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

There are rare instances when historical scholarship gains relevance in the immediate present. Michael Lewis’ book City of Refuge is one of them. It tells the story of several religious groups that chose to withdraw from a world that they thought was beyond repair or reform (while revolution was not part of their agenda). It investigates both their ideals of social order and how these ideals took physical form in urban plans and, occasionally, realised buildings. In order to illustrate the changing notion of refuge, Lewis outlines the complex interplay of religion, economy and culture within societies since the Protestant Reformation but mainly throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In a total of eight chapters Lewis explores the link between utopian thought, separatist town planning and some built examples, ranging from communal dormitories to garden follies. Following the introduction of refuge, asylum and sanctuary as related concepts, Lewis quickly focuses on the squareness of ideal cities, both literally and metaphorically. Before devoting three chapters to exploring specific examples of religiously motivated settlements, primarily in Germany and North America, Lewis reviews the impact of Utopian thought on the historical practice of urban design. The book’s scope later expands to include the secular settlements of proto-Socialists, but not without detailing the mutual influences they shared with their religious counterparts. Despite the frequent failings of Utopian communities, religious and secular, the concluding chapter reconnects with Lewis’ initial assertion of a continuous tradition of refuge that is well alive in our own day.

By the author’s own admission, the synthetic history presented in this book took thirty years to mature (253). Yet it is not a collection of essays and certainly more than the accretion of thoughts over time. Lewis recognises that his subject is “somewhat elastic” (14) but exploits this to his readers’ benefit by skilfully merging historical analysis with utopian thought and urban planning. Through this combination of interests, the book presents a rich and deep discussion of a diverse and multifaceted subject while, refreshingly, steering clear of academic fashion. Given the long period of gestation it seems all the more remarkable how prescient and topical the book is today.

The opening chapter introduces the concept of refuge—a well-regulated realm offering opportunity away from oppression—and its obscure origins. Subsequently, shorter chapters address specific issues and particular examples, proceeding in chronological order from biblical times through Renaissance and Reformation to the Industrial Revolution. From this point forward, the history of modern city planning has been told by many. Well-versed in his subject, Lewis offers pointed commentary and delights with occasional snipes. He provides insightful summaries of key utopian texts and makes a convincing argument for their relevance today.

Broadly speaking, Utopia is to be found nowhere and elsewhere. The latter is Lewis’ main focus. His ambition to map utopian thought in its multiple manifestations across human history must remain—like Utopia itself—unattainable. Still, Lewis seeks to integrate accounts of religious dissent and secular reform which, as he finds, have too often been discussed separately. Central to his narrative is the “living continuity” (11) of a tradition that seeks to create enclaves of order and reason within a disturbed and disturbing world. Lewis follows a “German intellectual-theological tradition” and sees “formal geometric unity” as the “hallmark of the city of refuge” (16). Lineages are traced from Freudenstadt in Württemberg to New Haven in Connecticut, from Herrnhut in Saxony to Harmony in Pennsylvania. Planned communities established by Lutheran Protestants, Moravian Pietists and German Rappites are examined in greater detail. Despite a shared idea of refuge, Lewis notes the differences in their religious motivation but draws attention to the often-surprising similarities in their urban practices. The realisation that refuge tends to adopt the image of order is puzzling, as is the observation that dissimilar practices spawn similar urban concepts. The examples in Germany, England and North America so eloquently discussed by Lewis are not without parallel in Ireland. In addition to the Owenite community at Ralahine and Ireland’s only Moravian-planned village Gracehill, there are numerous Quaker settlements. Balancing utilitarianism and philanthropy, these planned villages were noted for their inclusive, progressive attitudes towards work and religion, as Irish architect Miriam Delaney established in her recent survey of planned villages in Ireland (see Utopia 7 and Mapped for details).

