The MA Architecture + Urbanism course is the Manchester School of Architecture's taught postgraduate course which conducts research into how global cultural and economic forces influence contemporary cities. The design, functioning and future of urban situations is explored in written, drawn and modelled work which builds on the legacy of twentieth century urban theory and is directed towards the development of sustainable cities.

Wednesday 7 May 2014


The Fifth Annual MA Architecture + Urbanism International Symposium was held at Manchester Art Gallery on 1 May 2014 with the theme MANUFACTURING UTOPIA: HAPPINESS IN EMERGING ENVIRONMENTS. In his opening remarks the symposium chair PAUL SHEPHEARD referred to the renaissance quest for utopia (prior to Thomas More's first use of the term) as being represented in Vasco da Gama's voyage to discover Eden. It was an attempt, albeit an inevitably frustrated one, to make the world a better place, although the methods to achieve that aim might fall into hard and soft options, where the former category overlaps unpleasantly with totalitarian agendas. Shepheard predicted that the day's presentations would fall into the 'soft utopia' category in the morning, leaving 'hard utopia' to form the basis of the afternoon.

The first speaker ANASTASIA KARANDINOU preceded her own research by showing the recently deceased Hans Hollein's 'mobile office' project from the mid 1960s where he looked forward to utopian environments which were essentially ephemeral in nature. Her research into the digital possibilities of installations and their relationship to sensory experience was seen as augmenting architecture's potential to define space beyond the visual and the material. She raised the question as to whether we can reconstruct the experience of a city from its fragments, a recovery perhaps dependent on a utopian reliance on technology.

Having thereby revealed herself as falling into the 'hard utopia' category, James Burton and Oliver Farrell of WHITE PAPER GAMES continued the theme of fragmented memory in describing the process of creating their games design company's first release Ether One. Adopting the scenario of a struggle against dementia, their provocative presentation emphasised the need to create an emotional engagement with an environment, actual or virtual, which was an implicit riposte to the rational utopianism of more familiar architectural products.

In the roundtable discussion that followed there was a clear generational divide between those made uncomfortable by these digital utopias, because of their potential for submission to political control, and those who saw them as offering new possibilities for experience and experimentation. John Grindrod suggested that the structure behind digital experience, games or installation environments, could be mor interesting than their immediately seductive appearances. What was emerging, however, was the connection between utopia and some form of therapeutic remedy to a malign condition, urban, societal or mental.

After informal lunchtime discussions PIPPO CIORRA explored 'architopia', an expression of 'utopia lust' which linked it as a critical device with the political context. Presented as social, monumental or technological alternatives he explored the history of Italian architecture through a utopian lens which saw architects designing for a society which was not there, but was in their heads. His challenge as a curator was to present it as a 'tabula no rasa', an anamnesis of projects the motto of which might be that 'badly applied utopia produces ruins'.

JOHN GRINDROD contrasted this frustrated utopia with the achievements of British new town of the post war period. Ambition matched with realism was responsible for producing a modicum of the happiness mentioned in the symposium subtitle. Although differences could be explored in detail in Harlow, Cumbernauld and Milton Keynes he asserted that the broad direction of these new settlements was a benign provision of improved living conditions for the working people of industrialised cities. Their resulting form could be seen to reflect the political phases of, respectively, the postwar consensus, the 'white heat of the technological revolution, and incipient Thatcherism (an individualistic utopia).

Declaring herself to be pragmatic rather than utopian ODILE DECQ discussed by way of introduction her practice's work in the context of some installation projects. She then moved on to lead the audience through a mixture of cultural and commercial projects in Paris, Rennes, Lyon, Rome, Tangiers, and Nanjing and her next (educational) utopia the new architecture school Confluence. All were characterised by Decq's strong spatial, material and chromatic sense which creates a very personal vision of architectural possibilities. Perhaps the most beguiling of these was the private commission of a black yacht which recalled the image of the voyage of discovery with which Paul Shepheard had begun the day's discussions.

In the final roundtable, although there was some disagreement about the interpretation of the utopian project, it was agreed that the fascination with the idea of utopia, of an ideal city, was still very powerful. Pippo Ciorra predicted that the 'architect as demiurge' would be evident, under the direction of Rem Koolhaas, in this year's Venice Architecture Biennale, where new urban visions would be displayed to beguile the architectural community, drawing the day's discussions to an optimistic and convivial conclusion that the quest for utopia remains one of architecture's fundamentals.

Symposium report 2013 Symposium report 2012 Symposium report 2011 Symposium report 2010

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