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Arthur Molella on 20th Century Techno-Cities

The coauthor (with Robert Kargon) of Invented Edens talks about utopian planning from Ebenezer Howard to Disney.

Invented Edens, the new book by Arthur Molella and Robert H. Kargon, tells the stories of what they call "techno-cities" - new towns planned often completely from scratch in conjunction with big technological or industrial projects. These range from Torviscosa, the Italian nuova città developed by Mussolini for the sole purpose of producing chemicals, to Celebration, Disney Corporation's perfect fibre-optic suburb.

DD: Did you visit any of the towns you write about in the book?
AM: We went to Celebration in Florida and then Torviscosa and Ivrea in Italy. Actually experiencing the cities was captivating – they were like time capsules of the past.

DD: Many of these projects were failures, and many were of fascist origin, but you're very even-handed. You could have written a much harsher book.
AM: We tried to put our emotions aside and judge these projects by the standards of their era. They were very much products of their time - noble failures. Understanding that, we could see clearly the incredible contradictions between the ideals they were built on and the harsh realities of those periods.

DD: Daniel Monk said in my interview with him that "19th century utopian projects like Owen’s New Lanark community or James Silk Buckingham’s Victoria" are now seen as "emanations of an emerging bourgeois order rather than true workers’ paradises". Do you think that's true of their 20th century descendants?
AM: Absolutely. Almost all of these were capitalist projects, meant intentionally as an alternative to socialism and communism. They’re not typical utopias in that respect.

DD: One of the themes of the book is write a lot about the conflict between thrusting urbanism and traditional agrarianism - many planners seemed determined to have both in the same place.
AM: These towns really try to meld two extremes. They try to give you a pastoral paradise and put the most stressful kind of technology enterprise right in the midst. They’re almost petri dishes.

DD: It seems pretty obvious now that you can only really have one or the other.
AM: Yes, but back then they had enough of an ideology around them that they didn’t feel that contradictions as strongly. With "neotechnics", the Garden City planners thought they had a kind of organic solution to the problems associated with big industry. They were not raving socialists – they came from a statist standpoint or an industrial standpoint and tried to practise a sort of benevolent paternalism.

DD: You write that many of these planners were trying to create a "new man".
AM: After the First World War, there was a sense that one could start again from the bottom after something so horrible. But then they were hit with another war, and the "new man" philosophy – with its racial overtones, the “blood and soil” – became discredited. It’s largely a fascist notion that you can remake human beings.

DD: Fascism aside, does any of that optimism about improving the human condition through planning still exist?
AM: There was a lot of idealism in the sixties, but the conservative reaction to the excesses of that time brought an end to a lot of utopian thinking. On the other hand, the eco-cities that are being built, they certainly invoke the idea that if you shape human environments you can shape human beings. A lot of architects incorporate that principle now – it’s even more mainstream, it’s just not configured in the same way. I think the difference is, people see that it’s best to incorporate whatever you can into existing structures, rather than planning something new where you try to control every single factor.

DD: Just like Oscar Niemeyer, the man behind Brasilia, many of the American planners of Ciudad Guyana in Venezuela hardly visited the site or mixed with the locals. Is it common for utopian planners to hold the physical reality of their projects at arm's length?
AM: It’s certainly a danger. It can be very inconvenient to see contrary points of view if you’re a dreamer. And if you look at somebody like Frank Lloyd Wright, who was going to build a mile high skyscraper in Illinois – he certainly didn’t think about the people who were going to live in it. But on the other hand if you take someone like Paolo Soleri, he’s also an artist with a powerful vision, but he actually lives in the communities that he builds.

DD: How did you see the ideology of these towns reflected in the architecture?
AM: There was a very persistent modernist theme, but juxtaposed with a counter-theme of a classical vernacular. It was fascinating when we saw them both at the same time – for instance, in Torviscosa, they reserved the vernacular for the house and then used the international style, as Mussolini preferred, for the government buildings. In a similar way, in Celebration, it’s all retro, except that right in the middle is all this very postmodern starchitect stuff.

DD: Is there something inherently utopian, or even fascist, about modernist architecture?
AM: It’s the grandeur, and the evocation of Greece of Rome in the stylised classicism. Mussolini liked to compare himself to the Caesars. But the contradiction between innovation and traditionalism is always there – there are so many currents in modernism, and one of them is certainly anti-modernism.

DD: Here's what I thought was the most extraordinary fact in the book: that one of the reasons for the rapid (and, many would argue, misguided) suburbanisation of the United States was so that homes would be very spread out in case there was a nuclear attack.
AM: I think that was really how you got the money for something like highway construction. The autobahn in Germany was the same – based on the idea that you had to have very rapid mobility in the event of war. And then it got bound up with a new idea of prosperity, and the problem was that no one expected the revenge of the automobile – suburbs were supposed to be about clean easy living, not getting locked in traffic jams.

DD: Don't people get angry when they realise that the reason they have to drive for an hour just to visit a friend is that Cold War paranoia is physically imprinted on their community?
AM: They have no knowledge of it! Few historians look at all that.

Invented Edens is out on Monday from MIT Press. On Wednesday October 15, the University of Westminster's Governance and Sustainability will be holding an event based around the book, including a lecture by Arthur Molella and Robert Kargon - click here for more details.