Ideal Spaces

Ideal Spaces

Venice biennale for architecture,
palazzo mora, 2016

Shortlisted for the GAA-Foundation Prize 2016, out of a total of 173 exhibitors.
Also shortlisted: Peter Eisenman, ETH Zurich, GMP, Curt Fentress, Denise Scott Brown
and Auckland University of Technology with University of Sydney

Ideal Spaces

Ideal Spaces is an art and research project that aims to experience spaces of social and imaginative relevance. To be presented at the Venice Architectural Biennale 2016, it is not only about architecture but about social dreaming and imagination, expressed in ‘ideal’ spaces with their impacts on architecture, art, and human hopes.

We tried to show this via a combination of presenting ideal city spaces, active participation of the visitors molding their own spaces, and symbolic representation. Ideal Spaces is also a high-tech project that uses diverse technologies in new ways, also new techniques and programming developed by us.

Our team, the Ideal Spaces Working Group, has been engaged in the topic of spaces being ‘ideal’ according to how space is practiced, planned, imagined and experienced. Now, we want to present some results of our ongoing investigations.

The exhibition deals with ideal spaces in a double sense: as spaces imagined and as spaces utopian, or perfected. In both its meanings of being ‘ideal’, an ideal space relates to utopian space, an old theme deeply embedded in our cultural memory which has never lost its actuality and appeal. With a look at recent conditions, we need to re-address it more than ever.
Since it is a mythic theme full of hopes and dreams, and at the same time, very practical. Today, the majority of human beings live in urban agglomerations which are far away from being ‘ideal’ but chaotic, accompanied by an actual destruction of space unprecedented in history. In parallel, never before so many technical possibilities of imagining spaces existed, allowing for escape into worlds of fantasy, dream, and game. Space is lost, and at the same time multiplied. But human beings need space, also real one deserving the name, and they need community.

Issues which have to be settled, urgently. One first step in doing so may consist in re-framing them, to look at them anew, from different but nevertheless related perspectives. We did so by taking the theme’s archaic character as a background tale, the myth of a paradise lost and to be regained again, and by actively involving the visitors. Today, the question arises of what an ideal space actually is, or could be.

We want to invite visitors to join this venture, through contemplation and activity. By experiencing historical spaces conceptualized as ideal ones: shown in a large cave, as worlds of their own, and on a cosmic disk presenting them in connection. And by constructing their own spaces, which will allow the visitors to experience their commonly generated spaces together, both as a process and as a result. A paradise is no place of solitude, and it cannot be built by a single person; but is the result of a common effort. All relevant data are kept and will be available for those interested; so the venture can continue, even after the exhibition itself has closed its gates.

If the myth of paradise is an eternal tale about life worth to be lived, who says that such a myth is a lie? Referring to the Biennale’s theme for 2016, as a universal tale, it can open up many universes. Oscar Wilde has said that a map without utopias is not worth to be drawn. Many myths came into reality, and shaped reality.

Let’s try.

Ideal Spaces Exhibition 2016.


The epitomized place for an ideal space, its favorited topos also in symbolic terms, is that of the ideal city. The very term ideal, said Matthias Buehler, a leading expert in constructing imaginary cities, is a word with multiple meanings, therefore the term ‘ideal city’ can be interpreted in multiple ways. As a term, ideal relates to the Greek words idea and eidos, to have an ‘idea’ or an inner image of something; in case of eidos, also one which can become very concrete (particularly in its Platonic meaning which became very influential for utopian ideal cities), and which may serve as a pattern or type then – e.g. for constructing an ideal city acc. to a clear and pre-given “inner” image. And as already mentioned, ideal also stands for something being perfected or ‘ideal’ in the common sense of the term: something which is an end state (‘perfect’), in other words. Looking at these two meanings of what ideal denotes, related to cities as ideal spaces, it is of decisive importance when both these meanings coincide or overlap, when a city shall be constructed as an ideal space, covering both these meanings – even in cases where its constructors have ‘no idea’ what they actually are doing. That is, when they are not decisively and explicitly reaching for utopia but nevertheless built utopian spaces, in fact, by generating a spatiality of the “non-place” addressed by critics as Marc Augé and many others: a type of placeless spatiality that in a modern age became the predominant one, symbolized by the ideal of a functional city and by providing infrastructural networks of an encompassing and ‘optimal’ character; and by that, generating real physical but essentially placeless (‘utopian’) spaces on the historical remnants of which we all live.

In these cases, a utopia is generated unwillingly, so to speak: not as a deliberate creation but just as an outcome, as something generated which has emerged as the result of some other attempts to create ideal places where humans can dwell and live properly. As said, the imagery about an ideal space must not always, and not explicitly be utopian. Many of these “ideal” spaces have been built actually, and our modern environments in large parts consist of such spaces. Since in the original meaning of an ideal, an ideal space does not only denote a space perfected, something that has to be achieved as an optimized final state; but also a space which has been conceptualized at all: an inner image, an idea about a space as it shall look like, pouring into plans, concepts, and other concretized imaginations about spatial design; as in city planning, layout of logistic networks, buildings, the construction of spaces for the public, and the like. These are examples which demonstrate that the notion of an ideal space does also include quite practical, non-utopian constructions needed for the purposes of daily life in its concrete terms.

Concepts about an ideal city rely upon the idea of an ideal space constructed, to provide both base and frame for a proper unfolding of the human condition, for an ideal conditio humana looked for. According to our cultural imagery, the proper and genuine place for humans as “cultural animals” (McLuhan) is the city, from the start of human civilization onwards. Thus, a city has to be erected which is ideal, constructed in such a way that the spatial conditions for that animal shall propagate the advent of the ‘positive’ traits of a general human nature; or, expressed in mythological terms: after the first, natural paradise being lost, a second one has to be created, a paradise regained by construction. As an environment and a frame of living, these new paradises shall become man’s second nature to overcome the shortfalls of existing urban environments. For the first time in human history, the major part of humanity lives inside the frames and conditions of such environments; and judged from such a background, the topic of an “ideal” city becomes actual more than ever.

To recall Buehler, there exist two major distinctions as regards the notion of an ideal city. In a classical ‘old’ understanding, an ideal city, as a term, refers to the search of urban theorists and others for a reconstruction of, or reaching for the utopian Garden of Eden, for the creation of an ideal place in the metaphysical or religious sense of heaven on earth. The other meaning is an ‘ideal’ city in the sense of making the best out of the actually available resources, circumstances, and geography, as he says, centering on the topics (and goals) of sustainability and of harmony with nature and culture.

These distinctions, we have to add, can be understood as directions of meaning as well, serving as a kind of mental guideline of how to conceive the topic of an ideal space in general. If we include its secularized variants, the interpretation of an ideal place refers to the utopian direction of meaning that underlies the very notion of an ‘ideal’ space, and in particular that of an ‘ideal city’, as a peculiar kind of an ideal space. The other, second direction of meaning is more pragmatic: an ideal city does not have to be the absolutely perfect end state but is ‘ideal’ only in the sense of making the best out of the existing situation, the conditions which actually prevail. For Buehler, “it is imperative to see the second meaning as today’s key driver for multidisciplinary, scientific and constructive collaborations, to isolate and combine all positive urban traits and strive for the best possible global and local solutions.”
But here as well, the image of an ideal state comes in, because what means best? Which conceptions and, behind them, which values and norms, which mind-sets decide on the best? Is it pure pragmatism, money, ideals? Even in case of pure pragmatism, there exists an “ideal” solution to be pursued, one “best” way to arrange things and to perform properly. But pragmatism is a result, not a cause; it is just a general way of how to handle things, not a motivation for handling things in general. As does any other way of how to handle things in general and how to cope with reality, it presupposes a certain mind-set – out of which things are handled in that way and no other, what is conceived as relevant, and so forth. And this finally depends on ideals, on inner images as mental guidelines for how to tackle things in general – in their sum, the ‘world’ – and for which purposes. So, even the most pragmatic mind cannot avoid ideals. If physics symbolically stands for the barely present, for that what is (also physically) in the moment, then we cannot avoid meta-physics. ‘Best’ solutions in this sense do not depend on physics, but on ideas, ideals, pre-conceptions in their literal meaning: on inner images. This is even more true when future is involved: when it comes to having an inner image of something (utopian or not) of how things should be, also in their quite practical terms.

So, all in all, ideal space and meta-physics seem to belong together; in particular when we speak about the future, and here about a future desired, a state of being which is not present yet but which shall become present. This is even more true since those spaces do not just express some architectural constructions; they are symbolic spaces, spaces which are “standing for” additional meanings behind them, meanings which elicited their construction at all – of them as the respective space.

These spaces shall, of course, become real physical spaces then; otherwise, they won’t have been conceptualized. This addresses once more the aspect of imagination: we, the spectators of their images presented, have to conceive them as real spaces, as parts of an ‘as if-world´, of a virtual one that can turn into reality. This is, at the same time, a particular mode of experience: we have to look at those spatial images as if experiencing a real world unfolding; and we can (and may) compare these experiences with those we made in our real spaces we are living in.

The issue of experience and imagination is relevant for all the spaces of our exhibition: those presented as ready-made worlds, those made by the visitors themselves, and those which are symbolized and presented in the world disk, although this might sound paradoxical, the more since those spaces are not primarily about architecture in its common understanding.

But there are about human beings. First and foremost, this applies to the worlds we want to present as “ready-made” ideal spaces, as ideal worlds (mostly of utopian character) which appeared in history. To come back to an ideal space as an explicit utopia or “just” as a space perfected, very often in their history both dimensions of an ideal space coincide, coming close to what has been called a concrete utopia: a space where humans shall live in an ‘optimized’ and planned way; and which has been constructed, or has to be constructed, as a concrete and carefully planned environment, down to its very details.

The ideal space thus comes to be a space managed, once more in several dimensions. First, it is a managed space right from its start, so to say: By its very construction already, it has to be arranged as a spatial pattern which is an ideal environment, a perfect spatial blueprint for the ‘proper’ life of human beings, thus providing the very base for their unfolding. In other words, these constructions shall enable the ‘proper’ unfolding of human nature, as an ideal place to live in. And in these regards, it also has to be a space of management and control, a place of actual conduct for such a proper life, which very often has to be supervised on a daily base to ensure that everything runs according to plan, i.e. in an ‘ideal’ way. This applies even in cases where such a supervision is not performed directly but indirectly, by mutual social control and “right” behaviors; assisted by the first dimension, that of an architectural environment enabling and fostering certain kinds of behavior. The basic intention of such conceptions was to create an artificial cosmos, an encompassing ordo where everything runs according to plan, serving as a frame for the welfare of its inhabitants.

And, as said, this must not be merely, or exclusively, utopian. All of our infrastructural networks rely upon such an idea, for instance, to lay the ground for an unfolding of the individual and to serve the modern (and postmodern) masses of them. The idea was to construct an ideal space of functional networks serving as a base for the needs of many individuals. And the hope was that, in this way, individual unfolding and prosperity could be secured – in Buehler’s words, as the “best solution” to be achieved and, hence, to be pursued in practical terms. Therefore we have the functional city in classical modernity, or the disembodied “immaterial” networks of today.

Another example are the worlds we present in the exhibition, as ‘ideal’ spaces of own rank and being, designed to provide the best frame for a ‘best’ human life to prosper. There should not be forgot those modelled by the visitors themselves, following their own conceptions of what such a frame could look like.

Ideal Spaces Exhibition 2016

Ideal Spaces Exhibited

The theme of ideal spaces is basic for an understanding of ourselves, as human beings. It is an old theme deeply embedded in our cultural memory, and at the same time, it has never lost its actuality and demanding appeal. Since it contains human hopes – and a myth: After a paradise lost as the ancient space where humans were embedded in, the human longing is about a new one, a paradise regained. A new space of relief and of unity, with nature and with themselves, after that old paradise has vanished forever. An ideal space is a one of both imagination and perfection, and we are looking for such a state of being, to experience it anew. It is utopian, and this is not meant negative. The notion of a space as an ideal place to live is a very old, multi-faceted one, and appears as an idea in almost all civilizations, right from their very start. For Western culture in particular, it has been always linked with another idea, that of utopia. Other cultures, so investigators of the issue, too had their utopias; but not in such a pronounced manner as our Western civilization, and not so tightly linked to a paradise myth, they say. Utopia, from the Greek ou-topos, the “nowhere-place” or “non-place”, is a place that either doesn’t exist (yet) but is dreamed of, a paradise to be regained; or it is just conceived as a fiction, as something unrealistic which never can be reached at all. In its first meaning, it is the topic of the ideal spaces we present, also in its secularized variants: to really make the place the constructors of a better ‘utopian’ world are dreaming of, or expressed as a term of utopian discourse, to let it become a concrete utopia.
In that sense, the spaces we present are symbolic spaces, they stand for a world they represent; them being just the snapshots of that world, so to speak, showing some of its parts only. The spectator has to imagine the remainder of the world shown via these spaces, how it might look like, as world, and how it might feel if one would really live there. It is about the atmosphere of such a world, transmitted by, and reflected through its spaces we are showing. We have to experience these spaces shown, and to imagine how a world would be that is made up by them – not as a utopia that never can be reached but as a concrete world.

To construct such concrete utopias, to plan and mold them out in terms of concrete plans and images does inevitably refer to other images, to ones which are rooted in our cultural memory. As said, first and foremost, this holds valid for a paradise myth. The image of paradise is deeply belonging to a Western culture, and even after Christian belief had lost its stronghold, it reappeared in many different forms, adopting many different secularized shapes. A myth can never be fulfilled, says myth researcher Hans Blumenberg, but is approached again and again, for each epoch in its respective versions; no matter if God has been replaced by man, and sacrosanct belief by rational construction.
Aligned to the figure of a paradise lost and regained is a dichotomy, if not a conflict between nature and culture, expressed in many forms which center on the image of civilization as it came to be vs. a natural, unspoiled way of life. Its underlying idea is that of a genuine human condition, a conditio humana, a natural human state as man’s ‘positive’ nature. Also aligned with its mythic backgrounds and basic assumptions about such a human nature, the principal aim related to ideal spaces is to encourage, even to foster the positive traits of that nature. A paradise regained that resembles the original, mythic first paradise where man had been expelled from. As an environment where humans can live in harmony with nature again, also with their own one; and by that, become truly human again.

Ideal spaces as ones both imagined and perfected resemble the places desired for such a nature in its positive terms. That is, each of these spaces becomes molded out as a specific place, a place for a living in line with that nature. That it may prosper, develop further, be saved from negative impacts and evil in general. And that one day, this ideal state of being may be reached, in the longing for the mythos.

Therefore, the idea has to be combined with that of a built environment which encloses a ‘natural’ one, and which even becomes a second nature for humans. An encompassing structure in the shape of an ideal world where nature and culture are united, a real new and ‘ideal’ cosmos even if it is artificial, man-made and not naturally grown.

In exemplary cases, these are the ideal spaces we present in our exhibition. Concrete utopias to be directly experienced by the visitor, shown in a large cave in their historical succession. As Oscar Wilde had it: a map of the world without utopias is not worth to be designed. The worlds we present are ideal ones, in that double sense of worlds having been imagined and of worlds being ideal; places for human beings to unfold, and to prosper. It is about experiencing space, not about history. The array of worlds just shall reveal the manifold and diverse attempts to erect such an ideal space to be, to dive into its atmosphere, into its very nature and essence, to realize its fairy charm and character.

And we present an additional world, an epitome and exaggeration of the mentioned recent urban environments: the Favela, at first glance, the apparent opposite of a good, or eu-topian version of spaces but its overt contradiction, a materialized dystopia. Although the space we present here is not of such kind, at least not exclusively, it is a good final mark for the spaces presented. It reminds on a recent reality, and on what has to be avoided. Not for an ideal conditio humana, but for a human living deserving the name. Since the majority of humans not only lives in cities which became urban agglomerations – in other words, which are no cities any longer, at least not for a cultural, and human animal – but moreover, a large fraction of them lives in favelas.

At the same time, even if it might sound paradox if not cynical, it is a great opportunity. In the approach we present, referring to Alejandro Aravena’s idea, the Favela is a place where opposed to all the ideal spaces shown before, the inhabitants can generate their own ideal spaces, as concrete places to inhabit. The ideal space is no longer pre-given by some divine architectural demiurges, created on a tabula rasa, an empty space to become filled with ideal constructions. But it can be really generated, by those who inhabit them. They can take their own belongings in their own hands, they are no longer fixed spaces which have to be accepted, and which are essentially not to be changed.

Following this practice, we are offering a specific place in our exhibition. We invite the visitors to mold out an ideal space by their own, through common effort. Not a favela, but a world that could become a real one; also quite obviously since the visitors see the results of their activities in real time, presented on a screen in front of them. To generate an ideal environment they desire, a one from which they can expect that it could be really feasible for a living. By molding the terrains and objects of a world as it could be, the visitors can experiment with different experiences of an ideal space generated by them directly. They become their own architects, in making their own worlds. It is an approach that is used in participatory planning of urban spaces, and the visitors have the unique possibility to make their own ones – as they wish it, and as they believe spaces shall look like.

It is a venture not confined to the exhibition since the participants can continue if they wish to do so. They can take the worlds they made at home, so to say, and elaborate them further, also together with others. To gain inspirations of what could be done for their real environments, by translating some of these ventures into concrete terms of living.

The world disc is a montage of the history of planned spaces. It starts in the beginning of time and through the visual interpretations of historical maps and drawings it expands into the present here and now, and will continuously evolve over time through our ongoing investigation of ideal spaces. For this exhibition we started with the idea of branching out the history of planned spaces through history, in the shape of a mythical figure – the tree of life; but ended in a visual representation of the cross-section of a tree and its pattern of concentric tree rings that over time recorded it´s presence. The key to understand and to create a montage like this is to recognize that it does not help us understand a space or its meaning; they just help us to visualize it, and in doing so, they come into play, no matter how peculiar they look, and then helping us imagine our place in the world. Our world disc is based on three layers of representation driven by a data model that also accumulate and store the data for further research. The first layer is the visual representation of world disc itself – our map. On top of that there is a set of transparent rings. Each ring, when being actuated, represents a certain timeframe that relates to the ideal space showed in wall 1. The second layer is connected to the physical objects in wall 2 and will be actuated when someone is interacting with them. When this occurs it establishes connections between the different timeframes/spaces and creates visual traces between them, which makes the participation of the audience visible over time.

The Worlds

The Cathedral

More information on The Cathedral

Leonardo Da Vinci – Functional city

More information on the Functional city

Karlsruhe – The world as a plan

More information on the World as a plan

Tony Garnier – The industrial city

More information on the Industrial city


More information on Motopia

Babel IID

More information on Babel IID


More information on Favela

World Disc

View the World Disc


Ulrich Gehmann, Matthias Wölfel, Michael Johansson, Andreas Siess, Daniel Hepperle, Johannes Gruber, Alexander Zyuzkevich, Alexander Kadin, Hana Rude, Nico Häffner, Andreas Schaumann, Ulrike Sattler

With special thanks to:
Steffen Krämer (scientific advisor, professor at LMU Munich), Matthias Bühler (favela-world), Jochen Heibertshausen and Victor Kadin (music assistance), Michael Wirth (language assistance), Anna Giulia Volpato (Ital. Translations), Sandra Beuck (DoP Showreel), Svenja Schindler (icon assistance), Martin Reiche. Special thanks for the Karlsruhe data to Liegenschaftsamt Karlsruheand to Geoinformationsmanagement, Hochschule Karlsruhe für Technik und Wirtschaft.