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Why Utopias Go Wrong

Updated: Apr 12, 2020

Harry Mount, editor of the Oldie Magazine

Thomas More invented the word ‘utopia’ from the Greek ‘ou’—‘not’—and ‘topos’—‘place’; i.e. Utopia was by its nature not a real place.

Architectural utopias can be lovely places to live. But they have never worked as panaceas for social problems. High-minded visionaries have tried, for centuries, to propel the rural working classes into middle class prosperity. Through dazzling architectural utopias; they have never worked.

That’s partly because they cost too much to build; partly because they were built on too small a scale, considering the massive growth in urban populations from the eighteenth century until today. But the main reason is that utopias are necessarily planned before the event. A visionary—and they are often gifted visionaries—comes up with a precise architectural and social format, and then expects mankind to fit into it.

Well, mankind doesn’t work like that. Man on his own is a messy, unpredictable creature. Men and women in vast crowds move in an even messier, more unpredictable way. They can’t be catered for by the cool calculations of a single mind, however sophisticated that mind might be. The slum’s messy lack of order is an echo of mankind’s chaos. It expands and shrinks—usually expands—to meet the demands of shifting populations. It responds quickly, if not very prettily, to the demands of a newly arrived population.

Just look at the shanty town that has sprung up in Calais in recent years to cater to the thousands of migrants longing to get across the Channel to Britain. It certainly isn’t pretty but it was, almost instantly, equipped with makeshift shops, houses and a church in response to the basic needs of body and soul. If more migrants come—as they surely will—the shanty town will grow. If, by some miracle, the international migration problem is solved, it will shrink or disappear. Just like those makeshift buildings, the structure of the slum is flimsy, but the slum’s response to migrants’ needs is much more flexible and immediate than any historical utopia’s response.

The first kind of utopia was the factory town. The original was Cromford, Derbyshire, where Richard Arkwright erected the world’s first water-powered cotton mill in 1771 and created the first purpose-built industrial village around it. Cromford worked well, based as it was around a hard-headed, profitably run industry. Where planned settlements didn’t work so well is when their developers try to force a social programme on their inhabitants.

Soon afterwards, in New Lanark, Scotland, Robert Owen, a mill manager, had high-minded intentions: he controlled prices in the shops and founded schools. He also limited how much the workers could drink.

Owen was also a communist, in his dream that all workers should share labour, machinery and wages equally, and live in the same big house. Like so many communist dreams, it fell apart; and fell apart on a grand scale in his new town in America—Harmony, Indiana. Hucksters, proto-hippies and radicals battled with each other for four years about how to run the place before it collapsed.

More recently, utopias have failed because they are just too nice. Designed as working-class settlements, they’re so well designed that they’re soon colonised by the middle classes. Garden cities—dreamt up by the social reformer Ebenezer Howard—were intended as suburban, mid-sized towns, surrounded by a permanent belt of agricultural land.

Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City were built, in 1903 and 1920 respectively, as towns where the working classes would live and work, with factories and offices threaded in between the residential developments.

The dream has failed. They’ve become the ideal middle-class commuter towns within easy reach of London. Much the same happened with the garden suburb, as invented by Dame Henrietta Barnett in Hampstead Garden Suburb in 1906.

It was, and is, a wonderful thing. The building density was low—eight houses or fewer per acre. Every house had a private garden and there were no walls, only hedges—a popular idea in American gated communities from the early twentieth century onwards. Dame Henrietta picked leading architects to produce wildly differing looks: tile-hanging, half-timbering and low eaves were combined with casement windows. Neo-Georgian mansions proliferated, too, and Sir Edwin Lutyens produced his own Romantic-Byzantine-cum-Nedi style (his nickname was Nedi) for St Jude’s, the suburb’s Gothic church.

These detailed, varied developments, though, were too lovely and, in time, too expensive. Envisaged as working-class housing, they are now the preserve of not just the middle classes, but the millionaire classes.

The same goes for Bedford Park, begun in West London in 1875. What was planned as a varied, delightful suburb has become an integral part of spreading, multimillionaire metropolis. There’s nothing wrong in these places; quite the contrary. But they haven’t fulfilled their original purpose as progressive homes for the aspiring poor. The essential quality of houses for the urban poor is that they should be dirt cheap. The actual houses themselves—what they look like, what they’re made out of, where they are—are essentially immaterial.

In the last 70 years, areas of London that were once slums— Notting Hill, Islington and Shoreditch among them—have become multi-million pound enclaves, restricted to the very rich. The rich may have done those houses up, put in more bathrooms and dug down into the ground to make more space. But the houses, largely Georgian and Victorian, were just as handsome in the 1950s as they now are; and they are necessarily in the same place.

Those same houses were originally built for an urban, lower- middle class epitomised by Mr Pooter in the 1892 classic, The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith. Mr Pooter is far from being a gazillionaire: he is a clerk in the City, much mocked for his pretensions for a smarter life. Still, today his large house in Holloway, North London, would be worth going on for £2 million.

The newly arrived poor did live in Holloway in the postwar years—but none of those poor souls fighting to get across the Channel today could now hope to live in Mr Pooter’s house in a million years. And so they must flock to those new areas that have become the cheapest part of town—on the far fringes of the city. They will certainly not flock to that part of town designed by a well- meaning utopian, whose houses tend to soar in value almost at the moment they’re finished.

As well as cheapness, new arrivals almost invariably seek an urban life. They could, if they wanted, find equally cheap housing in remote, rural parts of the country. But that isn’t where the work is—nor is it where, on the whole, humans want to go. As Boris Johnson put it last, when mayor of London, people move to cities for vital biological reasons.

London, he said, is “producing more babies than at any time since England won the World Cup in 1966. A city is a huge centrifuge, it spins people round at much greater velocity than anywhere else. People meet each other, they have more sexual intercourse, as Michael Gove is continually pointing out. One of the reasons cities are so successful is that they provide a huge assortment of potential mates—in business and pleasure.”

Those desires—for pleasure, for access to fellow humans and affordable housing—are overpowering; natural, even. They cannot be contained by the cool, precise thoughts of a well- meaning soul designing arts and crafts housing in his own ivory tower.

Horrible as the word, slum, might be—and lovelier as the word ‘utopia’ definitely is—slums do the job much better.

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