In the September 2013 issue of ARCADE, John Parman reviewed influential designer, artist and writer Barbara Stauffacher Solomon’s new memoir, WHY? WHY NOT?, and the companion UTOPIA MYOPIA, a collection of thirty-six plays in précis form with accompanying drawings. Barbara writes of her studies with Armin Hoffman in Switzerland, the groundbreaking “supergraphics” she designed for The Sea Ranch, her work as an artist and writer, and much else in addition and beyond.
Below is Stauffacher Solomon’s response to Parman’s review—a mere fragment of her musings on how everything is related to everything. —ARCADE
IS UTOPIA IN THE SEARCH FOR UTOPIA?
My book UTOPIA MYOPIA is the search for utopia in 36 PLAYS ON A PAGE. The setting for each play is a piece of paper, 8 1/2 by 11. The characters are listed. Scenes are drawn on the top half of the page. Five columns of lines of type, newspaper style, are set below. The dialogue is minimal, shorthand determined by the number of letterforms per line, text-messages for today’s limited attention span. The book is fantasy, foolishness and fact. Lines, lies and land(e)scapes.
IS UTOPIA IN ARCHITECTS’ DRAWINGS?
Architects were always drawing utopias. In the 1930s, modern movement architects on fire with nostalgic ideas and revolutionary expectations believed there were myths to be made and they would and could make them. They delighted in drawing up cities of the future. Le Corbusier drew Paris as an English garden estate carpeted with grand green lawns and elegant white machines. The drawing was to be a Radiant City of sun. Frank Lloyd Wright drew his Edenic, futurist Broadacre City and believed any American lucky enough to live in his “prairie houses” would bask in the poetry of Walt Whitman.
Everything looked perfect on paper. On paper, writers wrote words promising an ideal life to the people who’d live in these “built utopias,” but I think everyone imagined they’d be living in the drawings.
IS THE CITY AN “URBAN UTOPIA”?
As I said, architects always draw utopias (deny it or not). The problem is building them. To get the drawings built, utopian romantics (architects and landscape architects) have to work for urban realists (developers). It’s green gardens versus greenbacks. Parks versus parking lots. Greed usually wins. Corbu’s and Wright’s most delicious utopias were never constructed and the plans their followers managed to get built (housing projects and the burbs) didn’t work out too well.
When people weren’t content imprisoned in the reality of built walls, not happy for the privilege of paying the rent or mortgage, and no longer inspired by their new stoves and refrigerators, they went to the movies.
WHERE DO WE SEE UTOPIA?
We see utopia in landscape paintings, architectural drawings, movies and other squared away illusions. Utopia always seems framed squarely within a rectangle: on pages, canvases and rectangular sheets of paper; inside picture-frame stage sets as in UTOPIA MYOPIA; in rectangular building blocks, city blocks, surveyors’ grids and square-deals; in walking through rectangular doorways, in driving by rectangular highway signs announcing off ramps to invisible utopias, in rectangular glass store windows promising paradise in shiny commodities; on rectangular TV, computer and movie screens.
IS UTOPIA IN MAKING THINGS?
Those who might have called themselves architects now call themselves industrial designers. Unlike architects, industrial designers really took over producing things. Things made on the production line, the assembly line.
Industrial designers rejoice in producing not a few big things like cities that please a few people and that a few people can own, but lots of small things that please lots of people and that everyone hopes to own. Beautiful, shiny, black and white or brightly colored toys.
I doubt that utopia is making things on an assembly line for the workers there. However, an assembly line means lots of people making lots of little pieces into lots of shiny things. People fall in love with these things and buy them. Things became commodities and the workers become consumers.
IS UTOPIA IN OWNING AND USING THINGS?
Steve Jobs loved his lines of beautiful iApples: Apples for everybody. And everybody seems extremely happy to consume them, all the time, everywhere. Is it that the big consumers have found utopia? As I type this line on October 20, 2013, CNN reports: “Chinese couple sells babies for iPhones and shoes . . . .”
Is utopia in having and playing with things like personal computers, iPhones, iPads and Instamatics? Fascinated with ourselves, we carry computer screens, as our doubles, smart specters to give us information, self-augmentation, self-preservation and the ability to shoot selfies. Most of us have no knowledge of how they work. Who cares? We can buy them. We point them at anything, everything and they take pictures not of what we’re looking at but what they see. The “truth” as they see it. News or nonsense. Amazingly, they have become an extension of everyone’s hands.
Breaking news is that new art form in which every event is seen by someone, recorded on their smartphone, instantly sent to a TV station, and, if newsy, noisy or nosey, artfully cut and pasted by someone else and immediately broadcast to every screen, everywhere, for everybody else to see.
Breaking news is the modern movement’s dream of utopian life: art moved out of private, white rooms and onto public streets, where everyone is the artist, the actor and the audience. Never mind the scenes not seen. Did they really happen?
IS UTOPIA THE INVISIBLE?
I used to want to return to the philosophy department at UC Berkeley to do a PhD on the invisible. Instead, I sat in my white tower on Telegraph Hill, typing and drawing lines on pieces of white paper, 8 1/2 by 11. Moviemakers like to see “the wind in the trees”; I like to see the white spaces between the lines. Now, I realize, I was doing my PhD on the invisible after all.