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Talking Policy: Michael J. Lewis on Utopian Cities

Thomas More wrote his Utopia 500 years ago. This week, World Policy Journal sat down with Michael J. Lewis, an art history professor at Williams College, whose forthcoming book City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning draws on More’s vision and others that followed to reflect on greater patterns and implications of utopian thought. What does a utopian vision reveal about its historical moment? How do idealized cities reflect idealized societies? What parallels can we, living through an age of great migration and displacement, draw with the displacement wrought by the Protestant Reformation half a millennium ago?

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: In the introduction to your book, you write that “nearly every society possesses an idea of an idealized world.” You go on to examine some of those idealized town plans very closely. Since many of these plans originated from what we consider to be modern-day Western Europe, what do you think a current utopian vision might look like, given the region’s sociopolitical atmosphere?

MICHAEL J. LEWIS: The vision of a city represents an understanding of how you think the world should be. Now, that’s a complicated thing, how the world should be. That requires a vision of social behavior, social class, economic behavior: all the institutions that make up a culture. That could be an endless discussion. But the way we envision utopian cities is an unusually good index for how we envision our society. Now, 500 years ago this year Thomas More wrote his Utopia, which created our modern framework for understanding cities. Since then, we’ve had 500 years of Enlightenment modernity, which has given us all different ways to understand economics, sociology, and anthropology.

So when you ask me what the ideal vision of a city is today, the question is more: What is our ideal vision of society and how do cities help us understand that? So in other words, we begin with city planning, but really city planning is a proxy for what society should be. It stands for something else. For example, a final exam in a college class doesn’t show exactly what you know. Instead, it stands as a kind of index for gauging learning.

I would say that the most interesting thing about our cities today in the United States is that they are not utopian. Planners have lost the utopian impulse. They do not attempt to create an ideal world. Fifty years ago, they did. Modern city planning in the 20th century, created out of the shock of World War I and World War II, aspired to create a perfect society and heal social problems by shaping the city through devices such as zoning, restrictions of heights, et cetera. During the 1960s and 70s, that became discredited because of the great failure of American urban renewal. During the 70s and 80s, utopian-influenced buildings and structures became derelict and were torn down. What that did was cause such a great loss of confidence in architects and town planners that they almost abdicated the field. What has happened is that city planners have become much more like technocrats, working on the bureaucratic problems, while architects no longer try to make ideal designs that will serve as a model for all of society. Instead they try to pursue their own signature styles, for career purposes.

WPJ: Given that city planning has lost its utopian impulse, do you think that there is anything current urban planners could or should draw on from the plans you feature in your book?

MJL: I hope that the book has a great effect on planners in that they see that it is the most idealistic exercise possible to make a city from a dazzling vision. I hope that my audience is not only scholars and historians looking back, but also those who look at the visual power of a hypothetical city to inspire future action. My book is full of beautiful plans that are very idealistic. We are not at an idealistic time for governing. It used to be that we had the unspoken premise that governments existed because of their capacity to create virtue. But bit by bit that chipped away until government’s job was to keep itself going. At the point, the government starts doing things like running a state lottery. And then the government can no longer say with a straight face, “We are here to inculcate virtue.”

There is latent possibility in city planning to inspire the imagination. But there is also a danger in these inspiration plans, because some of the most utopian of all were made by Le Corbusier after World War I—the vision of the towers in the park—and they had devastating consequences, as we destroyed inner city after inner city to build these things. So just because a drawing is beautiful and inspiring doesn’t mean that the social consequences of realizing it are going to be benign.

What we can take from city planning is visual and graphic. The most exciting ones are the ones that have an arresting geometry. It’s a logical fallacy to think that it works very well visually, therefore, by making a city more visually regular it will work better but the cities we love most have a mad, chaotic, joyful anarchy that we love. My book is prejudiced toward graphic, appealing simplifications but it turns out that the thing we love about cities is what it feels like to be in them. If the most beautiful or most efficient organization were geometric, our blood vessels would be on a grid plan. They’re not! Our aorta is big, that’s like a market. Our capillaries are small, they’re like alleys. There is the tantalizing danger of the simplified geometry.

WPJ: I notice that a lot of the town plans you wrote about often had elements of the paternalism of a socialist state and/or on the strict exclusion of outsiders. Right now, we’re seeing a huge influx of refugees and immigrants into these historically homogenous societies of Northern Europe. Do you think that the dreams of the planners in your book are incompatible with today’s globalizing world?

MJL: What I wrote about was a time that is analogous to today. Because of war and religious conflict, populations fled and found refuge in other places. All of the great examples I show in Europe were created by the Protestant Reformation, when people left one territory and found sanctuary in another. There are parallels today, but there are also differences. Religious refugees have left the Middle East in large numbers, yet no country has offered settlements that are unambiguously theirs. During the Protestant Reformation, these were all religiously like-minded utopian Protestant refugees fleeing to places that freely offered religious protection. However, there is no Islamic nation in Europe that would invite modern-day Muslim refugees in. But it’s an amazing open question to leave. What would it mean if someone were to say, “I’m going to give you a Baghdad in Germany or Sweden.” Just to say that, you realize how much it goes against the grain of today’s society, which no longer accepts separatism. When Protestant sects were breaking off, they accepted the idea of the separatist enclave. But in post-Enlightenment Europe, we have an idea of the universal liberal state.

WPJ: Despite today’s attitudes towards separatism, there is a strong tradition of separatist communes well into the 19th and even 20th centuries. Do you think that a Harmony or Brook Farm could exist today at the same scale it did 200 years ago?

MJL: It’s very difficult to emancipate oneself from the cash economy. But to have something like a Brook Farm or Harmony today, you would have to renounce cash and credit. Didn’t some of the California communes try to do that in the 60s and 70s? The problem is you cannot do complicated transactions without credit. You need credit in order to make larger purchases like machinery. You can’t trade enough pigs and sheep to get the machine that drills a well for you.

The only way people are willing to renounce the cash economy is through a very cohesive society, with that cohesion happening through religion or communism, where people will give their labor freely. There’s a stumbling block for these societies. They only seem to work with some sort of charismatic, inspirational central leader, or very intense religious passion, which must be uniform: Everyone believes the exact same thing. And it seems in our individualistic age, the computer has made everyone a separatist of one. The communal and the collective are very weak right now. But they are going to come back. They have to.

This is why I think my book is timely. These things look so foreign to us, but they’re very powerful images of cohesion, of collective gathering, which is the weakest point in our society today. What could possibly make people work together on such a scale?

WPJ: In your research, is there any particular city where you would have liked to live or experience?

MJL: We have the privilege of experiencing these places as tourists. The city where I lived in Germany—I was in my 20s, it was beautiful, there were other young people, we worked together doing construction work. I did feel a little whisper of that appeal of communal labor in a beautiful place with beautiful weather.

But it is a big decision to renounce the outside world, to become a monk or a nun. Nowadays we expect our government itself to be utopian. We expect the government to take care of us all, but that was not the function of government for a long time. These utopian town plans helped develop the model of the socialist welfare state that we have now. That’s why they were so important. They were in that sense blueprints for the modern world. Given that, separatism seems much less attractive than it once did. 

*****

*****

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Drawing by F. Bate]

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