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City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning.

Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2016. 256 pp. ISBN 9780691171814 ($45.00 hardcover).

Michael Lewis's volume City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning traces the Western world's preoccupation with Utopia, which spanned five hundred years and played out in Europe and in America. Lewis describes a web of influence, design inspiration, and dependencies that created a physical manifestation of the musing about the possibilities of building and living in an ideal community, a "city of refuge." Lewis defines Separatists as those who "chose to remove themselves from the mainstream of society to establish a distinct and self-contained society of their own" (17).

The central theme developed in this book, the "city of refuge," shared common characteristics that were inspired by the essence of the enterprise, an intentionality marked in physical form. Lewis sees them as "orderly, with repeated house types and regular street plan; in shape it was usually a square. These separatist enclaves," he writes, were "dissimilar in theology but similar in their urban practice, form a distinct and unbroken intellectual tradition, one that runs parallel to the main channel of utopian thought" (11).

The orderly settlements described by and imagined by Durer or Frederick Rapp, or those realized by the Harmonists, or at Christianopolis or Herrnhut, were based to some degree in a grid. Lewis traces this ordering of space to the Bible, saying in fact, the "central fact of the ideal city of the Bible is its squareness" (19). Over time, the grid and other ideal elements, "a gridded crossroads village," "its central square," or an "attempt at orderliness and regularity" became design motifs that connected these utopian experiments to each other (102). The grid reflects "the city that lies foursquare" in Revelations, a gesture that, according to Lewis, "could also express utilitarian rationality. Even the all-controlling codes of behavior,... were inspired by the way that religious leaders could direct the private lives of their adherents" (14).

This study creates much more than a list of the characteristics of a utopian town--it creates an intellectual and cultural history that shows how architecture and town planning express the essence of religious ideas, ideas about community, and the hope that a more ideal way of living in the world is possible. Lewis's description of the artist Durer's Weltchronik is particularly rich and illuminates his technique of exploring the layering of ideas beneath surface appearances. He writes, "Durer would have learned to think comprehensively about a city [in the creation of this text] in the way a municipal surveyor might, as a complete physical totality comprising buildings, squares, streets, and walls" (43). The Weltchronik was an illustrated history of much of the world and included 645 woodcuts that illustrate cities like Prague or Vienna. The author suggests that Durer learned through the process of making these woodcuts "that the world contained a great variety of cities, all picturesquely irregular, with monumental buildings huddled around some public square in the midst of a random jumble of private buildings" (43).

Informed by Thomas More's Utopia, Durer's city plan "was simultaneously beautiful and regular in form even as it was the expression of a well-governed society, with its various classes, trades and professions mutually entwined in lucid and harmonious order. Formal geometric order and social order, it seemed to say, were inseparable" (46).

Lewis credits Durer with the idea of creating the ordered space of the town square in the lineage of Christian utopian settlements. "He was the first to render the square sacred city of scripture in terms of real architecture--drawn to scale and made buildable--so as to serve as an image of orderliness, purity, and holiness" (55). Lewis also describes Moravian towns in Europe and America: "The coherence of Moravian town building in America and Europe... was the product of a centralized and superbly organized building administration.... Moravians had a remarkably high degree of architectural literacy" (122).

Lewis seems most interested in the interconnections between ideas about urban form and the influence of others--how More's ideas influenced Durer, how the experiments in the New World in Savannah and Philadelphia influenced new settlements in Europe, for example. He suggests that "the ideas of Durer, Schickhardt, and Andreae made their way into the mainstream of German thought about town planning, but shorn of their provocative social content" (84). This became a type of spatial and social vocabulary of buildings, systems, patterns, or meanings that played out in space. Lewis says the building of the Harmonists came "from the fixed typology of vernacular forms, doing little more than to determine the precise dimensions" (141).

The illustrations in this book are lush, extravagant, and incredibly useful. They exhibit the care, inventiveness, creativity, and experimentation of the Separatist builders of utopia.

Lewis's narrative interprets plan and elevation, the relationship of buildings to systems of streets and landscaping. Along the way, he shows the reader the particular emphases of these experiments--on "learning" (76), or on culture, on industry or religion, on experiments with sexual relations--and shows how these ideas or practices were expressed architecturally or in space.

Many of these towns include great communal houses or variations on the theme of church. George Rapp's "imaginative use of architecture as an instrument of religious expression and of social cohesion" (131). The garden at Economy was "an allegorical object, which took the elements of a formal princely garden and configured them into a statement of Harmonist belief" (193).

City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning would be a wonderful choice for a class on utopia, architecture, or planning. It demonstrates with great intelligence and creativity the interconnectedness of the world of ideas and the concrete reality of the places humans build.


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Author:Lewis, Michael J.; Bradley-Evans, Martha
Publication:Communal Societies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2017
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