Robert Owen's unrealized vision for New Harmony
Flickr/public domain Robert Owen's unrealized vision for New Harmony

The utopian strain runs deep in the United States. This country was founded in part by religious exiles, who wanted to establish communities where they could follow what they saw as the Lord’s way without the constraints of societies they considered corrupt. It also has roots in companies and institutions that were trying to find more efficient ways to settle and use land. Many of the original colonies centered around cities that were laid out in grids and other ideal systems. In subsequent centuries, colonists attempted (with varying success) to find the original Eden that some Europeans thought this country was destined to be and settle it with diverse versions of the “city set upon a hill” promised in the bible. These attempts have ranged from agricultural settlements (Brooks Farms in Massachusetts, Llano del Rio in Southern California), to self-built hippy communities (Drop City, Colo., Arcosanti, Ariz.), to the campuses that spread from the divine colleges that later became the Ivy Leagues to the sprawling universities of California.

New Harmony, Ind., has been the site of not one, but three such attempts, all of which are celebrated in a recent collection, Utopia in the Cornfields: Architecture Landscape, and Preservation in New Harmony, published by the University of Minnesota Press. They were also the focus of a symposium that coincided not only with the book’s publication several weeks ago but also the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Atheneum, the visitor center that Richard Meier, FAIA, designed as the town’s most visible landmark. What makes the utopian impulse and its forms so enduring?

The Atheneum
Katie Swisher/Flickr via Creative Commons license The Atheneum

The first version of this southwestern Indiana settlement was created in 1814 by the followers of the German lay preacher George Rapp. As Silvia Rode, a German professor at the University of Southern Indiana, pointed out in her talk, it was in many ways the epitome of how we think of American utopias: driven by both religion and a zeal to convert what settlers saw as virgin territory into productive terrain, the settlement brought new crops, ways of planting, and the means for converting those materials into finished products to the banks of Wabash River. The Rappites, as they came to be known, laid the village out in a grid, much like most American settlements, but their monuments were neither churches nor town halls but grist mills and storage buildings, whose simple solidity were ideal (but not particularly expressive) shapes.

After the Rappites moved on to found New Economy, Pa., they sold the Indiana site to the English mill owner Robert Owen. Owen’s vision was altogether more secular. He envisioned building a huge structure near the original village: a modern-day version of a castle, complete with an outer ring of walls, to be inhabited by thousands of members of a community who would gather together in enlightenment and freedom. Based in part on the Phalansteries, a French model of a utopian community, it would have been dedicated to industry, knowledge, and open social relations. Owen had thousands of bricks made in preparation, but the project never came to fruition.

A 1930s-era reconstruction of a labyrinth and grotto originally built by the Harmonist Society
Christina Rutz/Flickr via Creative Commons license A 1930s-era reconstruction of a labyrinth and grotto originally built by the Harmonist Society
Log cabins that date back to New Harmony's 19th-century utopian past
Laura Bernhardt/Flickr via Creative Commons license Log cabins that date back to New Harmony's 19th-century utopian past

After Owen left, New Harmony became just another small market town in rural Indiana, until one of his descendants, Kenneth Owen, married Jane Blaffer, the heiress to a large part of the Esso oil fortune, in 1941. Blaffer was a follower of the Christian philosopher Paul Tillich, who emphasized openness to all forms of enlightenment and the need for the integration of social justice with spiritual enlightenment.

Blaffer set about turning New Harmony into a gathering place for thinkers, artists, poets, and social activists. She rebuilt one of the existing buildings into an inn, renovated many of the historic structures, and then added onto the small town’s building stock by moving colonial- and early 19th-century-era structures from around the Midwest to the small town. She also commissioned Philip Johnson to create the Roofless Church–essentially a walled courtyard with a curved bandshell as a chapel—with ornamental sculpture by Jacques Lipschitz, a grotto designed by Friedrich Kiesler, and the entry pavilion by Meier.

The Lipchitz gates to Philip Johnson's Roofless Church in New Harmony
Christina Rutz/Flickr via Creative Commons license The Lipchitz gates to Philip Johnson's Roofless Church in New Harmony
Christina Rutz/Flickr via Creative Commons license
Christina Rutz/Flickr via Creative Commons license
A small portico at the Roofless Church site frames views of the adjacent fields
Aaron Betsky A small portico at the Roofless Church site frames views of the adjacent fields

The Johnson and the Meier designs have become New Harmony’s most notable landmarks, overshadowing the surrounding vernacular buildings and symbolizing the ideals the town now embodies. What those beliefs might be, however, is not quite clear. The church is an open space that appears, as the architect and resident Ben Nicholson pointed out at the symposium, to be an idealized version of the nearby Rappite cemetery. Its emptiness is its strongest aspect. The most poignant moment the space offers is not the view to the sky, but to the nearby fields, framed by a small portico: you understand the outdoor room as a deliberately fallow version of the productive terrain that somehow abstracts and makes visible that agriculture.

Similarly, the Atheneum, though undoubtedly one of Meier’s most successful built essays in the collision of geometry, structure, and circulation, offers itself as an ideal: a gleaming white object whose perfection is fractured and opened up by the way you move through its planes. If it is anything, it is a machine for viewing: a kind of camera obscura that leads you up ramps to a movie theater where you could–when the building opened—view an introductory film (that movie has long since been replaced by a more conventional presentation). It ended with an aerial view of New Harmony that was timed to be followed by the opening of a window (the only one in the main façade) that gave viewers a glimpse of the actual community before they were led out the back of the auditorium and down a long ramp (now closed) into the heart of town.

Our interpretation and the pleasure we might derive from both buildings is tainted by the knowledge we have of the Johnson’s fascism and Meier’s predatory history and, in the case of the Atheneum, by the unsympathetic changes that have eliminated a good part of the building’s logic and beauty over the decades. Similarly, we are today better aware of how this land was taken away from the Native American tribes who settled here and how it was subsequently turned into soil valued mainly for its productive capacity.

The New Harmony streetscape
Doug Kerr/Flickr via Creative Commons license The New Harmony streetscape

Yet the beauty of the place, from its site along the meandering Wabash beneath a line of low cliffs, to the clarity of its human-made geometries and forms, to the aspirations of its monuments, continue to inspire. During the symposium, the awareness that we live in both a political and physical landscape that has strayed about as far away from the ideals that in three different instances tried to transform this small place was clear. The sense that we need experiments such as New Harmony to counter our devolution into a country of political separation and social injustice, a place threatened by our own abuse of its resources, was equally strong. Whether the building blocks you can now see there, from the simple volumes and geometries of the structures to their arrangement in an open grid, might be part of such a utopia remains, however, an open question. They survive more as memorials than as harbingers of a more sustainable future society.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.