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  • City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning by Michael J. Lewis
  • Carl Abbott (bio)
Michael J. Lewis City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. 253 pages, 131 black-and-white and color illustrations. ISBN: 978-0-6911-7181-4, $45.00 HB ISBN: 978-1-4008-8431-5, $31.99–$45.00 EB (various formats)

Michael J. Lewis starts off using a wide-angle lens and ends with close-ups. He opens City of Refuge with abstract ideas about ideal cities as articulated in the Bible, explores efforts by early modern Europeans to map and build such cities, and zeroes in on specific religiously-based communities built by separatist Moravians and Rappites in Germany and the United States. There are side glances at other utopians from Thomas More to James Silk Buckingham.

Before picking up the book, I wondered what would be new. There are plenty of books on utopian town schemes. John Reps treated the Rappites of Harmony and Economy and several Moravian settlements such as Salem, North Carolina, in his classic The Making of Urban America (1965). In fact, however, Lewis offers a great deal that is original and often provocative: the introduction of "city of refuge" as a community concept and planning trope, details on several efforts to build ideally-planned towns in eighteenth-century Germany, the transit of community-building ideals between Germany and North America, and a close reading of the architecture of several of the examples.

The heart of Lewis's argument involves several interrelated propositions. First, the city of refuge is a distinct type of utopian community, designed not as an example to be widely emulated for the reform of society at large, but rather as a place where a particular group can gather for the benefits of safety and insulation from outside influences. These are communities that sought "to create an ideal social order and expresses it in an ideal physical plan" (17) in a single act of community making. Second, the idea of a city of refuge is rooted in the Old Testament (Numbers 35), was developed by early modern thinkers, and took concrete form in Germany during the tumultuous times of the Reformation. Third, from Biblical examples through abstract schemes to actual built communities in Germany and North America, the proper form for a city of refuge was a square, divided into a grid of smaller squares or sets of squared streets like nested boxes. Fourth, the squared city of refuge was a distinctly Protestant solution to town planning, contrasting with the hierarchical ordering of the Renaissance and baroque curlicues of the Counter-Reformation, and expressed in places such as Herrnhaag, Saxony, New Haven, Connecticut, and New Harmony, Indiana.

Lewis explores these intertwined arguments with a chronological discussion that moves from the abstract to the concrete, introducing readers to a multitude of squares and right angles along the way. We begin with a chapter on "The Sacred Squareness of Cities" that finds many examples of square settlements in the Bible. There are the encampments of the children of Israel in their trek across the Sinai (wonderfully diagrammed by Rabbi Judah Leon of Amsterdam in 1647), the towns of the Levites, and, of course, vast cubical New Jerusalem in both Ezekiel and Revelation. Squareness, Lewis argues, represented the direct path of the righteous. He supports this point with the wording in Martin Luther's translation of the Bible, an example of the author's efforts to link broad planning concepts to the specifics of texts and politics.

The two following chapters explore the increasingly practical articulation of the abstract idea. "The Protestant Tempering of Utopia" highlights the very square city that Albrecht Dürer published in 1527, "the first to render the sacred square city of scripture in terms of real architecture—drawn to scale and made buildable—so as to serve an image of orderliness, purity, and holiness" (55). "Christianopolis" centers on Johann Valentin Andreae's 1619 book of the same title, which Lewis contrasts with the utopias of Thomas Moore and Tommaso Campanella as an explicitly Protestant utopia envisioned as a haven for religious refugees. It drew on both a...


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