What makes a visionary environment?
First it generally embodies in some way the principle of Gesamtkunstwerk, or 'total artwork'. It should not just be a building, realised using traditional methods, but should include the totality of its environment, often including landscaping and interior furnishings, if any. Visionary environments tend to blur the boundaries between sculpture and architecture, and between craft and art. At the very least, the term describes a work that transcends or transgresses, in some way, the accepted definitions of architecture, sculpture, land art etc.
Secondly, it seems to be generally agreed that it should represent the vision (if not the labour) of a single individual, and it should be sui generis, existing outside of the aegis of a wider artistic movement. Thus, art nouveau buildings such as the Watts Chapel, Castel Beranger and the Stoclet House, though apparently sharing many of the features of visionary environments, are generally not considered to be examples of the genre. Similiarly excluded is the tradition of folly building, as well as romantic architectural fantasies such as Strawberry Hill and Neuschwanstein Castle. We should perhaps question whether this is done on any sound intellectual basis, or simply reflects a not always accurate identification of visionary environments with untutored creators, working outside of the mainstream artistic tradition.
For, despite a strong association with naïve and outsider art, the creators of works recognised as visionary environments are not always lone eccentrics. Many of the works of the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi (particularly the Park Güell and the Sagrada Familia) are often considered as part of the genre, as are the architectural works of the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Both artists were formally trained and recognised as significant creative forces within their own life-times. We can, perhaps, gain a clearer picture of what is generally thought to constitute a visionary environment if we understand the reason for their inclusion. In both cases, their works are marked by extreme idiosyncracy, and give the appearance of a certain naïvete, eschewing traditional mainstays of western architecture (most notably symmetry and straight lines). Both had their own reasons for doing this, Hundertwasser's being the most interesting in terms of the subject of Utopia and Dystopia. Growing up as a Jew hiding as a Christian during the Nazi regime in Austria, Hundertwasser developed a particular understanding of, and detestation for, totalitarianism in all its forms. Seeing the importance that a certain sort of architecture (rigid, monumental, imposing, neo-classical) had for fascism, he developed the supposition that he could create a form of architecture that, by eschewing regular geometry and incorporating pre-existing features of the environment (such as trees, which he allowed to grow through the roofs and walls of his structures), could in some way discourage people's impulses towards totalitarianism, and disrupt totalitarian control of the built environment. If, therefore, we take the narrow definition, sometimes proposed, that visionary environments should not only represent one idiosyncratic vision, but primarily be created to satisfy a need created by that vision, Hundertwasser falls by the wayside.
This definition highlights one glaring art establishment omission from most lists of visionary environment creators: the German dadaist Kurt Schwitters who, in 1923, began the lengthy process of transforming large parts of the ineterior of his home into an artwork which he initially called 'The Cathedral of Erotic Misery', but which he later, and more famously, began referring to as the Merzbau ('Merz Construction'1). It is difficult to understand what it is precisely that seperates this work from examples such as Ferdinand Cheval's Le Palais idéa, except Schwitter's artistic credibility. Indeed, we could argue that the untutuored Cheval is actually a more astonishing, powerful and authentic creative force than Schwitters (we are allowed to make such arguments because there is a fairly good chance Schwitters would have agreed wholeheartedly).
Generally, therefore, we must note that the term 'Visionary Environment' contains the same problems as we have previously identified with the term 'Outsider art'. But what does all this have to do with Utopia and Dystopia?
Essentially, we can see the Visionary Environment as a concrete form of Utopia. The Utopian writer looks around themself, sees an imperfect world and writes a book in which it is better. The visionary environmentalist mixes a bag of lime mortar and gets cracking. Whilst this directness and passion may seem entirely admirable, however, it also serves to highlight, in a very dramatic way, the core problem of Utopia. The visionary environment is the vision of one person only, and very often it is only one person who will ever be able to fully and comfortably inhabit it. Everyone else is simply a spectator at best. The anarchist writer Marcel Proudhon famously argued that 'property is theft'; by this he chiefly meant land; and there is no more spectacular and absolute way of claiming ones ownership and utter dominion over a patch of land than creating a visionary environment within it.
Utopia, it seems, may be pretty, but it is also antisocial.
1Merz was a meaningless term used by Schwitters to describe his artwork, taken from a fragment of a cut-up newspaper used in one of his early collages , “Commerz und Privatbank. This the correct english transation would be 'Merce'