Lewis sidesteps an opportunity to open up a dialogue between the religious enclaves he describes and early pre-reformation communities with planned architecture: namely, monasteries. Medieval monastic settlements held an irrevocable appeal even in modern times. These autonomous communities, with their emphasis on learning and the prevalent division of labour (even of celibacy and abstinence) may have provided, at least in some instances, inspiration for the utopian communities portrayed in Lewis’ book. Like the separatist and utopian communities discussed in the book, monasteries differ in the degree of their social integration with the local populace. Withdrawn and self-sufficient, some monastic orders favour contemplation and mandate isolation while others may provide a range of services to the wider lay community. Not to include, or even to mention, the plan of St Gall seems a serious oversight. Dating back to the early ninth century, this plan for an ideal monastery is the only major medieval architectural drawing to survive. The Benedictine monasteries modelled on this plan were likely meant to serve as bulwarks against the advancing missionaries from Britain and Ireland and the corrosive Celtic lifestyle influences they brought with them. The plan maps a coherent set of buildings and defines complex social interactions and as such fulfils the same role as many of the urban plans discussed by Lewis.

The final chapter offers observations on the failure of utopian communities. Secular interests cannot take the place of religious motivation, Lewis concludes, thus reinforcing his initial critique of a Marxist viewpoint, which—by pitching rational analysis against irrational faith—sheds material existence from spiritual vision. Unsurprisingly for a book that draws its title from a scriptural reference, the argument dwells on the tradition of exile and asylum rooted in Judeo-Christian religion. Yet Lewis continuously skirts around a necessary critique of organised superstition and the often-inhumane restrictions imposed by it. Lewis’ account could too easily be mistaken for an apology of religious sectarianism.

The book’s emphasis on self-containment and self-sufficiency as found in most—but not necessarily all—dissenting communities draws attention to a rather different imperative, the present-day desire and necessity to provide refuge not at the fringes (and not independent of socio-economic circumstance) but in the very midst of society. We are witness to the displacement of large communities for ethnic, religious and economic reasons that will fundamentally change the social and political dynamics in Europe and globally. Prior to its unlawful destruction, the migrant encampment at Calais in France underwent a process of informal urbanisation. The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan (not too far from the ancient Israelite city of refuge at Ramoth in Gilead) is gradually evolving into a permanent settlement for about eighty thousand people. Laid out on a gridded plan, it adopts many of the urban qualities shared by planned cities. A shift in our ideas of architecture and planning already reflects the impact of mass migration and the new realities it has created in the built environment. We no longer conceive of cities as a fixed ideal but we engage with urbanisation as a fluid, evolutionary process. Design efforts are less focused on delivering a static, formalised urban plan and more on envisioning effective policies that allow complex, inclusive and, most importantly, liveable settlements to evolve.

Global migration to escape religious persecution or economic destitution is perceived by many as a recent phenomenon. Yet Lewis clearly shows that the practice of establishing places of refuge, often equated with granting asylum, is deeply embedded in human culture. Places of sanctuary, although initially established to withdraw from the modern world and its unsettling conditions, can now be recognised—“in one of those odd turns that are the tendons of history” (211)—as an inspiration and model for addressing the pressing issues of modernisation and modernity. This is the profound and positive conclusion Lewis has to offer in his remarkable book. In the context of global migration and reaching beyond the book’s original scope, City of Refuge invites further inquiry. Does the concept of refuge exist in other, non-Western cultures as well, and does it manifest architecturally in any comparable way? Given the book’s resonance with contemporary issues, this question acquires immediate urgency.

Beyond its engaging intellectual argument, City of Refuge becomes a visual pleasure due to a wealth of carefully reproduced illustrations (93 in colour and 39 in black-and-white on 256 pages). The book presents some contemporary photographs of exemplary buildings as well as portraits of key protagonists alongside numerous historic drawings of towns and buildings. This multitude of historic images is rarely found in one volume—the more catalogue-like monograph Ideal Cities: Utopianism and the (Un)built Environment by Ruth Eaton is the notable exception. Extensive notes and a substantial bibliography attest to a solid scholarly foundation. The evident care and attention in every aspect marks this as a labour of love. Although it should have a place in every collection on cultural studies and architectural history, City of Refuge is too well researched, too elegantly written and too beautifully illustrated to be confined to a library shelf. It wants to be read, and read it should be. It reflects historic interests and informs current debate. Students and scholars of various disciplines alike—from utopian studies to urban design—will find it accessible, lucid, and very rewarding.


Works Cited

Delaney, Miriam, editor. Mapped: Irish Planned Villages. DIT, 2017.

Delaney, Miriam, editor. Utopia 7. DIT, 2015, www.dit.ie/media/built/documents/architecture/publications/UTOPIA%207.pdf. Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

EatonRuth. Ideal Cities: Utopianism and the (Un)built Environment. Thames and Hudson, 2002.


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