16 July 2017


Michael J. Lewis, City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning, Princeton University Press, 2016.

A history of town planning and architecture is unusual Magonian fare, but this one does have some relevant aspects, dealing as it does with religious sects as well as touching, albeit reluctantly, on aspects of esotericism.
City of Refuge is concerned with a variety of utopianism that runs parallel to the main stream. Rather than aspiring to the perfection of society, it seeks to withdraw from it, a motivation shared by two groups, religious sects and social reformers. Michael J. Lewis’ main aim in writing the book is to counter the conventional view that there’s a sharp distinction between the two, historians of one tending to ignore the other. In particular, it’s intended as a corrective to the Marxist position, based on the writings of Engels, that there is a fundamental difference between ‘socialist utopias’ and the religious refuges.

Lewis, professor of art history at Massachusetts’ prestigious Williams College, sets out to demonstrate that there was a mutual influence and exchange of ideas between the two. He mainly does this through the unexpected relationship between a charismatic leader of a German millennialist cult, Johann Georg Rapp, and a Welsh social reformer and staunch atheist, Robert Owen, a story that takes up the last third of the book.

He begins by looking at the Biblical inspiration for the city of refuge (the term comes from Numbers), particularly the notion that holy cities – such as the New Jerusalems of Ezekiel and Revelation – should be square in layout, and how this concept of ‘sacred squareness’ was taken on board by Reformation Protestants.

Lewis then traces the development of the city of refuge from vision to actuality, beginning with ideas of the perfect city proposed by Italian Renaissance architects (who invariably envisaged it as circular). Then, of course, came Thomas More, who imagined his ideal civilisation (located in a square city) in Utopia (1516).

However, the person who ‘established the square as the canonical form of Protestant urbanism’ was, I was surprised to discover, Albrecht D├╝rer. Influenced by More’s book, in 1527 D├╝rer published plans for what his ideal city. Another, rather more unexpected influence, Lewis suggests, was that of the square citadel at the heart of the Aztec capital Tenochtitl├ín, a celebrated map of which [above] was published in D├╝rer’s home city of Nuremberg shortly before he wrote his treatise.

Seventy years later, D├╝rer’s plans, scaled down and modified, were used for the first ‘formally planned city of refuge’, Freudenstadt (‘City of Joy’), established in 1598 by the Duke of W├╝rttemberg for persecuted Austrian Protestants.

In turn, Freudenstadt’s design was co-opted for another utopian work, Christianopolis (1619) by Johann Valentin Andreae – he of (probable) Rosicrucian Manifestos fame. Andreae, too, was inspired by More: Lewis describes Christianopolis as effectively a rewriting of Utopia as a ‘Protestant fable’. It was also directly influenced by the heretical Dominican Tommaso Campanella’s Civitas solis (‘City of the Sun’) – itself inspired by Utopia – which was smuggled out of his Naples jail in 1618 by one of Andreae’s friends.

Lewis downplays or ignores the esoteric preoccupations of these individuals, especially Campanella’s basing his Sun City on Hermetic principles; Lewis describes him merely as a ‘priest and philosopher’.

Be that as it may, Lewis emphasises that ‘Andreae’s Christianopolis and its precocious synthesis of theology, philosophy, and architectural theory updated D├╝rer’s ideal city for an age of religious conflict.’ It also ‘overtly connected Protestantism with such square-planned, uniformly built cities’.
He shows how Andreae’s vision, via his friend Samuel Hartlib (of ‘Invisible College’ fame), influenced the first city of refuge in the New World, the Puritan sanctuary of New Haven, Connecticut, established in 1638 by John Davenport, who took the town’s layout and dimensions from the Bible but the concept from Christianopolis.

All this is scene-setting for the largely Germanic trail that Lewis then follows, from the refugee settlements built in Germany to attract Huguenots fleeing France and the communities founded by the persecuted Moravian Church, to the eighteenth-century shift of ‘the focus of separatist action’ to America.

Lewis’ own focus moves to Rapp [right] and his Harmony Society, which he led from Germany at the beginning of the 1800s. In preparation for the imminent Second Coming, Rapp preached Biblical fundamentalism, communal living and celibacy. (Tantalisingly, Lewis also mentions, but doesn’t elaborate on, Rapp’s ‘long-standing interest in alchemy’ and other ‘secret sources of knowledge’.)

Between 1802 and 1824 Rapp shifted his Harmonists around, establishing three successive towns, Harmony in Pennsylvania, New Harmony in Indiana and Economy back in Pennsylvania, the layout and architecture of which – square or rectilinear with streets laid out in grids - are described in detail.
That’s when the surprising, to say the least, relationship with Owen began. In 1825, wanting to put his radical new ideas about social organisation into practice, Owen purchased the recently-vacated New Harmony from Rapp, and the fundamentalist and atheist struck up an unexpected friendship, exchanging ideas about the organisation of their respective communities.

The contrast between the fates of the two colonies – Owen’s New Harmony ‘sputtered to a halt’ within a decade, whereas the Harmonist’s Economy survived Rapp, lasting (particularly impressively for a society of celibates) to the turn of the twentieth century – is used by Lewis to make the point that such communities need more to hold them together than rational organisation and good intentions; a point, he argues, missed by the likes of Engels, who used both communities in his studies of social organisation, naturally coming down in favour of Owen’s.

In his conclusion, Lewis notes the irony that, although these cities (rather, towns) of refuge were intended to remove their inhabitants from the rapidly modernising world, they actually became a ‘source and stimulus’ for it: ‘Because of their compact nature, physical isolation, and their social homogeneity, they had the purity of a control group in a laboratory experiment.’ Many social thinkers, such as Marx and Engels, used them as ‘case studies’ to explore new ways of organising an industrial society.

Coming at the subject as an outsider, I wasn’t sure how universal the conclusions Lewis draws from his own case studies are. Although other separatist communities, such as the Shakers, are included, they aren’t described in detail, and there are some obvious omissions – most conspicuously the Mormons, whose desire to get away from the world involved the creation of an entire state!

That aside, I found the book – which is attractively designed and profusely illustrated in colour – interesting and engaging, and learned some new things, including about familiar figures such as D├╝rer and Andreae, along the way. -- Clive Prince

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