David Long
14 May 2010 16:17 | By David Long, Contributor

10 attempts to build utopia



10 sincere attempts to build utopia (© Rex Features)

Much of the 1998 hit The Truman Show was filmed in and around Florida's planned community of Seaside. Perhaps that is why even now one gets a sense, walking around the creation of architects Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, that somewhere a version of big brother is secretly directing the lives of the residents of this unusually well-ordered community.

Seaside is by no means the first attempt at creating a utopian community, nor will it be the last. That said Duany and Plater-Zyberk's utopian vision is merely an architectural one: the house designs are explicitly individual, but the town itself feels very much all of a piece.

But elsewhere, and not just in America, numerous other communities have been established by individuals with more far reaching aims. Their creators have sought to build communities which, besides looking harmonious, are harmonious, ensuring that those who choose to live there share a similar philosophy about how society should be ordered, and how lives are best run.

In literature the concept of utopia has a long and honorable history: Plato's Republic was completed as long ago 380 BC. But people have tried these ideas out in practice too, and long before hippies started squatting in communes.

Equality Colony, USA
Established in 1897 in Skagit County, Washington, the colony was intended by its founders to show the rest of the state - and eventually all of America - how the country could be properly run on socialist principles. Basing its ideas on a book, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, the group acquired nearly 500 acres.

At its peak the population reached almost 300, everyone drawing equal wages and women working two hours a day less than the men. Policy was decided at weekly town meetings but unfortunately, overrun by freeloaders, the community was almost bankrupt by the time a disastrous fire finished it off in 1906.

Yad Hashmona, Israel
Operating like a small, cooperative kibbutz in the Judean Mountains, the settlement was established in the 1970s by Finnish Christians keen to make a gesture of solidarity with the State of Israel. The name, meaning 'Memorial for the Eight', commemorates eight Jews betrayed to the Gestapo by the Finnish government in 1938.

With a population of around 100, mostly now Israeli Jews, the settlement on the outskirts of Jerusalem has a number of attractions to keep it solvent. These include a convention centre and a Biblical village and gardens created using plants described in the Old Testament and maintained using traditional methods.

Poundbury, England
An architectural experiment on the outskirts of Dorchester, Poundbury was built on Duchy of Cornwall land at the express wish of the Duke himself, aka Prince Charles. It has strongly divided opinion since the basic plan was developed in the 1980s by Leon Krier, the Luxembourg-born 'New Urbanist' architect.

10 sincere attempts to build utopia (© Chris Ison PA)

Poundbury was built at the express wish of Prince Charles

Dismissed by detractors as mere pastiche (but very popular with residents), the building style is overtly traditional.Poundbury itself nevertheless represents a sincere attempt to create high density urban housing, a genuinely mixed and integrated community in preference to the more suburban model which has long pertained in the UK.

Sointula, British Columbia
An isolated community some 800 strong, Sointula is located on Malcolm Island and is also of Scandinavian origin Founded in 1901, the name meaning 'Place of Peace' in Finnish, the early settlers were coal miners keen to escape a harsh life back and run their lives on socialist principles.

Unfortunately the community did not thrive, although many of its descendents still live on the island and the Sointula Cooperative Store is the oldest of its type in British Columbia. In 2004 the writer Bill Gaston published a novel Sointula, much of the plot of which revolves around the settlement.

Old Economy, USA
Now a registered National Historic Landmark District, and largely surrounded by the town of Ambridge, Old Economy stands on the banks of the Ohio River. It was founded by the Harmony Society in 1824, one of three sister settlements with their origins in 19th century Germany theosophy.

The Harmony Society was formed by German ex-pats under Johann Georg Rapp (1757-1847). Some 400 members acquired 3,000 acres of Pennsylvania, agreeing to hold their possessions in common. It survived for 100 years despite a major disagreement when younger members declared themselves unhappy with Rapp's insistence on celibacy.

Utopia, USA
Founded in 1844 in Clermont County, Ohio, and now mostly a ghost town, Utopia was settled by followers of the French socialist philosopher Charles Fourier. Believing the world was about to enjoy 35,000 years of peace, and that the waters would turn to lemonade, they were instead washed away when the Ohio river burst its banks.

Thereafter the community was remodelled along anarchist lines, with newcomers being admitted only by invitation and 'labor notes' in place of money. In this form it survived into the 1870s although rising land prices and an inability to agree who should be invited to join and who rejected led to its eventual extinction.

Nauvoo, USA
The name sounds Native American but is actually Hebrew. Coming from the Book of Isiah, and meaning 'to be beautiful', it was bestowed on the town by Joseph Smith Jr., the 19th century publisher of the Book of Mormon. By 1844 the population was 12,000, half that of Chicago.

10 sincere attempts to build utopia (© AP Photo)

The Nauvoo Temple, sold in 1849 and damaged by a tornado one year later, was re-built in 1999.

As the Mormons withdrew the town was occupied by several hundred Icarians, members of a French utopian movement who by 1853 had drawn up a charter requiring all residents to donate their worldly possessions to the community. By 1860, in severe financial difficulty, they were forced to disband.

Findhorn Foundation, Scotland
Established on a caravan park in Moray in 1962, the Findhorn Foundation has expanded to become one of the largest communes in Europe. Decidedly 'alternative' but with no formal creed or doctrine, the community has over the years been home to several thousand individuals from more than 40 countries.

One of Findhorn's more recent initiatives has been an eco-village. Established as a practical demonstration of sustainable environmental, social, and economic development, and supporting many hundreds of jobs in the surrounding area, it has been shown to have an ecological footprint barely half that of the UK average.

Zion, USA
Founded in 1900 by Scottish evangelist John Alexander Dowie, Zion was planned out in its entirety before any building began. With the street layout said to have been based on the Union Flag, Dowie determined that all economic, social, political, educational and religious activities would be coordinated through his church.
Boasting 6,000 followers, Dowie had earlier founded the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church - with himself as First Apostle - and intended his new city to be free from all the evil influences of modern society. Unfortunately, probably an alcoholic, his influence declined following his declaration that he was Elijah the Restorer.

Letchworth, England
One of the first new towns, and the world's first Garden City, Letchworth was the creation of Ebeneezer Howard. In 1898 the social reformer had published To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, a book laying out ideas which like Poundbury's were mocked in the press but struck a chord with many.

Envisioning somewhere urban but attractive, with gardens for everyone and a multiplicity of open spaces, Howard also planned to underwrite this radical new development with something called 'Rate-Rent'. This would finance community facilities whilst ensuring a return for anyone investing in the city's development. Construction began in 1903.

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