hans_ulrich_obrist's picture
Curator, Serpentine Gallery, London; Editor: A Brief History of Curating; Formulas for Now; Co-author (with Rem Koolhas), Project Japan: Metabolism Talks

Immanuel Wallerstein wrote in his essay "utopistics," about historical choices of the 21th century exploring what are possible better—not perfect—but better societies within the constraints of reality. We travel from dreams that were betrayed to a a world-system in structural crisis which is unpredictable and uncertain towards a new world system which goes beyond the limits of the 19th century paradigm of Liberal Capitalism.

In order to find a new sense of fulfillment, individually and collectively there will be a tendency towards increasing the number of de-commodified institutions. In Wallersteins words "instead of speaking about transforming hospitals and schools into profit-making institutions, let’s work it the other way. I think we move in the direction of de-commodifying a lot of things which we historically commodified. And this could be a very decentralized process. if you look at a lot of movements around the world, local and social movements, what they are objecting to in many ways is commodification." Examples are public libraries which are mostly free or free public galleries.

Artist Gustav Metzger who has pioneered alternative systems of production and circulation of art says " e transform these possibilities in a cooperative manner. We cannot radicalize enough against a radicalizing world. I see the possibility that artists will increasingly take over their own lives their own production in relation to society in a wider sense."

New structures of knowledge are an important aspect of new emerging world-systems. In the late eighteenth century the divorce happened between science and philosophy

Wallerstein says "What will change everything is to question it, to find a new, unified epistemology, whereas the "two cultures" were for 150 to 200 years centrifugal, complexity studies and cultural studies are centripetal, that is, moving towards each other."

English architect Cedric Price pioneered centripetal models of a transdisciplinary art centre and a transdiciplinary school in his visionary projects the Fun Palace and The Potteries Thinkbelt. This does not make him—and this is the paradox—a utopian architect. Much less than Archigram, for example, who has been interested in producing utopian drawings, Cedric Price took a pragmatic position and suggested engineering solutions. The Fun Palace was developed in the late sixties but remained unrealized and can best be described as a model for a trans-disciplinary cultural institution for the 21st Century. It was a complex comprised of various moveable facilities that gave shape to a set of ideas that theatre-producer Joan Littlewood had on how such a trans-disciplinary institution should work. The complex, according to Price, was made to enable self-participatory education and entertainment and was basically limited to a certain time and was seen as a university of the streets, which would be easy for people to visit and would also function as a test site.

Thus projects such as the Potteries Thinkbelt applied many ideas of the Fun Palace to a school, a university. The Potteries Thinkbelt was preceded by the Atom project from 1969, which was an atomic education facility spread over a whole city. The education was not to be for one age-group but was seen as a continuous necessity for all members of the community. Thus, this place of learning for all included an industrial education showcase, a home-study station, open teach-toys, open-air servicing, life-conditioners, electronic audio-visual equipment—all of those elements in an atomic way spread over the city.

So the whole city would become what Price called, a "town-brain it set the foundations for the Potteries Thinkbelt, where Price’s research into simple architectural components that build a complex system reached a kind of a peak. There, he drew up not only the hardware, but also an entire program, a major project that had a lot to do with his discussions with the cybernetician Gordon Pask. It also had much to do with the effort to reuse the entire area of Northern Stafordshire, an area of the fading and waning British ceramics industry. This ceramics industry no longer used the railway lines or stations, so Price proposed to establish a university research facility which would be belt-shaped and would go through this whole area using this reactivated infrastructure.

The plan was for a university of about 20,000 students built on a network of rail and motorways, where different stations would become places of knowledge production and where permanent places could move. His was the idea of a "classroom on the move" where you would have all sorts of housing for professors, researchers and students: crates, sprawls, capsules…And when the existing infrastructure would not be enough there would also be inflatables designed by Price and which could be easily and swiftly added. 

The Potteries Thinkbelt and the Fun Palace remain unrealized, but can be revisited now, without the nostalgia of being "projects from the past." They can be seen as instruction models or recipes or triggers for artist and architects to engage with public space and reclaim public space in new and critical ways.