I am teaching a class on Utopian Images: Fact and Fiction and after the various novels, both utopian (e.g., "New Atlantis," "Looking Backward) and dystopian (e.g., "Brave New World," "Fahrenheit 451"), as well as the attempts to establish communal utopias in the United States (e.g., the Shakers, Oenida), there was a significant architectural movement involved with utopian structures. While not as primary an emphasis as the other two categories, there are certainly some interesting aspects of this aesthetic movement.
While the word "utopia," originally created by Sir Thomas More, paradoxically means both "no place" and "good place," obviously for architects it is the latter idea that is compelling. "Expressionist Utopias: Paradise, Metropolis, Architectural Fantasy," was originally published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This oversized volume looks at how the optimistic and forward-looking themes of utopia and fantasy sustained faith among not only architects but also artists to use the power of art to shape a better world during the era surrounding the First World War in Germany. The idea is that while all of the arts can offer a realm of fantasy, architecture becomes especially captivating because in part it provides the communal spaces of cultural identity in the form of meeting rooms, religious structures, and government buildings.
As such, "Expressionist Utopias" explores how architects took the opportunity to conceive and build a new environment for humanity. When it become pretty much impossible to actually construct new buildings in Germany between the wars, architects turned to drawing what they could not build. At the center of this movement were the "utopian architects" of the Working Council for Art and the Crystal Chain, whose architectural inventions ranged from ideal agrarian communities to futuristic worlds based on miraculous technological advances. Consequently, this book looks at the various manifestations of the utopian metaphor as it progresses through the Expressionists from arcadian to man-made utopias; in other words, what was once a nostalgia for the long lost paradise of the Bible's Garden of Eden or the Golden Age of Hesiod, was transformed into something that could be "constructed" in culture.
This volume includes selections from the realms of paradise, metropolis, architectural fantasy, anti-utopia, and film and stage. Timothy O. Benson, the curator of the exhibition and the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies as the museum, provides the introduction. Art history professor Reinhold Heller examines the integration of art and life in both nature and the studio found in the paradisiacal imagery of the nude by the Dresden Brucke artists. David Fribsy argues how Expressionist art became the key response to the disenchantment with the modern metropolis. Ian Boyd Whyte discovers the Romantic heritage of the sublime being reinvested from nature to the process of industrialization. Anton Kaes exaimines Fritz Lang's classic film, "Metropolis," as a balance between the progressive and repressive elements of modernism, which will certainly be useful when I use the film in class. Dedward Dimendberg looks at the installation by Coop Himmelblau and conducts an interview with principal architect Wolf D. Prix.
The back of "Expressionist Utopias" includes an appendix that surveys the social exchange that took place in various articles and manifestos, offering a sampling of the Crystal Chain's illustrated "utopia correspondence." There is also a biography of each artist and architect from the exhibit. Now, I certainly did not know all that much about 20th Century German art, but I certainly know a lot more after reading this book and looking at the pictures. Now, if I can just figure out how to work some of this into my class.