Architecture – Creating an Illusion of Utopia

As a preface to the essay, watch this video collage compiling footage from the 1927 German movie Metropolis as it displays a dystopian city.

To cater to the desire of clients and consumers, architecture often creates an illusion of Utopia, by masking issues instead of bringing them forth and attempting to disentangle them. Architecture resorts to working like a Band-Aid, a wall, a mask, a short-term “solution”. In this way, architecture divides people and hides society’s problems. It is easy to rationalize this architectural method that is more economically feasible and tends to satisfy clients. However, this “out of sight, out of mind” mindset is harmful as it blinds us to the issues of many sorts that surround us. This deceptive quality of architecture is seen often throughout history. Blatantly, it is seen in The Siheyuan courtyard-style house (link: https://globalhistory.expressions.syr.edu/the-balancing-act-public-space-as-a-healthful-counterweight-to-the-private-dwelling/), slave castles like that of Elmina, and in Victorian Era Housing in the United Kingdom.

The Siheyuan abides by this architectural condition of creating an illusion of utopia by isolating itself from the outside world. This is achieved by creating an opaque barrier between the residence and its surroundings. Windows face an interior courtyard, a heavy masonry wall wraps the perimeter of the complex, and only one access gate (usually screened for privacy) penetrates the façade. The courtyard also contributes to this division, as it allows for a separate cared for and lush landscape to flourish, oftentimes resembling a dreamscape nature. The Siheyuan eliminates any transparency and connection to what lies beyond the property. The Siheyuan’s ultra-privatized design was formed by architectural decisions relating to Chinese traditions and values (Confucianism), as well as formal ideas of privacy, sunlight optimization, and wind breaking. The consequence of the design is a creation of a private world for its residents, protected from the outside environment; i.e. intruders, and the noise and dust from the streets. Social hierarchies that appropriate the Siheyuan only led to further social divide and disengagement between China’s social classes. The extensive use of the Siheyuan throughout China’s history obstructed the creation of a community, instead creating many microcosmic compartments. The Siheyuan contributes a condition of unawareness to its residents.

The Elmina Slave Castle in Ghana, described in detail in Angela Shin and Esesua Ikpefan’s essay, “Architecture as a Social Segregator” (link: https://globalhistory.expressions.syr.edu/architecture-as-a-social-segregator/), also shows a utilization of architecture as a mask and problem perpetuator. The architecture, in this case, created two separate domains, combining high-end government facilities and residences with a horribly-kept prison. Disobedient slaves were put in condemned cells, and forgotten until dead. The governor lived an opulent life above the slaves, with little connection to them. The architecture allowed for the two parties to live without acknowledging each other. This racial segregation made it easy for the governor and other Dutch workers to dehumanize slaves as they were so distanced. The governor and other Europeans of high status were able to live in a manner where what they did not want to be in sight, was not in sight. If the governor desired sexual favors, a slave would appear in his room through a trap door, bathed and ready. This further exemplifies the segregation of both parties. The governor could summon sex as he wished, with no involvement in the process of the summoning. This blindness in regards to processes creates a philosophy where the end justifies the means. This results in the cheapest method of obtainment, no matter how immoral. The architecture of the castle is successful as it intentionally and effectively divides two races, as opposed to the Siheyuan, which divides the classes and families in a more consequential way. Both use opacity in construction to divide a utopia from an arguable dystopia, this being more extreme in the Elmina castle. Both instances use the idea of protecting a party from another to create a division of society and wellness. In the case of Elmina, the two parties are more defined. The problem, being the slave trade and slave facility as a whole, is hidden from the governor through the architecture. The illusion of utopia created here is exclusive to the governor. Whereas the Siheyuan is set against a town or village with conventional problems of safety and privacy, the Elmina castle is set against a much more contrasting landscape of slavery and torture. Its architecture further juxtaposes these two vastly dissimilar environments (filth and opulence). While the Siheyuan removes itself from its surroundings and problems, the slave castle cannot. The Siheyuan is considering and accommodating only one party; the slave castle complex accommodates for two.

In Victorian era houses in the United Kingdom, the key to running a good home meant that maids and servants were not visible. Different passages were used by the served and the servers. This again shows a delusion of the power-holder that a utopian life can be lived where things clean themselves magically, and dinners cook themselves. In this world, the servants are never seen. Frequently, such are the aspirations of the upper-class. The process of maintaining and running the house is considered nonexistent. Only the result is seen and important. Windows faced away from the principal areas of the house and doors leading to the servant’s quarters were concealed by screens and wallpapers or disguised as bookcases. Servants were not to be acknowledged. This house type shares with the Siheyuan and the Elmina castle a means of division through visual blocking. Opacity and transparency is an obvious tool in separation and concealment. However, what is distinct here is the lack of physical boundaries. The servers were a part of the house. They were not constrained to a specific area like in the slave castle. The two classes here are much more interwoven and connected then in the Elmina castle, which in turn is more connected then the Siheyuan. All three cases divide social classes, and demonstrate a desire to hide what is, to each client, considered unpleasant or inappropriate. Oftentimes, what falls under this category is people (a segregation of society seems to be a defining characteristic of our idea of dystopia). In Victorian era manors, there are no gates or cells to divide the served from the servers. In this case, architecture works to create an illusion of utopia only to a limit. Most of the illusion is credited to scheduling, obedience, and the politics of the household. The lines that divide and shroud problems and people are the most blurred, as opposed to the Siheyuan and Elmina castle which have defined lines and boundaries. Instead of interwoven spaces like that of Elmina these spaces overlap and smear.

Architecture has the power to create environments within environments, but when these artificial environments mask societal issues or separate parties that ironically have to communicate and interact, then architecture is creating a delusional dystopian society where reality is hidden and the motto is “ignorance is bliss”. The Siheyuan, with its seclusion from the outside world; the Elmina Slave Castle, with its content of two distinct residents living with little regard to each other; and the Victorian manor, with success being gauged by how invisible servitude is, all conform to the idea of problems under rug swept. By utilizing architecture in this way, the gap between problem and problem-solved only increases, as people are unaware of issues and satisfied with the temporal, Band-Aid solution. The dystopian society created is one of two worlds, a private world that is livable and illusioned; and one destroyed and plagued by never being dealt with.

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