Honestly, who hasn’t thought at one time or another about living in the perfect society — a sensible and ideal Shangri-La? Life, one might lament, would be so much better if only everyone could see things as clearly as I do! Whatever. The concept itself goes back at least as far as c. 525 BC when Pythagoras created Homakoeion, a commune which embraced vegetarianism, equality of men and women, intellectualism and even mysticism. About 150 years later Plato penned Republic, his most famous work, which explores the very kind of political philosophy instrumental in shaping many of the Utopian communities which were to follow. Clearly, people have sought to refine and perfect society through such philosophy for a very long time.

Like Homakoeion, most planned Utopias have traditionally combined several aspirations which may include (but are certainly not limited to) any one or more of the following: 1) religious and/or spiritual enlightenment, 2) ecological harmony/self-sufficiency, 3) political, social and/or economic equality, 4) artistic/literary/intellectual expression and 5) the harnessing of scientific and/or technological knowledge. Naturally, with so many combinations of aspirations possible, not everyone is going to agree as to what Utopia looks like.

The term “Utopian community” often conjures up thoughts of failed nineteenth century religious sects which formed and briefly flourished before fading away. Many, if not all, utopias do indeed seem to have a dark side undermining the outer veneer of perfection. But truly, little in life can be said to be flawless. While it is true that many Utopias have very short life spans, many others have managed to survive and even prosper. The tradition is very much alive today (more popular than ever?) though now we are more apt to call such efforts Intentional Communities which sounds a lot more reasoned and a lot less flaky or cultish than Utopia. So many have yearned to live amongst like-minded people that the wide variety of community goals and philosophies embraced — both past and present — can be mind boggling. Throughout the ages countless people have put their time, money and energy into their visions… often bringing them to fruition. Here we’ll look at several of the innumerable physical structures which have in part sheltered, continue to shelter, or will potentially shelter some of the “perfect” communities people have envisioned. More information can be found about each community by following links the provided.

Some of the earliest organized Utopias in the United States were established by the Shakers starting in the eighteenth century. Well known for their finely-crafted furniture of spare design, the Shakers (a splinter group of the earlier Quakers) favored a similar aesthetic in their community structures in which symmetry is abundant. Here, residential structures reflect a restrained interpretation of the Federal style. Their religious beliefs included not only celibacy but separation of the sexes. New membership was achieved through adoption. Today, there are only two Shakers left. Photo source: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/who-are-the-shakers.html

Three different Utopian communities have been attempted at New Harmony, Indiana. This is how the community looked in the 1830’s when artist Karl Bodmer painted this scene. The buildings evoke popular styles of the era. Today the small town not only retains many of its earliest buildings and history but has incorporated modern architecture by heavyweights such as Philip Johnson and Richard Meier. Image source: https://www.legendsofamerica.com/new-harmony-indiana/

In 1814, preacher George Rapp established the first attempted community in New Harmony. The “Rappites” moved on, but sold the site to Robert Owen. His more secular vision of the perfect community, seen above, was never built. Its fortress-like form embodies the phalanstère concept for utopian design and appears to be architecturally eclectic. The phalanstère design was intended to aid in the perfection of community living by grouping specific functions together and sharply demarcating rural and urban functions.
Today, as an architecturally- and culturally-rich small town, New Harmony has reached an entirely different kind of utopian status. Image source: Public domain

Another early secular community was attempted at the North American Phalanx in New Jersey in 1843. This effort, too, utilized the phalanstère concept, but was built out of wood and subtly styled in the Italianate manner. The utopian socialist commune lasted until a fire destroyed significant portions in 1856. This section also eventually burned in 1972 after having stood vacant. Photo source: HABS / Public Domain

Begun in 1848, the Oneida Community in upstate New York embraced both the Italianate and Second Empire styles in their community buildings. Unlike the Shakers, the Oneida community was not sexually inhibited and believed that all members were married to each other. Some have described the community as a “sex cult”. The group lasted until 1880. Image source: https://www.oneidacommunity.org/
As the Victorian era waned and people tired of its industrialized excesses, many yearned for a less superficial way of life. Many artistic communities sprung up in reaction to this growing trend towards simplicity; hand-made items were in vogue again. As one of the best known artisan utopias of the time, Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman Farms attracted those seeking to hone their skills. The effort lasted from 1911 to 1917 when financial problems led to bankruptcy. Here, the North and South cottages at Craftsman Farms express the Craftsman aesthetic in true Stickley style. Photo source: https://www.stickleymuseum.org/

Utopian communities may have been fading in popularity in the second quarter of the twentieth century, but they never went away. The third quarter saw a revival of interest in them, and they began to flourish in the 1960’s.

