Building Utopia

And how the real one to come is surprising

“We must refuse to afford even the slightest concession to what is: to the mess we are in now. There is no solution to be found there.”

These are the words of Le Corbusier, an architect famous for designing houses (like the unfinished one below) that are striking, and fun to look at for a while, but you wouldn’t want to actually live in. It would be like living in a Mondrian painting but without the colour.

Le Corbusier’s ambitions were much greater than single domestic dwellings. He designed many public buildings, including the UN Headquarters in New York. But he wanted to build entire cities. He managed one: Chandigarh in India. He inspired others to build Brasilia and, ultimately, we can probably pin Milton Keynes on him.

These grand utopian visions sound good in meetings, look great on paper, and fantastic in a 3D model. In reality, they prove to be unwieldy and dehumanising.

As the quotation above implies, Le Corbusier had no truck with the past. He wanted a blank sheet of paper. He proposed bulldozing the entire centre of Paris and starting again with something much more efficient, as if the greatest desire for Parisians is efficiency. Having said that, his bold vision is the spirit of Rousseau and the French Revolution where all manner of old-fashioned ways of thinking, including Christianity, were swept away.

A Chilling Vision

CS Lewis writes about this utopian mindset in a book which paints a far more chilling picture than the White Witch’s eternal Narnian winter. That Hideous Strength is the final book in CS Lewis’ much overlooked and truly stunning Ransom Trilogy.

Despite being a huge fan of Lewis’s writing, and having read The Chronicles of Narnia to my children twice over – and loved his non-fiction writing for decades, I had put off reading this trilogy until last year. (This was partly because I had borrowed the first book from a friend and felt bad I hadn’t read it and given it back.) 

The first two books, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, involve an academic, Elwin Ransom, travelling to two different planets – Mars and Venus – where he has transformative adventures. Book three takes place on Earth. The action focusses on the attempt of an organisation called The National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (NICE) which is attempting to enact a utopian vision which Le Corbusier might have endorsed (on the condition that he was allowed to design the capital city).

At one point, a character called Filostrato explains the big idea to Mark, one of the key protagonists, pointing at a full moon.

''There is a world for you, no?" said Filostrato. '' There is cleanness, purity. Thousands of square miles of polished rock with not one blade of grass, not one fibre of lichen, not one grain of dust. Not even air."

"Yes. A dead world," said Mark, gazing at the moon.

"No!"said Filostrato. "No. There is life there… Intelligent life. Under the surface. A great race, further advanced than we. A pure race. They have cleaned their world, broken free (almost) from the organic… Why not? If you remove all the vegetation, presently you have no atmosphere, no water."

"But what was the purpose?"

"Hygiene. Why should they have their world all crawling with organisms?"

CS Lewis died the same day as Aldous Huxley, another writer warning of the dangers of a different kind of utopianism. Ironically, both deaths were overshadowed by the assassination of the orator who inspired the moon shot, John F. Kennedy.

Huxley’s Brave New World has never been more prophetic. Rod Dreher draws on this work, warning of a similar looming soft totalitarianism in his new book, Live Not By Lies. Many had been more concerned about George Orwell’s authoritarian Big Brother from 1984. This was compelling to those of us who grew up in the 1980s. I can remember the last years of the Cold War and the genuine fear of Soviet Marxism, which looked extremely strong right up until the moment it didn’t.

Within ten years, Big Brother had become a reality gameshow where you could leave any moment you wanted. You just didn’t want to. And that’s the problem. You. Not the system. Not the creep of vegetation. Not education, upbringing, private property, genetics, the wrong politics or whatever it is they put in the water. You are the problem.

Human Nature

The Bible’s explanation of human nature is, as ever, unerring. We began in a utopia, a garden planted within Eden. But it wasn’t enough. Like all utopians, we were impatient for the next thing, grasping for divine knowledge of Good and Evil for which we were not yet ready. We did not trust that God’s motives were good. (For an astonishing retelling of this kind of Edenic story, I highly recommend the second book of the Ransom Trilogy, Perelandra)

As a result of that fall, every subsequent attempt at utopia is doomed to failure because it involves us.

History is littered with the graves of those who died on their way to a promised paradise. From the guillotines of the French Revolution to the gulags of the Soviet Union, the corpses are piled high.

Religious communities are not immune. The Mayflower said to America full of utopians, determined to create a better, purer, more Christian society in the new world. Their ancestors would try again and again, and die in Waco, Jonestown or any number of sinister and controlling communities.

Final Destination

As a result of that fall, we have a hard time comprehending utopia, heaven and any kind of transfigured glory. And yet, we have eternity in our hearts. It’s hard to process and live with. Perhaps this is why many don’t rate The Last Battle as highly as the other Chronicles of Narnia. We cannot comprehend the final victory over death and sin, where the ultimate problem is fixed: us.

In the last book of the Bible, we are presented with images and types that give us a sense of completeness, holiness and light. The new Jerusalem is a surprising image. It’s not a bucolic idyll like Constable’s Haywain. Nor do we get the brutalist skyscrapers of Le Corbusier.

We see something far greater and more wonderful: the harmony of a tree and a river inside a city, where the LORD himself dwells. Images are melded together – a glorious city and a beautiful bride. Leaves that heal the nations. Gates made of pearls.

It’s not a return to Eden, but something even more wonderful. A place where even greater things can begin. As they say at the end of The Last Battle, “Further up and further in.”

For a wider discussion of utopias, listen to episode 106 of Cooper and Cary Have Words. In episode 105, Barry and I talk to Matt Searles, where we end up discussing Eden, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and how there are two kinds of parable.

Further reading: Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C Scott

The Journey to the Mayflower: God’s Outlaws and the Invention of Freedom by Stephen Tomkins