Architectural Retrogardism: Etarea city, Auroville city and Sinturbanizam (Sinturbanism)

Etarea City

Designed in 1967 for a site near Prague, Czechoslovakia, and exhibited that year at the Montreal Expo, Etarea was to be a city of 135,000 inhabitants, where the conveniences of automated infrastructure would satisfy future socialist generations. Etarea placed the question of meaning at centre stage. Meaning in architecture was considered in terms of both cybernetic communication and existential phenomenology, and its function was no less than to advance the communist transition. Etarea was informed by Civilization at the Crossroads (1966), an influential policy treatise that emphasized the significance of the intelligentsia and the so-called ‘scientific and technological revolution’ to future communism.

‘We are not futurologists by profession, but the future is becoming more and more significant today’, mused Czech philosopher Radovan Richta in 1967. This was a concise, if enigmatic, outline of Civilization at the Crossroads, a book-length report on the crisis of industrial socialism in Czechoslovakia. Socialism must adopt technological innovation, cybernetic science and systemic thinking, stressed the report commissioned by the Communist Party and edited by Richta. Inspired by that scenario, Gorazd Čelechovský, an architect, designed a model city of 135,000 inhabitants that would be communist, automated and radiant. Exhibited at Expo ’67 in Montreal, but never built, the city of Etarea was conceived as an alternative to contemporary, admittedly mediocre, mass housing developments. It was to be, as Čelechovský put it, ‘an equilibrium at a higher stage of development’.

For Richta, the liberation from machinic enslavement would be the consequence of gradually replacing bureaucratically organized industrial manufacturing with cybernetically governed automated production. Civilization portrayed cybernetics as ‘the only plausible foundation for governance and planning in the future’. Rather than marshalling subordinates to fulfill inflexible plans, the report tasked future socialist managers with optimizing systems. For Richta, what he called the ‘algorithmic restructuring of governance’ was not only consistent with but essential to the kind of communism where people would experience life as meaningful. Thinking of self-realizing individuals as analogous to self-regulating systems, Richta believed that ‘unlike primitive technology dominating people, the evolved and versatile one facilitates all-round human personality development’.

The scientification of communism emphasized the historical specificity of both class struggle and the future of socialism. ‘The issue of revolution once again became highly topical during the 1960s’, wrote historian Vítězslav Sommer; ‘however, this time it was contemplated more as a phenomenon of the future than as a legacy of the glorious revolutionary past’. Seeking to overhaul socialism marred by a personality cult and bureaucratic ossification, Civilization revisited revolutionary aspects of communism but placed them outside the then-mainstream arena of blue collar labour: cybernetic science and computer technology rather than industrialization. Revolution, in other words, was the business of a technical intelligentsia at home in laboratories and operations centres — what Western Marxists then described as the ‘new working class’, rather than the ‘historical’ working class of mines and factories.

The similarly polyvalent notion of životní prostředí was the most salient intellectual link between Civilization and Etarea, delineating the terrain shared by contemporary politics and architecture. Literally a ‘milieu of life’ or ‘living environment’, the term evokes an internally differentiated unity, open as such to multiple, overlapping and potentially conflicting interpretations: the well-balanced human life, optimally distributed systems, social equity, political harmony. The trend of architecture and politics in Czechoslovakia towards becoming environmental has many parallels with contemporary developments in the West and East. Under an array of concepts ranging from habitat and unitary urbanism, to urban imageability, to networked and intelligent cities — not to mention the protection of nature and environmentalism sensu stricto — the ‘environmental turn’ in the West swayed between denouncing and ameliorating capitalism. In the socialist East, meanwhile, the environmental synthesis of automation and meaning was envisioned as a road towards an ideal communist city, as in the eponymous proposal by the Moscow-based Novyi Element Rasseleniia (NER) collective, or the ziggurat cities of Sinturbanizam by the Yugoslavian architect Vjenceslav Richter.

Krivý, M., 2019. Automation or Meaning? Socialism, Humanism and Cybernetics in Etarea. Architectural Histories

Auroville City

Auroville was born on 28 February 1968. In terms of physical development, Auroville aims at becoming a model of the ‘city of the future’ or ‘the city the earth needs’. It wants to show the world that future realisations in all fields of work will allow us to build beautiful cities where people sincerely looking towards a more harmonious future will want to live. One of the most remarkable concepts of Auroville is its master plan, laid out in form of a galaxy – a galaxy in which several ‘arms’ or Lines of Force seem to unwind from a central region.

