• Tuesday , 19 February 2019

A Confused Meaning – Utopia/Eutopia

Map of Utopia, woodcut by Ambrosius Holbein Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica - http://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-More-English-humanist-and-statesman

Map of Utopia, woodcut by Ambrosius Holbein. Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

In 1516, Sir Thomas More’s book, Utopia, was published. The phrase ‘utopia’, which More coined, comes from two Greek words, οὐ meaning ‘not’ and τόπος meaning ‘place’ or in other words, ‘no-place’. The term ‘utopia’ generally describes a non-existent society or place in great detail, so much so that one would be mistaken for thinking that the description was indeed fact. From the time of its publication, More’s Utopia became hugely influential and the concept of utopia remains so to this day. However, it is often confused with, and used instead of, the word ‘eutopia’ (from the Greek εὖ meaning ‘good’ and τόπος meaning ‘place’).1

Regardless of the confusion over the correct usage of the word, all parts of society have battled with the concept. People have dedicated their lives to striving towards utopia, constantly in pursuit of a better society, better ruling systems and better designs for our cities.

Haussmann’s Paris could be seen not only as drastic and visionary, but also as a utopia for the flâneur who ambled through the streets. Indeed, one man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia, and the way in which the boulevards laid bare the poverty which existed in Paris caused discomfort amongst some of the middle and upper classes.2

Le Corbusier also drew up designs for his own utopian Paris. He saw the production, distribution and consumption of goods as the driving force in society, and his visions for Algiers and other European and African towns were spurred on by this, in addition to the political unrest which was present during the interwar years. These designs were to remain truly utopian in that were never built. What they did do however, was to act as testing grounds, allowing designers to debate ideas and to conclude, that in spite of all the planning, organising and good will behind a project, the contradictions and chaos that are a part of any contemporary city are inevitable.3

Similar examples of utopian architecture in Ireland include the Quakers’ planned/model-villages and Dublin Corporation’s housing schemes inspired by the Garden City movement, initiated in England by Sir Ebenezer Howard. The Quaker village of Portlaw, Co. Waterford, provided housing and gardens, industry to create employment, a social network and a centralised outdoor space. The Marino housing scheme was to be an alternative to the slums of Dublin. The radial pattern allowed each house to have a garden to the front and back as well as looking out onto a communal green space. Not only were there health benefits to these living arrangements, but they were thought to be less conducive to the formation of groups of left wing activists. 4

Today, as in 1920’s Dublin, we have a housing crisis. While the slums and tenements are gone, many problems still persist. Utopia is and will remain unattainable (it is after all a non-place) but that does not stop us as a nation having visions for eutopia. As history has shown, grand ideas and futuristic schemes often remain as drawings on paper, but every now and then positive changes and new improvements and can come to fruition thanks to the pioneering vision of these projects.


[1] Online Etymology Dictionary http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=utopia[accessed July 10 2015]

[2] BERMAN, M (1983) All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, Verso, London.

[3] TAFURI, M (1976) Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts.

[4] McCORD, R (2011) A Garden City – The Dublin Corporation Housing Scheme at Marino, 1924 http://www.theirishstory.com/2011/09/07/a-garden-city-the-dublin-corporation-housing-scheme-at-marino-1924/#.VaLAi_lVhBc [accessed July 12 2015]

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