Founded in southern India in 1968, Auroville remains an active eco-village utopian community of approximately 3,000 people from 55 different countries all ostensibly seeking unity and harmony. Auroville is said to be self-sustaining and without government, currency or religion. Some of the individual homes built there are quite interesting architecturally (kind of a mixed bag of experimental ideas) and often make use of eco-friendly, sometimes organic, design. This view shows the gold-plated meditation chamber known as Matrimandir at the town’s center. Photo source: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/culture-and-art/auroville-an-international-utopian-community/1397667

As a utopia for fans of arcology (a blend of architecture and sustainable environmental practices), Arcosanti is often described as an urban laboratory or experimental town and is located about 70 miles north of Phoenix, Arizona. Its buildings are constructed of cast concrete and densely organized. Envisioned when begun in 1970 to be much larger, the town has not seen much new construction since 1989. The place is amazing and if you are not familiar with it, it’s worth researching online where videos about it can be found on YouTube. Image source: https://web.archive.org/web/20210411020621/http://padstyle.com/arcosanti-is-an-urban-laboratory-in-arizona-a-new-concept-for-compact-city-design/7388

The Temples of Humankind are a set of inter-connected underground temples constructed by the Federation of Damanhur, a utopian spiritual community, eco-village and commune located about 30 miles north of Turin, Italy and established in 1975. Excavation for the aesthetically mind-boggling, highly decorated, temples and tunnels began in 1978 in secret and without the knowledge or permission of Italian authorities. According to Wikipedia, “By 1991 most of the chambers were reportedly complete when Italian police, acting on a tip from villagers, conducted a raid on the Temples. However, since the temples were so well hidden, police were unable to locate them until state prosecutor Bruno Tinti threatened “show us these temples or we will dynamite the entire hillside.”Eventually the Italian government reportedly gave them retroactive excavation and erection privileges and the Temples are now open to visitors.”
Photo source: https://www.damanhur.foundation/project/the-temples-of-humankind/

A fascinating example of “repurposing”, the Italian eco-village of Torri Superiore is the result of efforts to restore an abandoned medieval village — portions of which date to the thirteenth century. The project began in the 1990’s. Photo source: https://gaiaeducation.medium.com/tales-from-torri-superiore-ecovillage-e2202a44a624

Home to experimental architecture in addition to nurturing the development of ecological, social, and economic goals, the Findhorn eco-village in Scotland dates to the early 1980’s. Photo source: https://www.ecovillagefindhorn.com/

Often described as “the last free place in America”, and what is likely the most aberrant of all utopian communities, Slab City has been growing since the 1980’s in California’s Sonoran Desert. It is unincorporated, off the grid, and has a flexible population of between 150 and 4,000 depending upon the season. There is no law enforcement. The site is a former U.S. Marine Corps training base which was used for three years during WWII. Eventually the buildings were removed, leaving only their concrete slabs (hence the name). The vacated site was soon discovered and utilized by many, including RV owners looking for an affordable way to vacation. Some never left!

By the 1980’s the area had begun to attract the fringe elements of society and became a haven for those wanting to live outside of the mainstream. It maintains a strong “live and let live” ethos. Its architecture is comprised of recreational vehicles and structures built of various salvaged materials. Photo source: https://dronestock.com/aerial-drone-stock-video-slab-city-community-rise-m0116070426/

The library at Slab City operates 24/7. Image source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dNwp-pYxlE

The newer and adjacent community of East Jesus is more like a giant outdoor art installation and regarded as “gentrification” by many residents of Slab City. The desert climate creates challenges for the artwork there which is always in a state of decay or creation. Image source: https://californiacrossings.com/slab-city-california-counter-culture/

Advances in technology in recent decades, particularly in the field of artificial intelligence, pave the way for entirely different approaches to Utopia than those created in the past. It is inevitable that AI will increasingly impact our lives, and the field of urban design is not immune. It’s already being put to work developing “15 minute cities” world-wide in which residents theoretically are never more than a 15 minute walk or bike ride from anything they could possibly need…

Will 15 minute cities become a utopian panacea or become dystopian like so many other attempts at social engineering? Sold as both green and convenient, the 15 minute city concept has its fans and more than a few detractors. Image source:


The Mukaab, or Cube, is an ambitious planned utopia which utilizes the 15-minute concept and relies heavily on technology. The project “will feature its own internal transportation system and is designed to offer living, working, and entertainment facilities within a 15-minute walking radius“. It will contain 104,000 residential apartments. The building is tall enough to hold the equivalent of twenty Empire State Buildings. Can you imagine the shadow this structure will cast upon the surrounding neighborhood? The project is planned for completion by 2030 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Image source: https://www.greenprophet.com/2023/02/a-new-kaaba-of-commercialism-in-riyadh/

Also in Saudi Arabia, an even more ambitious project has broken ground in the Tabuk province. “The Line” is a linear high-rise which will stretch roughly 106 miles in length when completed. The plan takes the concept of 15 minute cities into hyperdrive. It is anticipated to be able to house up to 9 million residents. It, too, has fans and detractors. Completion is anticipated by 2030. Image: Saudi Press Agency

A British man promotes Utopia to a curious crowd c. 1970.

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