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Rural URBAN Eutopias: Compresent Unity of Opposites

Phillip James Tabb
Texas A&M University, College Station, TX

Summary Statement

Utopian propositions usually represent non-existent, ideal, imaginary or even romantic places of the past, such as Plato’s ideal city-state, Thomas More’s Atlantis, King Arthur’s Camelot, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or The Truman Show filmed at Seaside, Florida. Common among these places are remembered atmospheres of harmony, peacefulness and well-being, and experiments in social order. Dystopian fiction, on the other hand, promotes future speculations that tend to be cataclysmic with unresolved real-world issues projected into an exaggerated future, as seen in the films Elysium, Tomorrowland, Avatar, District 9, the Divergent Series among many others. However, the positive characteristics carefully gleaned from dystopia can give glimpses of progressive urbanism and contemporary culture fast-forwarded into the imaginal world of places yet created.

The seemingly contradictory visions of these propositions appear incongruent and irreconcilable. Yet the serene characteristics of utopias and the urban characteristics of dystopias form a compresent unity of opposites: “harmonious discord,” or in Rudolf Otto’s notions of the numinous containing both “fascinating” and “terrifying qualities.” This paper focuses on the blending of rural and urban opposites towards a more holistic synthesis, a Eutopia, by proposing the bundling visions of past and future, agrarian and high-tectonic environments, and rural and urban contexts.


This topic is an analysis of the temporal and spatial contexts for utopias, and the characteristics that inform their designs. Given these separate and distinct time and locational settings, the paper proposes a blending of the most beneficial qualities of both thereby creating a more inclusive yet diverse model capable of better responding to realities of current conditions, i.e. desires for community and serene, coherent and healthy environments along with, greater opportunities for employment, social interactions and cultural events, urban agriculture, advancing technology, and sustainable urban responses to accelerating global climate change.


The paper intends to describe the desirable and beneficial characteristics of rural and urban utopias separately, and then posit that their combined qualities blended into a single proposition represent a viable approach to new models and ideal visions for evolution. Approximately, ten informing factors for each of these contexts will be discussed, illustrated and integrated, and they will be related to excerpts from the three case studies.

While the original Greek definitions for utopia, yoo͞ ˈtōpēəә, meaning “no-place,” and dystopia δυσ and τόπος, meaning “not-good place,” and eutopia, εὖ τόπος meaning “good place,” suggest quite different explanations (no, not-good and good place), they nevertheless ascribe to the aspiration of informing ideal places. Contemporary versions of these narratives of placemaking tend to illuminate issues related to the state of the environment, consumerism, the role of technology, climate change, governance, social structure, survival, and in some instances the addressing of spiritual values. While largely situated within popular media and the film industry, current utopian visions are finding new roads into contemporary development. One need only look at the skylines of Dubai or Shanghai to see these twisted forms as harbingers of future urban landscapes. Other more romantic vernaculars reflect postmodern formalism, such as the New Urbanism with its insistence upon traditional forms, pedestrian scale, and a redux of nostalgic imagery.

Rural utopian factors include: safety, authenticity, coherence, identity, human-scale, harmony and balance, connections to nature, the earth and elemental qualities, farm to table, enhanced perception, and the existence of grace and beauty. These environments provide a context for healing, transformation, community, and the experience of presence. The architecture and urban designs tend to be informal and are blended with nature rather than being opposed to or isolated from nature. And within the rural environment can be the presence of something utterly mysterious with an overwhelming feeling of awe.

The positive urban dystopian factors include: robust commerce and economic activity, employment opportunities, access to amenities, proximity to a diversity of goods and services, and high levels of specialization. They also include: places of spontaneous social interactions, high cultural and institutional functions, and a myriad of entertainment venues and opportunities. This urban context provides the efficiency of centralized socio-political and infrastructural systems, and the expression of highly advanced technology. Urban dystopias usually project a monumental presence with powerful, formal geometry. Rural-urban eutopian impulses include:

Rural Characteristics

• Safe and untroubled – trusting, vulnerable and free of harm
• Peace and tranquility – calm, ataraxic and stress reducing
• Authentic – genuine, having integrity and truth in realization
• Place identity – lucid atmosphere and clarity of expression
• Serene characteristics – undisturbed, increase presence and peacefulness
• Harmony – congruence, consonance, natural beauty, grace and balance
• Connections with nature – biophilic, positive visual and immersive relationships
• Numinous experiences – evanescence, luminous, and mysterious
• Human scale – low-density, relatable measures, sizes and details
• Earth boundedness – horizontal emphasis, geomancy and imago mundi

