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Anxiously Conjuring Spirits of the Past: Ricardo Bofill and the Postmodern Response to Public Housing

Part 1 Dissertation 2013
Jonathan Astbury
De Montfort University | UK
“The Future Belongs to Ghosts” - Jacques Derrida

Ghosts, according to Derrida, are made manifest through the memories of something or someone that was never present. In architectural thought, few concepts have maintained such power whilst remaining absent as that of utopia, the unachievable ‘no-place’ towards which architects strived for almost a century. What was once an ideal vision has since become something of a taboo, existing only as historical curiosity or the subject of science fiction. The memories of Modernism - these attempts to create an unachievable world - surround us, but the heroic, focused state of mind that inspired them has since moved on. The fate of projects such as Pruitt-Igoe has led to public housing’s emblematic status as Modernism’s failure. How then, has Postmodernism reinterpreted this infamous yet necessary typology?

“What is forgotten is hope...hopes generate actions and sacrifices which still existed and had their influence even if in part, or largely, those hopes were illusionary...which should not immediately be equated with naivety.” - John Berger

Through an examination of Reinhold Martin’s thesis, ‘Utopia’s Ghost’, and Craig Owens’ canonical work ‘The Allegorical Impulse’, this study examines the reemergence of utopian thought within a language that had once suppressed it. Does allegory’s reliance on the impermanent and arbitrary deny the emergence of a focused, utopian narrative? Using Ricardo Bofill’s public housing complex ‘The Spaces of Abraxas’ (1982) as a case study, this work explores the emergence of several transient utopian narratives within a project that seeks to exalt working classlife through the use of Postmodern historicism. This deliberate conjuring of utopia’s ghosts reveals that Modernism’s sense of hope and belief in another world may remain more than simple historical curiosity.

My thanks go to Dr Tim Brindley, Dr Tim Martin and Dr Jamileh Manoochehri for their help and support throughout the completion of this dissertation, as well as Maxime Storn for the provision of some stunning photographs that manage to capture this transient utopia.

Jonathan Astbury

Dr Tim Brindley
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