It’s easy to look back at the many failed American utopian communities that sprung up during the Transcendentalist movement of the 1840s—from the Oneida Community to Brook Farm to Fruitlands—and point out what went wrong. (Typically, some combination of leadership issues, problematic sex and relationship practices, and logistics.) Each of these groups, along with several others, were attempts at creating what people thought could be the perfect society, using communal living as a means of implementing religious or social values. And though the innovative social and political ideologies (and failures) of these communities are what we hear about most often, we’re most interested in the elements of their architecture and design that remain with us today. Born of a combination of frustrations with modern industrialized society and a hope for something better, these communities were attempts at implementing social reform—though most fell far short. From neighborhoods planned in line with the garden city movement, to some mid-century modern design, to suburbs (seriously), elements of utopian-inspired design have far outlasted most of the communities themselves. Here are three examples of utopian communities and experiments that used forward-thinking designs to help create their version of the ideal society.
Many American utopian communities have religious roots, and the Shakers are no exception. Formed in England in 1747, the Shakers drew their doctrine and practices from the French Camisards and Quakers. Though Quakers initially were known and named for their trembling and movements during prayer, this practice fell out of favor, with the exception of one holdout community in Manchester. They became known as the “Shaking Quakers,” and later just “Shakers,” and settled in the United States in 1774. While their celibacy requirement put a damper on the community’s growth, they ended up with new members thanks to people converting and adopting orphans. The practice of celibacy was reflected in Shaker architecture: Men and women lived and worked apart from one another—even using separate staircases and entrances in buildings like meetinghouses (their version of churches).
As practitioners of communal living, the Shakers designed their villages—some of which you can still visit today—around this idea. They believed that working hard and efficiently was a form of prayer, and this is reflected in their architecture and design, which is utilitarian with a lack of adornment. Sticking primarily with boxy Federal-style and Greek Revival structures, every part of Shaker construction had a function. For example, their shutters were designed to block out the sun in the summer and help the building retain heat in the winter. Their wooden furniture was either built into the walls, or—like their timeless Shaker chairs—easily hung from pegs on the wall to allow for easier cleaning.
Though there are many myths surrounding household objects that the Shakers supposedly invented, it’s unclear which are true, because they didn’t believe in patenting any of their time-saving products. Regardless of origin, the Shakers eagerly adopted new technologies that allowed them to work more efficiently, including having running water and plumbing systems starting in the 1830s, and using circular saws, mortising machines, and steam-powered lathes. The Shakers’ principles of simplicity, efficiency and functionality have left their mark on American design, particularly modernism and mid-century modernism. And their willingness to accept new technologies that may have seemed futuristic—especially when it came to anything that could help them work more efficiently—is now the norm.
The Oneida Community
If you were to go to your kitchen and open your flatware drawer right now, there’s a decent chance you’d find some items manufactured by Oneida Ltd. But before they stocked American homes with knives, spoons, and forks, the group was one of the longest-lasting utopian community experiments in the country’s history. Based on the idea of religious perfectionism, preacher John Humphrey Noyes founded the Oneida Community in 1848 and authorized construction of their iconic Mansion House in 1861. The idea was that the structure could be a place where 300 members of the community could live, work, pray, and socialize together as one family, in order to become better (ideally perfect) people. Though the Oneida Community had progressive views on work, gender roles, child-rearing, and property ownership, they were best known for the practice of “complex marriage,” in which every man and woman in the group were married to each other, because they saw monogamy as a sin.
The Mansion House was designed to foster communal living and learning, particularly their enlarged versions of Victorian parlors and their library. When the massive family home was completed in 1878 it was 93,000 square feet. Like the Shakers, the Oneida Community was interested in new technologies that could help facilitate their communal lifestyle. They are credited with inventing labor-saving household objects like the Lazy Susan, the Victor mousetrap, a mop-wringer, an improved washing machine, and an institutional potato peeler. In addition, Noyes held patents on versions of carpet bags and lunch bags. They also applied this mentality to their manufacturing arm, inventing machines for cutting and stamping steel parts.
When the Oneida Community disbanded in 1880, members formed a joint-stock corporation to continue their flatware manufacturing business, which remains in operation. Though their utopian experiment eventually failed, the living and working arrangements of the Oneida Community introduced concepts and innovations still of use today.
Unlike the previous two examples, at Arcosanti the community was formed as a response to an architectural principle, rather than architecture being a means of facilitating a communal lifestyle. Now in its 50th year, architect Paolo Soleri (a student of Frank Lloyd Wright) founded Arcosanti as an “urban laboratory” in the Arizona desert. Billing itself as an “experiment” rather than an attempt at creating utopia, members of the Arcosanti community were brought together by their interest in arcology—a combination of archeology and ecology invented by Soleri—and not a set of shared social or religious values. In fact, the original and current aim of Arcosanti is to create a built world in balance with the environment that could serve as an alternative to urban sprawl, using this site in the desert as the ultimate hands-on laboratory.
Initially, Arcosanti was designed to house 5,000 people, but the number of residents rarely exceeds 100. There are currently around 80 people currently living and working there. The site, which is around 70 miles north of Phoenix, has been continuously under construction since 1970. And despite being 50 years old, it still appears futuristic, composed of multiple concrete structures at various levels (based on the topography), two large apses, and circular windows. Though Soleri’s vision of this model for a sustainable city has never been fully realized, as the world continues to adapt to contend with climate change, pandemics, and an evolving workplace, the experiment at Arcosanti may help inform the next generation of urban spaces.
The idea that community-focused movements are ways of enacting social change is just as relevant today as it was in the 19th century. Instead of attempting to create a perfect society through shared farm work, innovative architecture, or time-saving devices, today’s iterations focus on issues like climate change, food security, and the benefits of intergenerational housing. At this point, it remains to be seen whether these modern utopian experiments will have more success than their predecessors, or if perfection will continue to remain frustratingly out of our reach.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest