Heritage + Utopia

Architecture bears witness to the development of man’s ideas, to the continuity of history, and, so doing, affords never-ceasing instruction, nay education, to the passing generations, not only telling us what were the aspirations of men passed away, but also what we may hope for in the time to come.

William Morris, Architecture and History (1884).

In 1877, William Morris co-founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), which went on to establish many conservation principles that remain influential to this day. In his advocacy of such principles, Morris’s concern with safeguarding and maintaining the legacy of the past has often been noted. Yet his address to the Society’s Annual Meeting in 1884 reveals a far more socially conscious view of historical buildings and the temporal imaginaries embedded in them. Architecture, he suggested, could provide insights about the past that shape and feed into future hopes. Likewise, his campaigns to protect ancient monuments were motivated less by the conservative impulse to arrest the passage of time, than by a desire to make an intervention in the present with the aim of opening up alternatives for the future.

These ideas were explored more fully in Morris’s famous utopian fiction News from Nowhere (1890). In Nowhere pleasure in art is fully integrated into social and working life, making possible a living relationship with the past and a future where old buildings have become a foil to the beautiful new ones. This utopian dimension in Morris’s thought is relevant to recent ‘heritage futures’ debates and begins to hint at the potential for thinking heritage with utopia.

Why Utopia?

So what distinguishes thinking about the future from utopian thinking? The naming of utopia as such originates in Thomas More’s Utopia, first published in Latin in 1516. Simultaneously the good place (eutopia) and no place (outopia), More’s island counter-world was heavily influenced by the expanding geographical knowledge of sixteenth century Europe. However, as Reinhart Koselleck notes, the spatial utopia gradually gave way to a temporal model during the eighteenth century and utopian narratives became aligned with the idea of a better/alternative future.

Since then, utopia has continued to be associated with future scenarios that are transformative in character. As Ruth Levitas writes, utopia is ‘society imagined otherwise, rather than merely society imagined’. Utopianism, then, always speaks to the idea of the world figured differently and, in doing so, sheds light on the opportunities or limitations of the present. It is precisely this dialogue between the real and the imagined that gives utopia its critical force. Utopian thinking can also tell us about the kinds of futures implicit in the narratives we construct and the decisions we take. The My Future York project is interested in engaging with utopia and how we might collectively desire differently in relation to practices of community heritage and local democracy.

Possibility Thinking for Living Together in York

York’s reputation as a heritage city makes it one of the most desirable and unaffordable places to live in the north of England. Therefore, the need to build new housing is a pressing issue but one which has been highly contested in recent years. Concerns about losing York’s historic character have dominated discussions of local planning and development. These debates bring us full circle, back to Morris and ‘the continuity of history’. Yet, as suggested, the appeal to protect and maintain that can be read into Morris’s speech reaches both towards the past and the future. And it reaches towards the future, not with the promise of a pristine historical inheritance, but with an active engagement and negotiation of what heritage and living well together might mean.

My Future York explores how collaboratively produced histories can be used to create a space of critical engagement and possibility thinking, in the hope that more people become involved in local decision-making. The project encompasses a range of temporal perspectives; from thinking about housing plans that didn’t happen to inviting ideas for the future development of the city. The critical and transformative aspects of this approach make it a properly utopian form of inquiry, opening up conversations and ways of thinking otherwise about York’s future.

By Liz Stainforth


Graham, Helen, ‘Local Character’, in RSA Journal 3 (2015), 40-41.

Koselleck, Reinhart, ‘The Temporalization of Utopia’, in The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts, trans. by Todd Presner. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002, pp. 84-99.

Levitas, Ruth, Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.