Joshua M. Jacob | The Specter of Utopia

By Joshua M. Jacob

Reinhold Martin begins the introductory chapter to his 2010 book, Utopia’s Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again, with examples of the eclipse of modernism by postmodernism. Martin mentions the evolution of the 1930s International Business Machine (IBM) slogan “Think” to the 1990s Apple Computer slogan “Think different,” emblematic of the broad productive shift from scientific management to post-Fordism.[1] But what struck me most viscerally comes from his timely blog post “Utopia, Again” on the Utopia 13/13 blog. Martin gives the example (laden with symbolism) of Pruitt-Igoe, the St. Louis public housing project which was architect Minoru Yamasaki’s first major project in 1955.[2] Wrought with dilapidation, crime, and low occupancy, the modernist housing project was demolished in 1972, less than twenty years after its construction.[3] A year later, Yamasaki’s better known project, the World Trade Center, went up, ushering in the postmodern end of history.[4]

In 1973—the year the World Trade Center opened—Manfredo Tafuri portrayed the World Trade Center as “an apotheosis of administrative rationality governed by the cybernetic circulation of empty signs.”[5] Martin further reflects on the World Trade Center’s solemnification and reenchantment after the September 11th attacks: in the name of irredentism by a “wounded US imperialism,” Ground Zero became a different heterotopia through subsidies to developers and banks.[6] Now, just south of the towers’ replacement One World Trade Center lie two reflecting pools, which Martin characterizes as simultaneously symbolizing the lives lost as well as the start of the forever wars, which led to hundreds of thousands of additional deaths which go uncommemorated. Martin has uncannily captured my own experience at One World Trade Center and the accompanying memorial site—the twice-conjured “avatar of imperial shock and awe,” now a “dystopian monument” which masks its reification of the neoliberal Washington Consensus with poignancy and pathos.[7]

In the postmodern world that Martin describes, utopia has become unthinkable. Like the virtualization of production and circulation in the postmodern era more generally, in architecture, utopia has become a symbol of the unreal. Its ghost lies in the ruins of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project. In attempting to reclaim utopia’s ghost, Martin proposes an interpretive model that is “capable of explaining the interplay between discursive constructions, urban imaginaries, and new politico-economic configurations.”[8] With the postmodern economy’s vast networks of multinational capital, architecture is not just representation, but also production, and conceptions of postmodern architecture must move along both axes with fluency.

On the representational front, Martin cites architectural populism and its attendant phenomenon of “normalization” as part of the postmodern approach[9] This populism encompasses the suburban aspirations of “middle America” in the second half of the twentieth century. What has come to be termed architectural populism, in Martin’s depiction, is actually a “biopolitical practice in which territories are inscribed.”[10] This architectural populism really describes the aesthetic preferences of only one quantum of people (white, suburban, middle class) and serves to naturalize the distribution of the population that suburbanization itself enacts.

The representational problem that Martin identifies is how to represent unity through architecture, and clearly the limitations of architectural populism evince a warped sense of unity. Martin cites two postmodern works, both from 1966, that demonstrate competing approaches to representation: Aldo Rossi’s Architettura della Città and Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.[11] Rossi, on the one hand, views the city as a house, a singular artifact that serves as the embodiment of the will of the mythical public, as a man in his house. Venturi, on the other hand, attempts to draw a singular meaning out of the complexity and contradiction inherent to cities. The competing approaches nonetheless deal with the same problem—recovery of some vital, organic unity—which Martin believes has taken on an added importance because of the hollowing-out of cities in the modern era.[12] The representation problem is a question of life or death when viewed in light of architecture’s productive function in organizing and mapping out networks of capital.

On the production axis, Martin focuses on the oscillating inside-outside dynamic. Martin cites Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer to juxtapose the external state of nature and the internal state of exception.[13] In Agamben’s cartography of exclusion, the exception and the rule become entangled, and the external is placed internally. Martin cites the American gated community as an example of this—in Martin’s characterization, the gated community becomes integrated into the body politic “by virtue of its exceptionality rather than despite it.”[14] The gated community, located outside of the city, is intensely privatized, protected by laws and restrictive covenants fetishistically enjoyed as a class privilege. Yet the gated community is inextricably linked to public housing through the “urban renewal” projects of the postwar era.[15]

Martin brings up Oscar Newman’s 1972 publication Defensible Space: Crime Prevention through Urban Design in the context of production.[16] Newman proposes a post-panoptic “natural surveillance” model to enhance urban safety. He observes that a fenced-off area of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project ended up having less crime, higher occupancy, and cleaner living quarters than the other buildings in Pruitt-Igoe. Newman acknowledges the fence as an extreme example of exclusion through territorial definition, but nonetheless proposes design alternatives that serve the same policing function.[17] Martin uses this as an example of the inside-outside dynamic of racialized production.[18]

Martin ultimately concludes the introductory chapter with a similar theme as his Utopia 13/13 blog post—the absence of public housing from postmodern architectural utopias. Whereas in the modern era, grand statist housing projects were emblematic of the rational approach to production, in the postmodern era, we only have talk of “affordable” housing.[19] As Martin writes, “Utopia, too, died in the camps, only to be monstrously reborn in archipelagoes of defense and exclusion based on the normalization of Utopian exceptionality.”[20] As Martin notes, it is impossible to disentangle the modernist state-sponsored housing vision; it is simultaneously that of a utopian island and a biopolitical camp. But the gated community, as a norm that absorbs the utopian “nowhere,” represents the unthinking of utopia altogether by postmodernism.[21]

Though Friedrich Engels characterized the housing question as superstructural,[22] the affirmation of public housing as a political right represents a “non-reformist reform” that points us in the right direction. I referred to a similar concept in Utopia 5/13 in my critique of Sara Horowitz’s Mutualism: the socialization and redistribution of considerable resources is necessary to meet people’s material needs, and I remain skeptical that small-scale cooperation alone can cut it. As Martin notes, public housing is tainted in the United States with its statist, segregationist past, but has been successful elsewhere.[23] We should remain wary of attempts to privatize public housing, such as the myriad efforts in New York to introduce public-private partnerships, sell assets, and privatize services in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) campuses.[24] “And in cities from New York to Mumbai, as a matter of state housing policy, governance has increasingly devolved onto the markets,” Martin writes.[25] In New York, where more than half a million people live in public housing, the realization of utopia is particularly vital.


[1] Reinhold Martin, Utopia’s Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again (2010), p. 1.

[2] Reinhold Martin, “Utopia, Again” (Apr. 17, 2023),

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id., citing Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development (1973), trans. Barbara Luigia La Penta (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1976), 166ff.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Reinhold Martin, Utopia’s Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again (2010), p. 4.

[9] Id. at 5-6.

[10] Id. at 6.

[11] Id. at 2.

[12] Id. at 10-11.

[13] Id. at 11.

[14] Id. at 14.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. at 15-16.

[17] Id. at 16-17.

[18] Id. at 18-19.

[19] Id. at 26.

[20] Id. at 20.

[21] Id. at 20-21.

[22] Reinhold Martin, “Utopia, Again” (Apr. 17, 2023),

[23] Id.


[25] Reinhold Martin, Utopia’s Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again (2010), p. 26.