  • Gorazd ČelechovskýAt the centre stands the Matrimandir, the “soul of Auroville”, a place for individual silent concentration.
  • Radiating out beyond the Matrimandir Gardens are four Zones, each focusing on an important aspect of the township’s life:
    • Industrial (north)
    • Cultural (north east),
    • Residential (south/south west) and
    • International (west)
  • Surrounding the city area is a Green Belt consisting of forested areas, farms and sanctuaries with scattered settlements for those involved in green work.

Aurovilians apply the ideas of the Auroville Charter in their daily life, in policy-development, and decisions, big and small. The Charter thus forms an omnipresent referent that silently guides the people who choose to live and work for Auroville.

The Auroville Charter

  1. Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But, to live in Auroville, one must be a willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness.
  2. Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.
  3. Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realisations.
  4. Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual human unity.

Sinturbanizam (Sinturbanism)

Croatian architect Vjenceslav Richter published his treatise on Sinturbanism in 1964, at the moment when the influence of high modernism on architecture and urbanism in Yugoslavia was reaching its peak. Richter responded with the utopian vision of the city as a complex structure of self-contained living units fulfilling all existential and social needs of their inhabitants and serving as “spatial modulators” of social interactions. Setting rational and clearly legible spatial relations – a defining principle of Sinturbanism – in direct connection to rational organisation of Yugoslav socialist society, Richter clearly pointed the social ambitions of his proposal, but the rigidity of that correlation almost turned sinturbanism’s utopian dimension to its opposite. Preserved by elaborated relation between built and natural environment and imaginative application of technology it is important legacy of utopian spatial thinking from the period of socialism that deserves our attention.

Forecast of the synthesis of life and art as an expression of our times is a text written by Vjenceslav Richter in 1954 and published ten years later as a section in his book Sinturbanizam. The text was written as Richter’s summary of the public discussions on art which included the members of EXAT 51 in early 1952. The talks were mainly focused on the issue of abstract art and they were held in direct response to the publishing of the group’s manifesto. The talks were organized by Rudi Supek and Grgo Gamulin, two influential critics both of whom were opposed to abstraction. Since there are no transcripts available it is difficult to determine the particular content of the talks, but most participants agree that they resulted in a polemic between the members of EXAT who defended their right to practice abstraction, and the organizers who opposed it on the grounds of decadency and incompatibility with the socialist values and way of life.
The 1954 text begins by identifying three main disciplines that shape our environment: architecture, plastic and painting. Richter states that in contemporary world the three disciplines exist on their own and develop independently from each other. However, he claims, they have now reached a point when it is necessary for them to merge with each other into an artistic synthesis in order to keep on progressively developing. The division within visual arts is not a natural one; it is a result of historical, economical and political conditions. These conditions, which he does not elaborate on, are all contributing to what he calls a social medium. A social medium consists of relations between the politics, culture and individuals living within a certain historical moment. As such, the social medium that he is discussing (post World War 2 socialist Yugoslavia) is not in any case different from previous social media; it consists of the same sets of conditions. However, the contemporary social medium is specific because of the emerging realization of fundamental interconnectedness of all areas of human activity. Richter contextualizes this conclusion as a result of social changes and the resolution of class based society within socialism. However, this is the only point in the text where the synthesis of arts is discussed within the context of socialism.

The first focus of the text is to identify what brought about the division of visual arts. As a result of scientific and technical developments, the first to separate was architecture. Although architecture is still far behind other industrial production, the mechanical developments have made architecture a technical discipline rather than an artistic one. With the technical side dominating architectural production, the spatial expression in architecture was removed from the artistic elements of painting and plastic. In other words, architecture was removed from the field of arts and reduced to a technical discipline. Throughout the text Richter never explicitly states when this division of visual arts started. However, it may be assumed that the crucial moment was the industrial revolution with the emergence of bourgeois class and changing social relations. The direct effect of the separation of architecture was ‘liberation’ of painting and plastic. With artists now working for the anonymous consumers and unknown spaces, their expression became limited to the content within the frame. The dominance of museums and galleries as spaces where art is experienced and consumed highly limited the possibilities of art. This limitation of space where art is exhibited directly influenced our understanding of art as something that is separate from everyday life. Despite the proportionally high number of painters, sculptors and architects, the living spaces are constructed as utilitarian products without artistic expression. Richter considers these limitations to be responsible for the lower quality of life, in his view the understanding of the standard of living simply as a result of purchasing power is highly flawed as it does not take into account how space affects the quality of human experience.