What happened to Utopia?

A conversation about how we live and dream in our cities

Inspired by a beautiful project by my talented friend Mariana in which I had the chance to take part, I am writing this post to invite us all to reflect upon how we live — or just pass — in our cities, and what it takes to shape them the way we dream them. Indeed, cities are where we spent most of our time, but we usually have very little to say about how we want them to be. Mariana and I have both engaged in experimentations to make the city where we are currently living in — London — a little bit more like the one we see in our dreams: more human, playful, colorful, and owned by its inhabitants. Here is a conversation about what inspired our projects, and I hope a inspiration for all to act and make our cities like the ones we want to live in!

A bit of context and how we got there…

Mariana organized a series of interventions — the “Bemerton imaginary square” — , designed to activate a wasteland in the middle of the Bemerton Estate, a rare remembrance of Modernism at the heart of the rapidly changing East London. Mariana’s aim was to bring back a sense of utopia — as a place shaped by human relationships — in this space that became overlooked with years. In partnership with the local authority, she organized four events aiming to bring the square to life: a coffee shop, a community garden, a cinema, and a games area. Local residents were invited to actively take part in the organization of the events. The events brought colors and happiness to the space, and encouraged meaningful interactions between the local residents and their environment, revealing the possibilities of interactions within the everyday environment that can diminish the sometimes hostile architecture of the city.

I share Mariana’s vision, and found strong connections with the “Regent Estate Dreams Drawing Factory”, a project I have organized myself and talked about here.

Utopia. You seemed very interested in the idea behind utopia in architecture, can you explain why?

Mariana: Utopia has for a long embodied Human’s dream to live in a perfect world with a fair and forgiving system, beautiful and clean cities, with happy and healthy communities. The idea of utopia is so wide that it makes it difficult to grasp, and today we have become cynical regarding the possibility for utopias in our modern world. In my work I am not seeking to represent a perfect world like the one Thomas More portrayed in his namesake book, but rather an ideal that makes people aspire to happier living. For me utopia became a tool to act upon my immediate environment.

In architecture and city planning, Modernism has used the idea of utopia to regenerate the building environment in moments of crisis, but with time we realized that it produced a kind of standardized happiness, that forgot the human part of the city. I am interested in looking at Utopia beyond the material and practical, and rather grasp it as the exploration of human possibilities that can be acted out within our urban environments.

What did you find most challenging in designing a series of events for, and with, the Bemerton Estate community?

Mariana: Approaching communities through design can be a tough job, at least for me it was one of the most challenging things I have done so far. Being an outsider is always hard, so there a need for a process of acceptation from the community to enter it. And in this process it’s all about time, about gaining trust, about acknowledging everyone as human beings. At first I had many problems trying to get community members on board of the project, as this neighborhood is not specially recognized for unity and enthusiasm. But by immersing myself into this environment and with the constant involvement with residents I could then inspire and create the project with them, which was a very fun experience in the end.

What did you find most fulfilling in designing a series of events for and with a community?

Mariana: After long and hard work, it is always really gratifying to see people smiling, having fun, asking for more things to happen on the Estate. After the time I have spent at the Bemerton Estate, I can feel there was a different atmosphere, in which more people got involved in the making of the community. It is always gratifying seeing people getting surprised about meeting people, about learning new things about their neighbours about the way we can live the city in a more playful way, stepping out from routine and isolation.

What kind of particular interaction with local residents do you remember?

Mariana: Engaging with the residents in the making was a very fun part. Kids were immediately attracted by the interventions I was making, wanting to be part of it, eager to have some kind of co-authorship of the interventions. Some kids from the neighborhood started to paint the lines in the floor, that looked like floorplans of a possible meeting space, like this they ilustrated their own space and personalized it how they wanted their square to be. Also, involving the residents in the organization of the project, and sharing skills and ideas was very enriching as we both learned from each other.

When you think about the ideal city, what do you see?

Mariana: I see a city that is not divided by class, and where architecture does not point out our differences. For me the ideal city is one in which we could live happy amongst green spaces, conscious of our environment and our own presence within the city. It is a place of fun and culture, where our public spaces are made to connect and inspire us to act as communities.

How do you do to find inspiration for your projects?

Mariana: I find inspiration in the connections between all the impulses I take in life. Walking down a street thinking about a book I’ve read, taking a photo that relates to a movie I’ve seen, having a conversation that answers or makes more questions. I think inspiration is always present, we embody what surround us unconsciously, inspiration then comes when we can be conscious about what we see or experience. The work I am producing lately is inspired by years of living in Mexico City, in which the dynamics of the urban environment have made my head full of questions. My curiosity to answer or explore these questions have taken me to the estate.

What do you think about the future of Utopia on the Bemerton Estate?

Mariana: I think Utopia must be seen more like “micro-utopia”, local based utopia, small dreams and actions. By all these small actions I have provoked encouraged the community to strengthen and take ownership of the public grounds. This project that began as an experiment, has a future, that hopefully can create a little achievable utopia.