Urban Characteristics

• Significant geometry and social order – powerful and properties with great meaning
• Robust commerce and economic activity – vigorous and diverse mixes of use
• Agglomeration and high density – amassing, consolidating and populating
• Dynamic activity and complex – continuously changing, complicated and multifarious
• Proximity and access – closeness, connectedness and relatedness
• Places of spontaneous interactions – momentary impulses of social interaction
• Community systems – energy, infrastructure and transport modes
• Cultural and arts-related functions – governance, education and the arts
• Monumental scale – massive, exciting, enduring and significant
• Three-dimensional – vertical emphasis and axis mundi

refer to ideal designs meant to be realized, “some place,” such as Robert Owen’s New Harmony in Indiana, James Oglethorpe’s Savanna in Georgia, Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities in Britain, Roger Anger’s design for Auroville in India, Le Corbusier’s Vertical Garden City, or Leon Krier’s plan for Atlantis in Adeje, Tenerife.

Case Studies

There are three case studies demonstrating these utopian approaches. First is a strictly rural utopia with a view of the past. Second is an urban dystopia projecting a view of the future. And third, is a combinatory strategy of an ‘urbal’ eutopia, where these two oppositional contexts are balanced together in an intentional community actually being constructed today. The purpose of the case studies is to illustrate the compresent process in unifying these opposing tendencies.

• Case Study 1: Utopia – The Shire of Middle Earth (in the 2001 film Lord of the Rings):
demonstrating serene and sensuous settlement forms, agrarian and rural values, close connections to the earth, strong family and social structures, and intimate material luxuries that contribute to the creature comforts of living.

• Case Study 2: Dystopia – Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (2015 film) science fictionmystery demonstrating an alternative dimension with progressive cultural movements and stimulating, dense, action filled, controlling, shiny and high-tectonic conceptual vision for its planned urban community in the future.

• Case Study 3: Eutopia – Serenbe: A residential development project currently being realized with both rural and urban utopian ideals and integrated characteristics. Since Serenbe has been presented at previous ACS Forums, it will only be related to specific details relevant to this symposium’s topic.

Figure 1 a) Tolkien’s Shire in Middle Earth b) Disney’s Tomorrowland c) Serenbe, Georgia

Intended Conclusions

The paper concludes that rural and urban qualities should not be excluded from one another as the ideal contemporary eutopia, or good place, contains both. With the characteristics of these contexts and qualities shown to be present in the three case studies, the rural-urban eutopia is presented as an interesting contemporary approach to providing progressive models and idyllic directions addressing future development aimed at being realized in the present. In this regard the function of utopia-making continues to serve as an important societal process reflecting idealized remembrances of the past and urban imaginations of the future. Combining them creates a catalyst for progress and a vehicle for change that contain the realities of contemporary culture expressed in the spirit of our present time. Whether it is called utopia, ecotopia, biophilicutopia or eutopia, the intentions remain the same, in the aspiration of modeling the most beneficial, balanced and perfected places for human habitation.

“Without the Utopians of other times, men would still live in caves, miserable and naked. It was Utopians who traced the lines of the first City…………..Out of generous dreams come beneficial realities. Utopia is the principle of all progress, and the essay into a better future.

– Anatole France


Ann Casement and David Tracey (Editors), The Idea of the Numinous, (London, UK, Routledge, 2006) Edward S. Casey, Remembering, A Phenomenological Study, (Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 2000)
Edward S. Casey, Imagining: A Phenomenological Study, (Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 2000)
Leon Krier, Leon Krier: Architecture & Urban Design 1967-1992, (London, UK, Academy Editions, 1992) Thomas More, Utopia, (Cambridge, UK, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, 2002)
Nicholas Mann, The Isle of Avalon Sacred Mysteries of Author and Glastonbury, (Somerset, UK, Green Magic, 2001)
Lewis Mumford, The Story of Utopia, (New York, NY, Boni and Liveright Publishers, 1922)
Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, (Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press, 1958)
Phillip Tabb, “Secular Sacredness in Place Creation: A Case Study and Analysis of Serenbe Community,” Architecture, Culture, and Spirituality (London, UK, Ashgate Publishing, Inc., 2015) J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings (Book 1), (New York, NY, Mariner Books, 2012)

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