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The Similarities And Differences Between Utopia And Power

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“Utopia,” Abraham Ortelius

A ‘utopia’, purely from my own understanding, describes an ‘ideal place’ or ‘paradise’. According to the Oxford definition of the word, this understanding is not far from its actuality. It is defined as ‘an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect.’ This word, like many other in the English language, is of Latin origin and stems from the prefix ou meaning ‘not’ and the suffix topos meaning ‘place’. When translated the phrase ou-topos means ‘nowhere’, which may suggest that the reality of achieving it in a world such as our own is purely incomprehensible. It was first used in 1516 by Renaissance humanist and philosopher, Sir Thomas More in his book titled ‘Utopia’.

The book was written to criticize and bring particular attention to the shortfalls of a European political system and society that was largely based on the economic models of feudalism. The idea of this ‘utopia’ is therefore incredibly associated with the context of Europe at the time. In the fictional book, More describes through the eyes of a character other than himself, the discovery of an island referred to as Utopia. This place was an embodiment of an ideal human society governed by utilitarianism and rationalism. A place of productivity, shared resources, no greed, no hierarchy of classes, no crime, poverty or immoral behaviour, religious freedom, and little inclination to conflict.

The book is in many ways also self-critical of its themes and ideas put forth of this Utopia, as More is not oblivious to the various ways in which its policies may be perceived. It exhibits a few paradoxes and in ways portrays its subjectivity to human perspective, particularly Sir Thomas’ himself.

My initial understanding of a ‘utopia’ was derived from a story I recall from childhood. It was a mythological story about a civilisation existing in a mystical underwater city called Atlantis. The story described a pre-existing paradise that became submerged under the sea. There were structures made of gold, lush, evergreen forests and an abundance of food and wildlife. The people were believed to be just and wise beyond their years, equipped with an infinite knowledge to develop marvellous inventions. On a young and impressionable mind, I can understand how this idea may have manifested my current perception and interpretation of ‘utopia.’

The key thing to understand about this word is that it is entirely subjective. In some ways my interpretation of the word as a child correlates with Thomas More’s understanding of it. Both are true in depicting a perfect place, existing within a realm that does not quite coincide with reality. However, the difference is seen in our beliefs of what perfection is. Over the years, my perspective on the word has since shifted from perceiving Utopia as a magical, child-like fantasy but rather seeing it as a degree of ‘hope’ for an individual living in a world experiencing existential crises.

It is difficult to separate the concept of Utopia from various belief systems. As previously mentioned, Thomas More was a humanist, philosopher and highly acknowledged in many other disciplines but above all else a devout Catholic. It is a possibility that his religious beliefs may have had some influence on the manner in which he depicts Utopia. One way to analyse the intent of his 1516 Utopia could have been to promote reform in the European society according to Christian values.

I strongly believe that religion plays an intrinsic role in the conception of Utopia. There are various beliefs of alternate realms of existence. Some existing before the demise of mankind and others accessible only through death. In Christianity, the conception of ‘Heaven’ is a distinguishable Utopia as well as that of the ‘Garden of Eden’ and similarly how ‘Nirvana’ is affiliated with Buddhism. One thing is true of these utopian examples and that is they are unattainable in the parameters of the world in which we currently exist. This is similarly the case for various other contexts of utopia. By virtue of living in an imperfect world is it possible to shift deeply seeded ideas on matters such as gender inequality, racial inequality and cultural superiority?

Relating it to the context of the built environment under the discourses of architecture, culture and society. The distinct consensus in the field of architecture with regards to ideas of utopia has always been to design for the betterment of society. The manifestation of architectural utopias began at the beginning of the 20th century when the modernist movement began taking shape and architects reimagined how their architecture could solve worldly problems. Varied utopian visions came about. Some solely focused on the potential of new cities through the use of new industrial technologies, others on preservation of landscape within the built environment and even new social orders that could eliminate the gap between the wealthy and the poor. In his book, Architecture and Utopia, Tafuri Manfredo says, “To turn ideology into utopia thus became imperative. In order to survive, ideology had to negate itself as such, break its own crystalized forms, and throw itself entirely into the “construction of the future”.”

This describes the single, united mindset that the key to achieving a modern ‘Utopia’ was reliant on radically avant-garde architecture that dismantled traditional influence. There are various utopian ideas that began to stem but could never be physically executed as they only worked theoretically. As previously mentioned, this is the one true thing of the conception of ‘utopia’ and that is; it is out of the realm of reality. Architectural utopias such Le Corbusier’s ‘Plan Voison’ aimed to reconnect citizens with nature in a highly systematic and ordered manner. The ideal outcome was to better living conditions for all socioeconomic households while minimizing land use by building upwards. However, the plan involved the division of citizens through class, with the wealthy living in the lower, larger apartments with access to the outside while the poor housed the upper floors. This clearly indicates the flaws in Le Corbusier’s aspirations…..


