For many within the modern movement, the marriage between town and country represented the means of achieving an ideal form of settlement. Discuss the 19th century origins of this concept and how it was interpreted in different ways by modernist architects and urbanists in the 20th century. If architecture could change a person’s wellbeing; an architectural movement could create an ideal society. The modernists were not original in seeking an urban utopia. Architects of the 1800s had designed their ideal settlements to improve workers lives through the built environment. Modernism implies historical discontinuity, a rejecting of history and tradition, yet these 19th century projects, unknowingly, influenced the urban proposals of the ‘International style’. Through this century of proposals from 1830-1940s, lies a recurring theme of ‘utopia’; a rational, clean city with massive green areas, where both the convenience of the town and beauty of the countryside unite. The beginning of the convergence between ‘town’ and ‘countryside’ is due to the socialist thinkers of the 19th century, with their belief that one’s environment affects one’s character. The concept of architecture changing a person was explored dramatically by the socialist and radical thinker, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). The totalitarian design of his ‘Panoptikon’ was to “grind rogues honest”. It was built as a cylindrical prison and could be applied to schools and hospitals. The principle behind this machine-like institute was that the incarcerated would believe they are under constant surveillance, thus minimising chances of misbehaviour. This perceived scrutiny would allow the inhabitants to become better citizens.
Due to rapid industrialisation in the 19th century, larger city populations exploded, and squalor was rampant. Many of the old cities had seen their populations double. Around 1800 about one fifth of Britain’s population lived in the countryside, but by 1851 half the population of the country was housed in London. This lead to uncontrolled housing developments, where the private sector responded to the population boom by building poor quality, high density housing for workers. The thinkers of the 19th century, like the modernists of the 1930s believed a planned urban form could solve these social problems. In its earliest form, the marriage between town and country is subtle; placing of private gardens or greenbelts, yet this soon grows into an entire ‘Garden City’ movement.
Like Bentham, industrialist Robert Owen (1771-1858) believed that a person’s morale was affected by their surroundings. However, he believed less in the social engineering of Bentham and more on socialism, striving for better conditions for the working class. His mill at New Lanark, Scotland, was to become “the most important experiment for the happiness of the human race that has yet been instituted in any part of the world.” Owen’s humane regime was a stark contrast to the slums present in cities. At his mill, he built communal buildings and gardens for leisure and exercise, a “complete ideological systems for small communities”, where the workers children were also educated. This new high standard of living encouraged workers’ productivity. His New Lanark model encouraged him to build this environment of mutual co-operation at a larger scale. Owen devised a ‘Plan for an Ideal Village’, an area with specific size and population, of between 500 to 1500. This plan was similar to structures of towns found in ancient Greece; there was a geometric layout and a focus on agriculture to become self-sufficient. This theory became a development called ‘New Harmony’, which was to be situated in the US, with an estimate population for five thousand designed as a quadrangle with sides of thousand feet. The design was never realised.
Owen was called a ‘Utopian socialist’ by the revolutionary communist Karl Marx, and Owen shared this title with Charles Fourier (1772-1837). Fourier...
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