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Bedford Moravian Settlement                      Old Warden Cottage Ornče                        Saltaire Housing     

A review of three recent books on community and utopia

As architects we need to be wary about how much we claim for architecture in the role of community building. Claim too much and we will always fail. But undoubtedly the quality of the built environment contributes to personal and community well-being. We design buildings to fit in with how we 'do' community, an obvious example being the separate men's and women's accommodation in many religious establishments, expressing our values, rules and aspirations (or even the oppression of others, for example the apartment blocks of aparthied).

These buildings then constrain our way of life by dictating certain things - perhaps not those we had originally envisaged. So buildings, the built environment in general, facilitate, guide or constrain how we live. How do we achieve flexible buildings which promote present ideas, but allow for future change and aspirations?

Two recent articles and a republished book serve to open the debate.

In its Winter 2008 edition Third Way published an extract from Tobias Jones' book Utopian Dreams; In search of a Good Life.

At the same time the Jubilee Centre in Engage (Winter 2007 edition) printed an article by James Williams on Utopianism

And Gillian Darley's book Villages of Vision had just been republished in an expanded edition.

Twenty years after Mrs. Thatcher famously expressed the view that there is no such thing as society community has become an overused word. The Housing Corporation is now Communities England and junior police officers have become Community Support Officers; and we talk about the legal or Muslim communities.

Community has become "an aspiration without focus and without definition." - a synonym for society, network, tribe, fellowship or church.

Tobias Jones spent considerable time living in communes, eco-villages, intellectual communities, and co-housing projects.

"It demanded personal sacrifice. A lot of the time life in a tight community was characterised by compromise, and concession. It limited the amount of personal choice one had regarding meal times, menus, dress codes, bed times, behaviour and so on. All sorts of hard won expressions of individuality appeared to be cashed in on entrance."

Jones found that unlike the communes of the 60s and 70s today’s communities are not of choice but of necessity due to housing and energy costs, the ubiquity of addiction, indebtedness, and loneliness which mean that many people cannot survive alone. This actually made the communities durable and more profound.

Jones then listed ten ingredients for community.

OPENNESS to the uninvited. Community only occurs when it exists for something greater than itself, and has to engage with the outside world


PLURALITY rather than homogeneity.

MANUAL LABOUR. All are expected to work.

CONTINUITY of personnel, rituals or beliefs, roots and tradition for stability.

THE RULE. A code of conduct. This also allows for a diaspera of supporters.

FREEDOM, but not licentiousness. Freedom has rights and responsibilities.

FINALITY rather than limitless choice, which does not lead to satisfaction.

BELONGING. Not "this land belongs to me" but "I belong to this land."

THE SACRED. The best communities are inspired by a love of both God and man, and the environment.

Just as the vision of Utopia has always been a way to critique squalid reality, so communal living is a way to offer an alternative. Something so attractive does mean humans will turn inhuman to get there, but life without a vision of an alternative is equally terrible.

But ‘Utopian’ is now a term of insult to describe something thought to be impractical or dangerous, or both. Often it means its opposite, dystopian as in Brave New World or 1984.

James Williams believes many social reformers have been unjustly written off. He cited the example of Sir Thomas More the author of Utopia, who is not often discussed among evangelical Christians.

His was a career full of contradictions.

"He relentlessly persecuted Protestants while apparently advocating religious freedom…. He firmly believed that Christians should serve wholeheartedly in civil society and in government," but put a limit on what rulers could command, and was willing to die for the sake of conscience.

Utopia written in 1516 was strongly critical of European society, of the rapacious and idle rich, of the enclosures, and of much else.

Williams advocates the utopianism of the Old Testament Law as "something to aim for, that refuses to accept the status quo, that has confidence in God’s sovereignty," even though the Jubilee laws may never have been observed.

"Christians should cry out against the injustices of the contemporary world and seek to transform it on the basis of the vision of harmonious relationships that God has given us."

These two articles give much to think about for the church community, globally and locally, but also as the social and political background in which architects design buildings which will enhance community.

At this point we can turn to Villages of Vision to look at built examples which to varying degrees served their communities well. However these villages set out to fulfil different criteria, not always including community. It would need detailed historical research to establish the extent to which each succeeded on its own terms, so all we can do here is to look at the surviving villages for examples of community architecture, rather than for blue prints to copy, or even principles to follow. Hopefully we will be stimulated to work out an approach for today.

Some of the early planned villages aimed mainly at the picturesque. Examples are Blaise Hamlet and Old Warden, with little concern for the retired employees who were to live there. Indeed residents of Old Warden were required to wear hats matching the architecture. Even Baroness Burdette Coutts, known for her philanthropy, "chose to house her elderly servants in a Picturesque escapist paradise, at Holly Village," though the dwellings were larger and more suitable.

Industrial villages had another set of imperatives, sometimes simply to keep the workforce near to the mills. Saltaire was complete with church, institute and almshouses, all provided by Sir Titus Salt after he became a Christian. Its well built houses and attractive setting means it is still a desirable place to live (and is now of course a Conservation Area). Cadbury’s Bournville was the first to include housing for non-employees, and the house plans at Rowntree’s New Earswick have allowed for easy modernisation. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation continues the Rowntrees’ interest in social issues, and introduced the concept of "lifetime living" while the Housing Trust continues to build innovative housing.

Robert Owen’s utopian New Lanark was an experiment in communism, was initially successful, and his ideas were widely followed. It represents a link between earlier industrial housing built for expediency and later developments which were genuinely enlightened industrial philanthropy.

"The firmest basis, however, for idealistic experiment was religion," and the Moravians established the most successful of the villages based on utopianism. Fairfield survives intact, an oasis in a drab area, and the much smaller settlement at Bedford also survives in the town centre, its rebuilt chapel flanked by the separate houses for men and women.

And it is the Shakers, who emigrated to America, whose settlements have survived the longest maintaining their original principles, and still influencing interior design today through their simple and elegant interiors.

A verse from the Psalms sums up the two necessary ingredients for a successful community.

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.
Unless the LORD guards the city the guard keeps watch in vain.

First there is the physical built environment, the house, community buildings and infrastructure. Secondly there are the people, their aspirations and vision to be safeguarded and shared with the next generation. This psalm also suggests that those who build the community and those who live there need to do so in God’s strength and following his principles.


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