The New Utopias: from Godin to Google

Read this article in The Economist’s arts blog, Prospero.

IN THE hours outside his dreary day job, the utopian socialist Charles Fourier (1772-1837) dreamt of a world where work meant play and where the seas would transform into “a sort of lemonade”. He believed that the passions should be set free: the ideal workforce would be intensely attracted both to their jobs and to one another, converging in an orgy of productivity. Contemporary work culture advocates something similar, but instead of “passionate attraction” we call it teamwork. The cover letters of prospective employees are as “passionate” as billets-doux.

500 years after Thomas More coined the term “utopia”, it’s worth reassessing what is meant by an ideal community. For Fourier it took the form of the phalanx, a group of well-matched individuals living together in a phalanstery: a palatial residential complex complete with meeting halls, dining rooms, libraries, ballrooms, beehives, observatories and coops for carrier pigeons. Short-lived phalansteries were established across America, but the most successful interpretation of Fourier’s ideas was the Familistère in Guise, northern France, founded by Jean-Baptiste André Godin to accommodate the employees of his iron stove factory. Built between the years of 1859-1884, the Familistère continued as a worker-run cooperative until 1968 and is now an award-winning museum with an exhibition programme exploring utopian ideals through art, design and performance. A recently installed sculpture installation, “Utopian Benches” by the artist Francis Cape serves as a short introduction to such communities worldwide, each represented by a faithfully recreated wooden bench. The accompanying booklet is a sort of utopia brochure—read about each community, sit on each bench, and see which suits you best.

familistere

The bench representing the Familistère is no more extravagant than those designed by the Shakers or the Amana Inspirationists. However, the Familistère had a very different attitude to home comforts. Godin believed that collective emancipation could only be achieved if the community was supplied with the material and intellectual “equivalent of wealth”; by providing spacious housing, free education, healthcare, leisure facilities and a system of shared ownership, he sought to create a secular “temple for the religion of life and work”.

Godin wanted his temple to have the ethos of communal unitary architecture and the grandeur of the Palace of Versailles. The design prioritised the necessities of light, space, airflow and water (similar principles informed the Adidas LACES headquarters in Germany) but there was still scope for fanciful additions: an Italianate theatre, a wrought iron bandstand, formal gardens and an elegant indoor pool. Each of the residential blocks centred around a courtyard covered by an impressive glass roof—a design feature bearing striking similarities to the translucent canopy proposed for Google’s new California campus by architects Thomas Heatherwick and Bjarke Ingels.

The utopian socialists developed their ideas when Europe was in the first stages of industrialisation. Today’s start-up culture appropriates the communal values of earlier utopias to serve the purposes of the free market—we are taught to uphold teamwork as the highest ideal, while simultaneously being encouraged to compete as individuals. Like Godin’s Familistère, the offices of global corporations such as Google and Facebook aim to turn work into play, but there is a key difference: the Familistère was built on a separate site to the Godin ironworks, whereas the workspaces of today are gradually encroaching on the domestic sphere. We live in pursuit of innovation through distraction; whether it’s a wifi-supplied allotment, a canteen serving free haute-cuisine, a cosy office sleeping pod, or the new trend for shared ‘live-work’ apartments, our escape routes are leading us back to the laptop. The phrase ‘work-life balance’ is becoming an archaism.

That life force of innovation was eventually found lacking at the Familistère. The new generations of workers failed to advance the inventions of their predecessors, and in 1968 the Familistère passed into private ownership—just as the barricades were being rebuilt on the streets of Paris. Ultimately—and this is the primary critique of utopian socialism—Godin placed too much faith in his workers to implement his vision. Lenin was well aware that “the present ordinary run of people” would not be able to enter the socialist paradise, and most utopias include an element of behaviour modification. Robert Owen’s cotton mill village of New Lanark in Scotland had its own Institute for the Formation of Character, and the community of Twin Oaks in Virginia was originally inspired by the behaviourist principles of B.F. Skinner’s utopian novel, “Walden Two”.

A utopia is by definition imaginary, non-existent; they work best when the inhabitants are designed, too. That is evident from architectural illustrations for new super-offices, populated by the type of people who would thrive in an uber-connected, super-creative environment. Digitally rendered employees chat, stroll, cycle, eat, knit, read and meditate—anything, as long as it doesn’t look like work. Like Fourier’s phalanx, they’re happy—buoyed up by a rising tide of positive psychology. But does the emphasis on happiness in the workplace serve to help the individual, or just oil the cogs of an ever-turning capitalist wheel? Fourier called for the right to take pleasure in work. Perhaps we need to reclaim our right to dislike it.

Read this article in The Economist’s arts blog, Prospero.

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