Monday, August 06, 2012

Book Review: A Smart Guide to Utopia

A Smart Guide to Utopia: 111 Inspiring Ideas for a Better City
Le Cool, 2012
Hardcover, 160 pages

The first time I confronted Le Cool was with their Weird and Wonderful Guide to London, which is a guide -- in that it gives information and advice on a place that people are visiting -- but hardly a conventional one. But one thing I've learned from devouring guides is that conventions are waning. For example, they hardly need to be about a physical place anymore, they can also be about ideas. The Rough Guides are a good example of this (I read their Guide to Climate Change), but they are hardly unique. Which brings us to Le Cool's latest offering, their Smart Guide to Utopia*. It is an intriguing title, but one that immediately brings up questions: What is Utopia? Whose Utopia are we talking about? How does one craft a guide to something so contestable?

Well, this isn't really the type of book that gets into the meaning of Utopia, beyond the fact that Le Cool and gang want cities to be better. Yet wading through the 111 ideas I feel like they want cities to be improved for a very particular group of people, namely young(ish) European creatives who desire the fresh and the new. This is not a critique of the book or the people making it, but it is the outcome of focusing on changes being made by the very same people, or at least types of people. A good example of this can be found in the Work chapter (one of five chapters, which also includes Live, Eat & Drink, Buy, Play). The two sub-chapters in Work are called "creative support networks" and "co-working," which clearly respond to mobile, technologically minded people, not manufacturers or blue-collar workers.

The 111 ideas, which are very optimistic in their descriptions, parallel today's preoccupation with pop-ups, DIY urbanism, and other movements that deal with small-scale changes implemented by designers and other creatives. In this sense, the book is a valuable companion to the numerous other essays, books, and output that attempt to catalog the rapid and fleeting responses to apparent need. Some of the ideas may be familiar, but there are sure to be fresh ones for readers to be inspired by. (In particular I like the Cineroleum, which transforms a derelict gas station into a cinema with just scaffolding, scrap wood, and curtains.) While the text borders on the too small (am I getting that old?), it should be noted that the ideas are smartly presented, from the chapter illustrations (Buy is shown above) to the page layouts, which caption the ideas on each page at the bottom, making the book very browser-friendly. After Le Cool's London guide, which took pride in not having a consistent layout or overriding theme, the restraint and the helpful design of their Utopia guide is commendable.

* The word "Smart" in the title has a double meaning. It also refers to Smart cars, which Le Cool mentions as being an inspiration in the book's credits.