Visionary Architecture

Architect Paul Nelson's "Suspended House" was included in the Visionary Architecture exhibition.

Architect Paul Nelson's "Suspended House" was included in the Visionary Architecture exhibition.


The word 'visionary' today can have frightening connotations. It conjures up as many bogeys and glimpses of hell as suggestions of the Blessed Isles or Elysium. A hundred years ago when the world was swept up in a super-optimistic misinterpretation of Darwin's theory of evolution, 'visionary' would have called forth some image of man in a state of his supposed perfectability or a notion of the universe docile and in its place.

Around the turn of the century Spengler's pessimistic view of 'The Decline of the West' was just a straw in the impending ty­phoon. For instance, man no sooner got a clear picture of the atom than he began splitting it and making bombs out of the bits and pieces. Now we have H-bombs, guided missiles, germ warfare and teenagers. In addition to a horde of new sophisticated diseases some governments are on the verge of successfully reviving the Black Plague. No wonder that the word 'visionary' makes most peo­ple today look for the nearest place to hide.

The literature of our time has also been responsible for this dis­illusionment. The visionary balloons most often popped are the ubi­quitous utopias: schemes for ideal cities or perfect states; and after George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and some of the Science Fiction boys, 'utopia' has become a dirty word, or at least one to make sentimentalists like me shudder. Perhaps needless to say, 'utopia' had somewhat less cataclysmic overtones when it was newer. Sir Thom­as More coined the term as the title of his famous book published in 1516, although the notion of an ideal if visionary state goes back at least to Plato's 'Republic'. Hippodamus probably had a visionary plan in mind when he laid out a grid system for the streets of ancient Miletus. A thousand years later one Isidore of the same city, Miletus, collaborated with Anthemius of Thralles to design the truly visionary basilica of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. It was to visionary schemes of the ancient world such as those of Plato and Hippodamus— both theoretical and actual—that the visionaries of the Renaissance turned.

Paolo Soleri's "Long Span Concrete Bridge" - also in the 1960 exhibition.

Paolo Soleri's "Long Span Concrete Bridge" - also in the 1960 exhibition.

In the following symposium based on the exhibition, Mr Ardley and Mr Porsolt both refer to the problem of visionary architecture in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and several of the con­tributors consider more recent examples; but what visionary schemes are to be found in the period between classical antiquity and the Renaissance? Is visionary architecture limited only to per­iods of 'high culture'?

Perhaps the visionary element in man's mental world is far too basic to be changed utterly by such a phenomenon as the mere col­lapse of a civilisation. Thus it is not surprising that visionary schemes persist throughout the so-called Dark Ages. Actually, the writings of the mediaeval poets are chocked full of architectural fantasies. In the 'Pelerinage de Charlemagne', the 'Roman de Troie' and the so-called letter of Prester John, in Wolfram von Eschen­bach's 'Parzifal' and 'Jungeren Titurel', and in Gottfried von Strass­burg's 'Tristan and Isolde' there are fabulous and fantastic temples, throne rooms and chambers of love. These structures were to be built of marble, crystal, precious cloths, tons of gems and so much gold and silver that it gets dull just reading about it. The temple of the Holy Grail, for instance, was so visionary that it was transport­ed by angels to India.

Frank Lloyd Wright's design for the Pittsburgh Civic Center was featured.

Frank Lloyd Wright's design for the Pittsburgh Civic Center was featured.

Not all of mediaeval visionary architecture was restricted to lit­erary realisations. In fact the church or cathedral, as the basic architectural endeavour of the whole period, was visionary in a symbolically vital and explicit sense. As Paul Frankl has written: 'In this connection we should not only think of the significance of the Heavenly Jerusalem for the Early Christian basilica. We know that the Gothic cathedrals sought through the iconographic programs of their sculptures and stained glass to illustrate . . . the image of the universe.' It is just this juxtaposition of literary utopias or fan­tasies with actual realisations that is one of the most fascinating historical aspects of visionary architecture. In discussing this in­tellectual division between verbal and visual culture Professor Mar­tin Meyerson of Harvard University and M I T, writes: 'Curiously, these two traditions did not influence each other but developed apart. The literary utopias constructed a desirable future in terms of altered social organisations and institutions. The design utopias portrayed a desirable future in terms of altered artifacts and the organisation of space. The verbal or social utopias, if they have dealt at all with elements of physical environment, have done so but superficially: the farms and interrelations of housing, workshops, facilities for education and recreation, and the distribution of open land, have followed as afterthoughts, alterations in property, in fam­ily, in political and other institutions. Conversely, the utopias of visual design have ignored class structure, the economic base and the process of government in the desirable future they present.'

The various contributions to this symposium place different stress upon the verbal and upon the visual, although in some there is equal treatment of both considerations. But this exhibition of vis­ionary architecture has a very non-literary cast; if not all of the schemes are practical, all of them are possible ... or at least they were conceived as being possible—while literary utopias often better serve their symbolic ends by being flagrantly impossible. Even so, the issue of practicality is not always the most interesting one to be raised by these projects, and in some ways, to insist up­on the realistic here is like eating raw carrots during the Hallelujah Chorus. But sooner or later, I suppose, we must give some seri­ous thought as to the relevance of such an exhibition to Auckland and to New Zealand generally.

Producer Alexander Korda's set designs for the film "Things to Come" also was included.

Producer Alexander Korda's set designs for the film "Things to Come" also was included.

Sooner or later also, one will arrive at a paradox: there is still the conscious tradition of New Zealand's settlement and early his­tory, the vestigial remnants of a true pioneering spirit; and then there is security-minded, apathetic, self-satisfied, conforming and generally anti-pioneering spirit, which will usually be admitted by most citizens (according to their awareness and candour) of this Promised Land. This paradox has some interesting features when applied to architecture and/or visions.

