The separatists of Michael J. Lewis's subtitle are those utopianists who saw “no hope for reforming a wicked world” and so chose to withdraw from it (10). Unlike adherents of the main strand of utopian thought, which “aspires to perfect the world,” Lewis's protagonists accepted that the world “cannot be made perfect” and established sanctuaries from it (10), the “cities of refuge” of his title. There is, Lewis writes, a “distinct and unbroken intellectual tradition” of such separatist sanctuaries; the “living continuity of that tradition” is his principal theme (11).
The book is rather narrowly focused on a “German intellectual-theological tradition” that produced settlements with a “formal geometric unity” (16). The Ephrata Cloister and the Shakers, for example, are excluded because their settlements lack this geometric unity. Also excluded are utopian communities such as the Oneida Perfectionists and the North American Phalanx, which Lewis apparently considers to be in the mainstream of utopian rather than separatist thought. Within the narrow tradition he defines, Lewis finds rich ground. The book is well written and well researched, providing extensive detail as well as revealing illustrations.
Lewis begins with the ideal city of the Bible, the “central fact” of which, he says, is “its squareness” (19). Quoting at length from the Christian scriptures, he cites several examples that establish this “theme of sacred squareness” (23). Moving next to the Renaissance, he discusses Thomas More's Utopia and Filarete's Sforzinda. More important for his argument, however, is Albrecht Dürer's Comprehensive Treatise on the Fortification of Cities, Castles and Towns. This work details an ideal square city and was “the first to render the sacred square city of scripture in terms of real architecture” (55). With this city, Lewis argues, “Protestant city planning may be said to have begun” (54).
The core of Lewis's book is a series of chapters describing settlements in Germany and the New World that meet his definition of a “city of refuge.” Some are the ideal cities of treatises, others are actual communities. We first visit Freudenstadt in Swabia, “the first formally planned city of refuge” (57), founded in 1598 to attract Protestants from Austria, victims of the Counter-Reformation. Lewis argues that in designing Freudenstadt, Heinrich Schickhardt took his “entire conception” from Dürer (59), creating a square plan with four central gates and an open central square. Along the way we also encounter Johann Valentin Andreae's Christianopolis, Tommaso Campanella's City of the Sun, New Haven—according to Lewis, the “first religious sanctuary in the Americas to express its social order through ideal geometry” (78)—Philadelphia, German Huguenot settlements, and Moravian settlements in Germany and America.
The book ends with George Rapp's first and third towns, Harmony and Economy, each of which gets a lavishly illustrated chapter of its own. Lewis deems them “the most important and influential of all cities of refuge” (131), and he devotes about a third of the book to them. The arc of the Harmony Society is laid out in detail, from its origins in Germany in the 1780s to its dissolution in 1905. The Harmonists' second town, New Harmony, does not get its own chapter but is discussed in these two, which include a brief digression into Robert Owen and his purchase of the New Harmony site. The architecture and landscape architecture of the towns is covered in detail, making it clear that both participated in “giving architectural expression to his [Rapp's] theological doctrines” (143). All of these examples, according to Lewis, are sanctuary cities, “orderly, with repeated house types and a regular street plan” (11), and most are square in plan like their biblical forerunners. As example follows example, we see the justice of Lewis's argument that these constitute a “tradition.”
Among the pleasures of the book are the many colored illustrations, which include plans of ideal and actual cities, plans of communal buildings, and views of built settlements in Europe and America. The richness of illustration greatly enhances the volume.
The one disappointing part of the book is the short final chapter. Although titled “Conclusion,” it is mostly about Robert Owen's New Harmony and James Silk Buckingham's plan for a model town. The small part of the chapter actually dedicated to conclusions focuses on the place of these cities of refuge in mainstream socialist thought and how Friedrich Engels used them as examples of the successes of communal living. Lewis claims them as “one of the historical sources for international socialism, surely the single most influential force in the past two centuries” (217). This is a major claim, but surely more could have been said about these complex and fascinating societies. In a book subtitled Separatists and Utopian Town Planning we might well expect the conclusion to say more about town planning and built form. This curious omission leaves the reader vaguely unsatisfied and wondering what to make of all the plans so lovingly described in the preceding chapters. Nonetheless, City of Refuge is well worth reading. Its detailed descriptions of the architecture, planning, and social structure of the settlements it includes make a significant contribution to our understanding of a certain type of utopian community.