraries and museums can be viewed in the same light, the times and voices of their contents becoming folded into one and contained in their structures. Like the cemetery then, the archive cannibalises time.

Carlos Garaicoa

Colonial, socialist and modernist utopias now stand in ruins, examples of what Benjamin called allegories,[2] with their present story of demise just one amongst others of aspiration, construction and ideology. Many utopias become ruins in their infancy, for instance Oscar Niemeyer’s international market place in Tripoli, and Gyumri, an Armenian modernist city that began to be constructed following an earthquake in 1988 but was never completed after the fall of the Soviet Union the following year. In both cases, filmmakers and photographers have investigated the sites as heterotopic ghost towns that either contrast their contemporary surroundings (filmmaker Knut Åsdam contrasts Niemeyer’s swooping cast-concrete architecture with Tripoli’s vernacular skyline) or reflect themselves in an infinite, melancholy monologue (In his series Ghost Town, Vahram Aghasyan superimposes images of water onto photographs so that the bases of Gyumri’s buildings stand in reflective shallows. The effect is Venetian, or even Biblical, suggesting the site of a great flood or immanent sinking). The suggestion of a mirror from the water in Aghasyan’s images is important because it recalls Foucault’s description of the heterotopic space as a mirror, both real and unreal, reflective of its actual surroundings yet also a non-existent ideal.

Tate Modern’s current exhibition, Out of Place, features photographs that Damascus-based artist Hrair Sarkissian took of the derelict Soviet architecture in his father’s homeland, Armenia. Having imagined a place described in his father’s stories very different to the reality he found and photographed, Sarkissian presents to us images of a heterotopia. The monumental ruins ‘mirror human desires’ and ‘reflect the impossibility of their realisation’ (says Kasia Redzisz in the exhibition’s accompanying booklet), and the concepts of a failed political regime and Sarkissian’s failed hope of finding his ‘land’ are emphasised by the epic mountainous terrain pictured in the backgrounds. The landscape engulfs and ruins human projections. Sarkissian both belongs to the place (through parentage) and is distant from it. The act of ‘visiting’ Armenia, and placing a camera between himself and the landscape, further distances him from his subject. In the large-scale photographs of bleak cast-concrete buildings, there is a feeling of longing for a proximity and utopia that never existed. Like W. G. Sebald’s melancholic wanderer Austerlitz, Armenia’s Soviet architecture mirrors Sarkissian’s state of mind. 

Hrair Sarkissian

Park Hill

In his series, Ruins of Our Time, Aghasyan surveys cast-concrete bus stops built in Le Corbusier’s style, one recalling the Ronchamp chapel and another, Chandigarh.  The bus stops were never used yet still stand today; they are miniature heterotopias, the disparate identities of everyday, monumental, service and relic juxtaposed within them. Monumental and historic architecture is also recalled in a more prosaic setting in Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa’s photograph of a burst water pipe flooding a street in Havana, titled Frank Lloyd Wright and the Falling Water House (1999). It is as if Aghasyan and Garaicoa are finding beauty in their areas – areas that we as outsiders would perhaps disregard as ‘slums’ – while also pointing out the social discrepancy between utopian ideals and reality, and between projects that were realized in affluent areas or with financial aid as opposed to those that were not. Garaicoa’s photograph also opens up a consideration of Cuba as a utopia or heterotopia. In some ways, Cuba embodies More’s template of a utopia, being an island that has maintained its independence for decades. Yet it is also criticized abroad for being too idealistic and controlling when its inhabitants frequently deviate from its rules (a black-market economy exists, for instance). Like a city in the sky, perhaps, Cuba both benefits and suffers from its regime, its people sometimes at odds and sometimes at accords with its politics. Many utopias become dystopian through over-prescriptive order, particularly when its designers do not occupy the same space as its users (when the architect or politician is detached, socially and economically, from his client). Laurie Baker provides a counter-example of this, being a British architect working in India who lived in what he designed and used his own home there as a testing-ground for materials and systems. It also happens that a utopian ideal (of equality, for instance) is aestheticised and redeveloped into a thoroughly different ideal. It is thus that companies such as Urban Splash incorporate developments such as Sheffield’s Park Hill (a streets-in-the-sky social housing estate opened in 1961) into a regeneration project that only maintains one third or so social housing, the other part becoming high-end housing and leisure facilities. While it is easy to understand the incentive here, the philanthropic ideal has been recycled into a capitalist one. With the current recession halting reconstruction work, Park Hill threatens to join Gyumri in the category of failed utopias, and become a palimpsest of attempted dreams.

[1] Foucault, M (1967/86) ‘Of Other Spaces’ in Diacritics vol 16 no 1 Spring 1986
[2] Benjamin, W (1925) ‘Allegory and Trauerspiel’ in The Origin of German Tragic Drama

with thanks to Ros Gray