by Michael J. Lewis. December 2016. 256 p. ill. ISBN 9780691171814 (h/c), $45.00.
Reviewed May 2017
Few architectural historians today have Michael Lewis’s skill and fluency in the language of built stuff. Precise, elegant descriptions of buildings and their elements, grounded in rigorous scholarship and motivated by the author’s obvious passion for his subject, make City of Refuge a pleasure to read.
Lewis’ terms of engagement with the vast intellectual history of Utopian city planning, however, are narrower than the book’s title suggests. “Separatists” describes a handful of Protestant millennialist groups—particularly Moravians, Pietists, and Harmonists—that emerged from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century German intellectual-theological tradition with a radical fervor that energized and confounded the Germanic Protestant Enlightenment. These millennialists sought to physically separate themselves from the mainstream of society by establishing “cities of refuge” — self-contained settlements laid out in the ideal geometry of grid and square, manifesting ideal social order.
The intellectual history of this divergence, conveyed in the first half of the book, is something of a hothouse flower: Lewis’s tracing of intellectual “begats” across the centuries occasionally devolves into speculation, testing the reader’s trust.
His strong suit is in the final third of the book, devoted to the intellectual and building activities of Johann Georg Rapp, a self-educated German linen-weaver and Lutheran-turned-millennialist who, along with several hundred followers, emigrated to America in 1803, founded the Harmony Society (also known as Rappites), and forged the separatist towns of Harmony, Pennsylvania (1805); New Harmony, Indiana (1815); and Economy, Pennsylvania (1824).
Millennial theology formed the core of the Harmonists’ early successes, along with charismatic leadership, the abolition of marriage and private ownership of property, dissolution of the family unit, communal living arrangements, and restriction of community size. Never intended as models for changing a world already on the cusp of World’s End, these “provisional sanctuaries in a corrupt world” protected theological purity within gridded rationality, the whole realized in a restrained but unmistakable version of German Baroque architectural style.
This is a beautifully made book, with 131 high-quality illustrations incorporated into barely 200 pages of text. Illustrations include town layouts and building plans from archival sources, maps, portraits, engravings, and both historical and contemporary photographs of sites, buildings, and interiors. The endnotes are scholarly and interesting in their own right, and accompany a selected bibliography and a spare but useful index.
City of Refuge is an appropriate choice for any academic library, and should be of particular interest to programs in material culture studies, intellectual history, architectural history, and historical preservation.