Nowhere’s Ville

by Ralph Muldrow, appearing in Volume 43

Christianopolis by Johann Valentin Andreae, 1619. Image: City of Refuge

In his usual thorough and thought-provoking manner, Wall Street Journal architectural critic Michael  Lewis’ book describes attempts at creating the perfect society in written and architectural forms. He also creates a dual narrative between the religious experiments like Johann Andreae’s Protestant 1619 utopia “Christianopolos” and Socialist experiments such as those inspired by the British Socialist Robert Owen (1771-1858). 

Although meant to be separate from the evils of society, “something odd happened to those separatist societies who came to build their own cities of refuge”: 

The further they retreated into the wilderness, the more they were noticed and scrutinized. The less they cared about the world, the more the world cared about them.  Their religious enclaves were avidly studied by reformers whose motives were not in the slightest religious, and who regarded those self-contained societies experimental laboratories in which new systems of economy, administration, and family structure could be tested and evaluated.  

Thus, when groups came to envision ideal societies, they drew on the example of their religious counterparts. Brook Farm, the communal society established by Boston Transcendentalists in 1841, was inspired by the settlements founded by Shakers, Harmonists, and Moravians. Robert Owen imitated the economic structure of the German-Pietist Rappites. French Socialist Charles Fourier, whose social views and proposals inspired a whole movement of intentional communities in the Unites States, learned from the vast communal buildings of the Shakers that functioned as dormitories, dining halls, and meeting houses.  Famed British traveler and journalist James Silk Buckingham’s plans for his ideal city of Queen Victoria Town embraced the most durable and widespread design feature of these utopian religious communities: the belief that the right angle and square are the most divine of all geometric forms rather than the circle or the arch.

An important inspiration for new utopian communities was provided by the discovery of the Western hemisphere. Lewis is especially fascinated by the Rappites in Pennsylvania. The new Protestant movement allowed for personal access to the Bible and other books, including the insights and promulgations of new strategies for orderly development. And throughout the book, Lewis includes parallels with More’s Utopia, written in 1516. Its continued use as a template for an ideal society shows its staying power in the realms of both thought and early urban planning.  

Out of the many books written in search of ideal cities, one stands out: News from Nowhere by William Morris in 1890. Each member of Morris’ bucolic community would eschew mechanization and live in communal harmony. William Morris’ quasi-monastic vision was a dream that Morris knew was as elusive as his title, News from Nowhere.

Separatists, on the other hand, were demanding of their followers, but they too struggled with implementing their ideal communities. Lewis points out that while they embraced a universal thirst for a perfect place, plans were often beholden to a dynamic leader and a viable job market. Separatists envisioned an ongoing insular society existing in perpetuity. Robert Owen bought New Harmony with the goal of a self-sustaining peaceful enclave, but his draconian scientific rationalizations, especially harsh for families, made it unsuccessful.

The barn-like “dormitories” at Ephreta near Philadelphia had a different purpose. Their interesting architecture (c. 1740) bespeaks a sacred use. These millenarians rose each morning at 2:00 a.m. in case of the imminent return of Christ. They worked communal fields and had separate men’s and women’s buildings to keep them pure for the Second Coming.  

As Lewis notes, these communities were usually the result of good intentions. The Rappites and the Harmonists show clearly how the notion of the utopian community evolved from Europe to America: 

Architecture and town planning would play a special role in harmonist society, and not only for reasons of religion… On February 15, 1805, the Harmony Society drew up its formal articles of incorporation. For this Rapp found his model, as did the Moravians, in the communism of the early Christian church. The key scriptural passage was Acts 2:44-45, with its bracing call for the renunciation of private property: “and all that believed were together and had all things in common. And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, as every man had need.”

City of Refuge delivers a fascinating exploration of the synthesis of societal forces and architectural forms that created the utopian communities in the United States. Towns, that while having a certain influence on modern architects and planning, are on the whole no more.