New Utopias (Script)
Today I’m going to talk to you about New Utopias.
Writers and artists have conjured images of ideal worlds since the time of the ancient Greeks. In The Republic Plato debates the roles of justice and government in an ideal republic that one could call a much-improved version of ancient Athens.
Nearly two millennia later, in 1516, Thomas More invented an island republic called Utopia and invested it with all of his ideas about the ideal society. More’s book launched a new genre called utopian literature. H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia is one of its better-known products. The protagonist of Wells’ book happens upon utopia during a hike in the mountains. It is a world that appears to be a much improved version of planet earth circa 1905. Wells’ observations on utopian society, government and architecture are in fact prescriptions for change in Victorian society.
HG Wells understood that you need to picture your ideal before you can achieve it. And he wasn’t the last to recognize the importance of the utopian imagination. Writers, musicians and filmmakers have continued to imagine their own perfect worlds to the present day. Let’s take a look at a few examples from the 1960s and 70s. I’ll show you how each of these visions of utopia says something about the society in which it was produced. We’ll also see how each example makes use of architecture and technology to put across the image of a modern—and perhaps even futuristic—ideal society.
Imagine a world filled with such joy and exuberance that a simple walk down the street takes the form of a choreographed dance. The gorgeous populace of this world is clothed in short skirts and narrow-legged trousers in a late 1960s palette of saturated primaries—rather chic by today’s standards.
This is the world created by director Jacques Demy for his film Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. The 1960s was a time of worldwide social upheaval, and the cities of France in particular, were the battlegrounds for a massive student rebellion. Demy’s film, shot in 1968, invites viewers into a harmonious, alternative version of France, devoid of revolution and struggle. This apolitical France is populated by artists, musicians and dancers, whose only concerns are love and art.
To create his aesthetic utopia, the director took a real place, the dull garrison town of Rochefort, and turned it into a fabulous parallel universe. He had his creative team repaint the town’s facades in brilliant colours and outfitted the townsfolk to match. The centerpiece of Demy’s utopian reinvention of Rochefort is a glass-walled café.
In this sketch, made by the film’s set designers, you can see the café to be built on the town’s main square. This is a model of the café. It’s the site of the film’s key narrative development. The next clip shows the sailor Maxence—who is also an abstract painter—seated in the café, pining for his feminine ideal.
The café is a glass prism that both contains the action of the film and sends a message in its design. The glass-clad buildings we recognize as “modern architecture” are the result of advances in twentieth century building technology. But on a symbolic level, the clean, sharp lines of this architecture appeal to those who consider themselves modern and progressive. In the 1950s and 60s glass-walled houses like these were considered status symbols. They made their owners seem fashionable and forward-thinking. In the same way, the modern glass-walled café contrasts with Rochefort’s traditional architecture and lends the characters’ lives an air of stylish sophistication. Demy’s aesthetic utopia was a place that all viewers longed to visit.
There was another revolution taking place in the 1960s and 70s: The sexual revolution.
In 1975, 20th Century Fox released a film whose theme was the social manifestation of a collective libido. This depiction of sexual utopia was titled the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The hero of this film is a transvestite Dr. Frankenstein. He is the leader of the film’s small society of transsexuals, hermaphrodites, homosexuals, and other misfits.
The film’s narrative follows two unlikely interlopers, Brad Majors and Janet Weiss as they happen upon the inauguration of the scientist’s new erotic toy Rocky. Like the protagonists in HG Wells’ Modern Utopia, Brad and Janet leave the mundane real world behind and enter an ideal world that is first glimpsed from afar. Utopia is first seen as a shining geodesic dome rising above the highest roofs of a crumbling 19th century castle.
This dome houses the scientist’s pleasure laboratory. It also symbolizes the society he has assembled there and the world he has created, a world where acting out ones sexual fantasies is the principal occupation.
Why a dome? The geodesic dome is an ingenious spanning system developed by Buckminster Fuller in the late 1940s. Fuller’s domes, made up of interlocking triangles could take on any size, from the relatively compact dome of the laboratory, to vast domes designed to shelter entire cities. For many in the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s and 70s, including our sexual revolutionaries, the geodesic dome was a utopian signifier. It was an-easy-to-use building form that looked like the product of an ideal future society. Where the glass-clad structures I mentioned earlier represented sophisticated modernity, the geodesic dome suggests a freeform yet technologically-advanced counter-culture.
The climax of the Rocky Horror narrative is the “floorshow,” a musical manifesto of sorts. The scientist commands: “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure,” and the characters, now dressed as transvestites, jump into the pool to act out his wishes. We hear “Don’t dream it, be it,” repeated like a mantra. This could be the motto of a republic modeled on the small experimental society depicted in this film. This would be a country whose symbol is the geodesic dome and whose constitution decrees the replacement of all fantasies with their immediate public manifestation.
So far we have observed an aesthetic utopia and a sexual utopia. Let’s see what a funk utopia would look like…
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s produced many cultural manifestations in music, literature and film. Among the most interesting was a genre of science fiction called “afrofuturism”. One of the figures associated with this movement was science fiction writer Samuel R. Delaney. He imagined intergalactic societies so complex that racial difference seemed to get lost. Another figure was jazz bandleader Sun Ra. His saying “Space is the place” became the mantra for afrofuturism’s ideal of an off-earth utopia.
True to the heterogeneous character of the movement, the funk band Parliament Funkadelic—also known as P-Funk—developed its own unique outer-space mythology in the early-1970s. P-Funk told this story in an elaborate concert tour called the Mothership Connection. The Mothership was a full-scale space ship that was lowered onto the stage at the climax of the P-Funk performance. In this concert footage, singer Glenn Goins heralds the arrival of the Mothership and invites a Houston stadium audience to take a ride.
We have just seen bandleader George Clinton arrive from outer space on the Mothership. He has also brought the funk, and by disseminating it on earth, he will create a new funk-based utopia. This is exactly what happens during the concert ritual when the music, the narrative, and a strong, collective fellow-feeling develops between performer and audience. This funk utopia is manifest in performer and concert goers’ emotional intersubjectivity. It also features a stimulating collective eros. But here there are no reductive aspirations to an ideal sexual object. Instead we enjoy an endless variety of freakiness, and an exponential mutation of identities.
In early 1970s America human travel to outer space continued to fire the public imagination, even after the 1960s race to the moon was won. At the same time, people were fascinated with the possibility of visitors from other worlds and the vehicles they might arrive in. The mothership, in its design, represents lingering traces of Apollo Program euphoria and the period dream of contact with extraterrestrial societies. P-Funk and other black artists fueled the fantasy that these societies could be celestial utopias, ready to send their emissaries to earth to teach us how to build our own ideal society.
P-Funk’s huge crossover appeal and their progressive anti-war and anti-consumerist messages resonated in 1970s society. But their radicalism lay less in evocations of distant utopias, and more in their success—still going strong today—in generating utopia through performance, both in the audience and on stage.
Let’s take another look at the structures that I just pointed out in the film clips we’ve seen: The glass café, the domed laboratory, and the spaceship. These structures play an important role. They operate as the containers for the dreams and aspirations of the societies depicted in these films. They symbolize their utopias in the same way H.G. Wells’ glass-clad buildings symbolized his Modern Utopia.
As the years have passed, the meaning of Wells’ Modern Utopia has changed. What seemed futuristic in 1905 doesn’t seem so new to us now. That’s why new utopias, like the ones I have just shown you, have been created. They replaced earlier visions like Wells’. I’m curious to see what new visions of utopia will replace these.