Utopia in the park with Claire

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“I think this is casual enough,” Claire Pentecost says as she negotiates herself into a chair at the Franke Institute, forgoing the podium prepared for her. Pentecost, associate professor and chair of the photography department at the Art Institute of Chicago, takes off her denim peacoat, adjusts her beaded bracelets, slips off her loafers, and sits cross-legged in front of 30 or so students.

Beginning her lecture, Insert Utopia Here, part of the Big Problems series, she declares, “I used to be allergic to the idea of utopia—it made me think of Brave New World or something.” The term seemed to connote “a predictable and coercive kind of situation,” filling her with the “horror that the idea of perfection gives.”

Yet Pentecost offered a more palatable kind of utopia—the city park—where “the ideals of the social contract are given a theater.” Parks, for her, are true utopias because they are “creative and political” spaces that reflect “the people, the history, and the desires” of a community. She showed a slide of her own “idea of paradise,” a Paris public garden where the plants are marked with their common and Latin names, making it “like a library.”

Other visions of utopia find their expression in parks. Pentecost displayed slides of a Paris park in an unused railroad depot, a Barcelona one surrounding a former leper’s hospital, and a Hamburg park in a once abandoned area—where local teenagers have proposed that a room be built for community members “to exhibit their hidden talents.” It struck Pentecost as “a gorgeous idea.”

Meredith Meyer, ’07

Photo: Claire Pentecost.

May 25, 2005