Seven Utopian Cities That Can Be Visited Even Today
Utopian territories, some inhabited and others abandoned, have survived time to tell their stories, witnesses to the best and worst of human intentions...
Ever since the 1516 publication of Thomas Moore’s Utopia, innumerable attempts have been made to found both theoretical and practical utopian cities. Though we may know that a perfect society is impossible, this exercise of the imagination (human as it is) represented in a utopia is still a beautiful reflection of our own natural tendency toward harmony and evolution. The very impossibility of More’s nonexistent island was based on the highest philosophical and political ideals of its own era, and at some point it left the very pages of a book (along with the ones created by other utopian thinkers like Francis Bacon’s) and it actually touched reality.
Irrespective of their success or failure, utopian cities around the world (or what remains of them) are a symbols of something else. They indicate that a utopia, far from being a mere physical place, is a domain that reaches into realms of the invisible, the impossible, and the noblest among humanity. Utopias also suggest the possibility (as had Daniel Defoe) of bringing the merely imagined into the universe of the real.
These seven exercises in utopianism, some active, others abandoned, are still a part of our planet…
In southern India, an experimental city has functioned since 1968 when it was founded by guru and occultist Mirra Alfassa, known since then as “The Mother.” The city’s physical beauty is comparable only with the beauty of its ideological foundations. It’s a town founded for people from anywhere in the world who want to live in peace and progressive harmony, regardless of their beliefs, political positions, or nationalities. Auroville was designed in the shape of a galaxy whose center is a huge, golden sphere filled with meditation rooms. Today, it is the home of 2,000 inhabitants from more than 40 countries, and the city includes businesses selling of some of what is produced within the community, plus a school, farms, and a few restaurants. The city, belonging legally to the government of India, works entirely without money. Electricity, education and health care are all completely free.
A walled city in the shape of a star, Palmanova was founded by the leaders of Venice in 1593 as a self-sustaining community in which all inhabitants were equal and each played a role within its society. One of the principle intents for its creation was to defend the Venetian Empire from Turkish and Austrian invasions. After its construction and despite its being a perfect city, nobody wanted to live there, confined and in constant danger of being attacked. Palmanova was soon inhabited only by military personnel, although in 1622 it took in a good number of pardoned prisoners. Even today it’s not clear whether any of them ever lived according to the utopian rules that played such a part in the city’s creation. Today, some 5,400 people live inside Palmanoca, a frustrated utopia.
Maharishi Vedic City
Residents of this city meditate twice each day. In Iowa, USA, the city was built in 2001 under the principles of transcendental meditation – a movement which has continued to grow in recent decades in part because of the popularization of its creator Maharishi Mahesh Yogi by the Beatles during the 1960s. The city, governed by a council of five, is based on the Veda, an ancient Indian principle giving priority to harmony, balance, and natural law. Thus, all the houses in the city are the same. Following the path of the sun, each is oriented toward the east. All of the houses have a room in the center intended exclusively as a space for silence. Each house is also within one of the ten circles of buildings making up the city and distributed in rings. Maharishi Vedic City also has its own observatory (which replicates the structure of the universe), a hotel, a spa, and public schools to teach children the principles of transcendental meditation. Energy is obtained by renewable means and synthetic pesticides or non-organic fertilizers are prohibited on the huge farms that produce the city’s organic food, which is also sold through several outlets around the United States.
Within Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, this utopian city was founded in 1971 by journalist Jacob Ludvigsen who’d fallen in love himself with the free love movement. Ludvigsen imagined a self-sustaining society in what were once the abandoned barracks of the Danish army. One of the group’s principles emphasized the importance of the health of the community over that of any individual. Sadly, drugs soon flooded the city and its inhabitants stopped cooperating with police. Christiania became Copenhagen’s center for buy and selling narcotics. Still a problem today, the commune continues to struggle to maintain itself through tourism and some local events.
The imposing desert of Arizona is home to a commune founded by Italian architect, Paolo Soleri in 1970. He dreamed that his city should become a metropolis of thousands of people in a space where nature and architecture coexisted perfectly, a place that will not harm the Earth. Since then, thousands of volunteers and some permanent residents have been working on the construction of the community that is today Arcosanti – a tiny part of what Soleri once imagined as a commune of architects and free minds living together in the desert. Still under construction (only 4% of the original project has been completed), the town is financed by tourism and workshops, and through the local production of objects in ceramic and bronze.
In an industrial area in the French saltworks at Arc-et-Senans, one day a utopian city was built. It was a complex for workers and their families within a community designed by the architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, who, during his lifetime, devised several utopian cities which invited both interaction and coexistence. The layout of the buildings is in circles surrounding the saltworks. Local harvesting of the salt began in 1779 and continued for nearly 200 years until 1962. It’s said that while it was operating the community never worked according to any plan because the harsh working conditions caused so many problems among the inhabitants. The remains of the failed utopia still stand in the Chaux forest and are today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The commune of Penedo was founded in 1929 by a group of Finns who emigrated to Brazil guided by their pastor, Toivo Uuskallio. He was convinced that God had appointed him to build a Finnish utopia in the tropics. Members of the city were vegans none of whom drank or smoked, and all worked on a farm which provided none with any profit. In 1942, they realized that things were not working without any money. Penedo began to fall apart and became a tourist attraction and the enclave of the Finnish communities in Brazil. Today the site that can be visited and offers hostels, exhibitions, shops and restaurants
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