The Shape of Utopia

The Architecture of Radical Reform in Nineteenth-Century America

2023
Author:

Irene Cheng

How nineteenth-century social reformers devised a new set of radical blueprints for society

The Shape of Utopia documents a pivotal moment in American history when ordinary people ardently believed in the potential to reshape society. Highlighting the inherent political capacity of architecture, Irene Cheng showcases how visionary utopian planners in the mid-nineteenth century used their blueprints as persuasive visual rhetoric that could mobilize others to share in their aspirations for a better world.

Irene Cheng's discovery of geometric utopias uncovers a little-known yet fascinating dimension of nineteenth-century America. Combining architectural and social analysis, she offers a deeply informed interpretation of the complex interactions between political ideals and geometric form. This exciting book should generate a new interest in the utopian impulse.

Margaret Crawford, University of California, Berkeley

In the middle of the nineteenth century, a utopian impulse flourished in the United States through the circulation of architectural and urban plans predicated on geometrically distinct designs. Though the majority of such plans remained unrealized, The Shape of Utopia emphasizes the enduring importance of these radical propositions and their ability to visualize alternatives to what was then a newly emerging capitalist nation.

Drawing diagrammatic plans for structures such as octagonal houses, a hexagonal anarchist city, and circular centers of equitable commerce, these various architectural utopians applied geometric forms to envision a more just and harmonious society. Highlighting the inherent political capacity of architecture, Irene Cheng showcases how these visionary planners used their blueprints as persuasive visual rhetoric that could mobilize others to share in their aspirations for a better world.

Offering an extensive and uniquely focused view of mid-nineteenth-century America’s rapidly changing cultural landscape, this book examines these utopian plans within the context of significant economic and technological transformation, encompassing movements such as phrenology, anarchism, and spiritualism. Engaging equally with architectural history, visual culture studies, and U.S. history, The Shape of Utopia documents a pivotal moment in American history when ordinary people ardently believed in the potential to reshape society.

Irene Cheng is associate professor of architecture at the California College of the Arts.

Irene Cheng's discovery of geometric utopias uncovers a little-known yet fascinating dimension of nineteenth-century America. Combining architectural and social analysis, she offers a deeply informed interpretation of the complex interactions between political ideals and geometric form. This exciting book should generate a new interest in the utopian impulse.

Margaret Crawford, University of California, Berkeley

Offering a highly original account of nineteenth-century American reform movements and ideals, The Shape of Utopia analyzes ideal community and architectural plans as forms of politics set within vivid cultural, social, and economic contexts. Irene Cheng points the way toward advanced approaches to nineteenth-century American architecture, away from the canon and toward new modes of thinking about representation, culture, society, politics, aesthetics, and the built environment. The Shape of Utopia is a timely, important, and much welcome contribution to nineteenth-century American architectural historiography, joining work by Michael Osman, Joanna Merwood-Salisbury, and Charles Davis.

Daniel M. Abramson, Boston University

Cheng’s exploration of less well-known attempted utopias from the 19th century is not intended as the final word on such visions, but it is a valuable new account of the role of architectural drawing in the reformer’s mind and work.

Architectural Record

Contents

Introduction: The Visual Rhetoric of Reform

1. Antinomies of American Utopia: Thomas Jefferson’s Grids and Octagons

2. The Visual Rhetoric of Equality: The Land Reformers’ Grid

3. Cultivating the Liberal Self: Orson Fowler’s Octagon House

4. Picturing Sociality without Socialism: The Kansas Vegetarian Octagon Colony

5. Toward More Transparent Representation: The Hexagonal “Anarchist” City of Josiah Warren

6. Models, Machines, and Manifestations: The Spiritualists’ Circular Utopias

Epilogue: Whither Geometric Utopianism

Acknowledgments

Notes

Selected Bibliography

Index