Power is one of the splendours of man that is eminently prone to evil. Ricoeur (1965:255)

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Place Order

The word ‘power’ is derived from the Latin word potere and carries a variety of meaning on its predominant use in everyday conversation. The context in which the word is used is interchangeable and determines how it is understood. By the Oxford definition the word is defined in four ways, all possessing the idea of ‘having a capacity or ability to do something.’ For the purpose of this lexicon, ‘power’ shall be analysed in a context in which the word insinuates the existence of a submissive or ‘inferior’ entity with which it will be compared. In the state of human affairs and according to Rorty, ‘Power is the ability…to define and control circumstances and events so that one can influence things to go in the direction of one’s interests.’ ()

I believe, in the modern world, Power, or the sense of it, is determined by a system of hierarchy that has since been perpetuated from the beginning of time. Societies have always believed that any system or civilisation is most efficient under the rule of some kind of leader or structure of authority and this is evident in the ways in which our nations, countries, cities and even households have been set up from generation to generation.

It is the one consensus that is carried forth even through the variations of different cultures. History highlights the authorities of kings dating back as far as the biblical era, Kaizers that ruled the German empire, monarchies that governed the United Kingdom as well as Chiefs that head their villages in Africa. It is through this systematic sense of supremacy that a hierarchical pyramid is formed, with the ruler positioned at the top and possessing a great sense of power. The most detrimental aspect of this

Looking particularly at the history of Africa and that of Europe in Africa, this lexicon will define ‘power’ through the phenomenon of colonisation and how hegemonic Western societies enforced their authority over indigenous civilisations in the built environment. In her book, ‘Framing Places: mediating power in the built form’ Kim Dovey says, “The nexus of built form with power is, at one level, a tautological truth— place creation is determined by those in control of resources.”

Through the process of colonization, colonial powers from the west either forcibly took land from indigenous African societies or exploited them through forms of unfair trade. Targeting areas abundant in natural resources and establishing them as their centres of colonial rule, allowed them to possess power over land development. To me, this strongly exemplifies the connection between power and built form described by Dovey. There are various ways in which ‘power over’ is believed to be executed through the built environment and according to Dovey that is through: force, coercion, manipulation, seduction and authority.

Force is the explicit exercise of power which strips the subject of any choice of non-compliance, and these types of institutions in the built environment are typically spaces of confinement or exclusion. This kind of exhibition of power is prominent in the types of architecture associated with apartheid regime in South Africa that housed migrant workers and enforced segregation. The Panopticon layout of the labour compounds allowed for a large angle of constant surveillance, with the guardhouses located at the centre and the labour units surrounding them.

The migrant labourers were themselves arranged according to certain classifications. Those that were assumed to return to their rural homes after the end of their contracts were placed in the Barracks whilst those that had become familiar to the city were placed in separate ‘private’ quarters pertaining to the ‘cubicle system’. The intent to separate the men by these means was to avoid ‘social’ and ‘moral’ contamination.

The buildings orientation with the back ends facing away from the outside world aimed to further emphasise their separation from communities beyond the fence. Apartheid regime not only aimed to separate members within the indigenous communities but to create clear distinction between black and white racial groups.

The urban layout of cities was designed such that large expanses of land as well as industrial transport systems like railways could behave as buffer zones between black and white neighbourhoods.

Other forms of control through Apartheid’s colonial architecture is depicted through the monumental structures used to signify their territorialisation. I believe this form of control aligns with ‘power through coercion’ as previously highlighted by Kim Dovey. The dictionary defines coercion as ‘the threat of a force in order to secure compliance’. In colonial architecture, the keyway in which this is achieved is through ‘intimidation’ or ‘domination’. The perceived idea of something being over-powering forces subjects to submit willingly to it. Monuments representative of colonial power are often placed on central or elevated points for this reason. In the example of the Honoured Dead Memorial in Kimberly, the significance of the structure is portrayed by its locality at the centre of a four-way street where all roads lead to circulation around it. It stands as a prominent structure around the landscape as there are no other buildings within proximity to it. Similarly, Rhodes Memorial, situated at the foot of Devil’s Peak mountain sits as a glorified monument amongst the mountain range that dominates the city of Cape Town. This colonial monument enforces its power as a result of its elevation above the landscape.


With regards to the two key words in relation to one another, I question who possesses the power to define the true essence of ‘utopia’? The lexicon on this word illustrates that its interpretation is largely subjective and therefore implies that there could never be one exact consensus on what it is and how it can be achieved. In some sense I believe that the perpetuated definition of utopia is already bias to the member of the social group that formulated it. In the architectural sense, ideas of utopia conceived as a result of the modernist movement are subconsciously imbedded in our minds and guide the manner in which we imagine our own utopias. The issue with this I believe is that those ideas are birthed from a western way of thinking that may not necessarily accommodate African belief systems or systems of other various colonized social groups.

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