There is a healthy, pioneer willingness to 'do it yourself'. While this may be socially or psychologically creditable, it is architectur­ally disastrous. Moreover, even if it weren't, building codes, city or­dinances, strict controls on both price and availability of materials pretty well cramp any pioneering spirit of architectural promise.

In the population as a whole there seems to be little real interest in any of the fine arts, including architecture. This is in accord with a truly pioneer sense of empiricism and earthy practicality. The trouble of course is that good design, especially in architecture, is not only more practical but almost always more economical (and economy is another pioneer virtue); then too, man lives not by kumaras alone.

The 1916 stepped design of "Friendship House" by Franz Poelzig.

The 1916 stepped design of "Friendship House" by Franz Poelzig.

When the early New Zealanders first conquered Nature, domesti­cated the Maori and won time to begin to think about 'style' more than about survival, they turned full face towards Great Britain. In the architecture after about 1900 they proceeded to emulate Eu­rope in almost unbroken display of vulgarity and ostentation. The same thing happened in America but the story is sadder and the loss greater here, because an indigenous style which possessed architectural qualities of some value was beginning to develop in New Zealand. The fine buildings of this vintage that do re­main are being pulled down today wherever the speculative builder gets there before the Historic Places Trust.

Just as the original pioneer self-reliance gave way to aping of overseas fashions, today there appears to be another period of in­discriminate importation of overseas 'style' under way as the coun­try passes through the puberty of its own industrial revolution and becomes 'modern'. The almost certain victim of such a policy is anything that might be of true relevance to the fine arts in New Zealand—because it gets swamped and lost in so much rubbish. (But don't think that there was proportionately any less rubbish around when, say, Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Ceiling). However, an even greater tragedy would result if this fadism is al­lowed to inhibit the growth of New Zealand's own artists and archi­tects, poets and musicians.

The visionary element is quite vulnerable in the individual (see how we manage to kill it in our children). And this is particularly true when socety in general is hostile to the visionary. Face it: how much vision is possible in a society whose essential philosophy can be summed up in the phrase 'She'll be right'?

The point of this exhibition is to present the visions of some men who have had the inspiration, and then have had the courage to stand behind it. This could give one heart. This could also sug­gest that in some way the visionary is useful, or indeed, even nec­essary to the continued vigour, growth and efficient functioning of society. Visionaries may not always make society more pleasant but they will always be important. Whether the world becomes Utopia or becomes extinct some visionary will probably be responsible. This exhibition was selected by Arthur Drexler of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and was originally shown there in 1960. The visit to New Zealand is part of the exhibition's world tour which is being sponsored by the International Council of the Museum of Mod­ern Art. Arrangements for the Auckland showing are being handled as a seminar project by third year students of the history of archi­tecture at the Elam School of Fine Arts, the University of Auckland. Local sponsors of the exhibition include the Auckland City Art Gal­lery, the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects, the University of Auckland's School of Architecture and Elam School of Fine Arts.

Mr. Drexler is currently preparing a volume on visionary architec­ture based on this exhibition; but this brochure was conceived to serve as an introduction for visionary architecture to New Zealand. It seemed that the very nature of the exhibition would stimulate questions of particular concern to us in the Antipodes, and that intel­ligent consideration of these questions — published as a symposium — could well add to the value and significance of the exhibition as a whole.

The contributors to this symposium are all from the Auckland area but the scope of their concern is such that their contributions should be meaningful to ali New Zealanders, and indeed, to anyone inter­ested in visionary architecture anywhere. Unfortunately, there was no opportunity for a leisurely or intense study of the exhibition be­fore this symposium was brought together, although most of the con­tributors know certain of the projects well, in addition to having gen­erally a wide and firm understanding of the history of architecture.

As a fitting prelude, the first paper in the symposium, by Profes­sor Kennedy, is based upon his years of experience—both theoreti­cal and practical— in the field of town planning. In considering the exhibition both from a professional and from a wider, more truly humanistic point of view, he raises some specific issues for the archi­tect as well as some fundamental issues about the place of vision­ary architecture in all our lives.

The paper by Dr. Sheppard brings into focus the element of vision in New Zealand's own history. Her fascinating notes on Pemberton's Happy Colony represent something of a 'discovery'; the two plans for the utopian settlement were added by us, and do not form a part of the regular exhibition as lent by the Museum of Modern Art.

Jeremy Beckett is primarily concerned with problems of residential design as he relates visionary architecture to the frame of reference of social anthropology. He gives us a fresh view of just what is in­volved when housing structure and design are considered in relation­ship to human beings and their institutions.

I. V. Porsolt writes both as an architectural critic and historian, and as an architect. In 'The Shifting Focus of Vision', he presents a sparkling survey of the visionary element in Western thought and building.

'The Usefulness of Vision' was written in collaboration by A. C. Goodfellow and D. J. Mitchell who are both third year students in Auckland University's School of Architecture: They carefully discuss implications of the term 'visionary' and provide a thoughtful analysis of its significance, emphasising the symbolic function of architecture.

G. W. R. Ardley offers a stimulating background for the exhibition in sketching the tradition of utopian thought and speculation. This philosophical aspect is particularly important because historically visionary architecture has so often involved the designing of struc­tures for an ideal society.

In the final paper of the symposium, W. D. Wilson relates the pro­blems of visionary architecture to the work and to the ideals of a practising architect. He leaves us perhaps to search out implications for our own lives, but certainly to realise that visionary architecture is potentially a great source of inspiration and hope for all the citi­zens in the City of Man.

Kurt von Meier, 1962
Written for the Visionary Architecture exhibition at the Auckland City Art Gallery
Arranged by the Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland, New Zealand, where Kurt was teaching art history