Early in his book City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning, Michael J. Lewis identifies two threads in utopian thought. The mainstream tradition, he explains, seeks to achieve perfection in the known world, “liberat[ing] it from strife, want, and woe.” The second, more pessimistic, takes as a given “that squalor and discord are the natural state of baffled human existence.” Accepting that reform is an impossibility, those of the latter camp withdraw instead “to distant sanctuaries” (10) where they will be left alone to pursue their ideals.
One might be forgiven for thinking of the present in reading these words, in these months in which—at least for readers from the United States—the refrain, “I’m moving to Canada,” has been oft heard. Yet Lewis explores this as a tradition with very deep roots extending to the first years of the early modern period and beyond, and one often pursued with great urgency, amidst successive waves of religious persecution, harassment, and violence. For those establishing isolated sanctuaries in the Old World or, increasingly, in the lands on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, relocation—whether elective or forced—was a tool for survival. And the construction of new settlements was a means of endurance. As Lewis explains over eight engagingly written and beautifully illustrated chapters, architecture and urban planning were fundamental to the construction of what Lewis calls “cities of refuge” and, crucially, to the ideas those cities and towns represented for their inhabitants. If born in isolation, however, their influence was anything but isolated. Cities of refuge, an idea invented thousands of years ago, articulated in the Bible, recreated amidst the Renaissance, and then perfected in the early American republic, would shape the modern world that followed. If established by separatist religious sects in many cases, their reverberations would nevertheless extend far beyond religious settlements.