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ACSF 8: Utopia, Architecture, and Spirituality

June 23-26, 2016

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General Information

The Forum for Architecture, Culture and Spirituality hosted its 2016 International Symposium in the town of New Harmony, Indiana, whose origins can be traced to the religious and secular utopianism of Georg Rapp and Robert Owen. The central theme of ACS8 was utopia as an idea and ideal, real and imagined, in all of its ramifications for architecture and the built environment, culture, politics, and spirituality. We sought to reflect on utopias past, to explore utopia in the presence of reality, and to speculate on how designers can take up utopian ideas and action in the future.

The Eighth Annual Meeting of the Forum took place June 23-26, 2016 at Macleod Barn Abbey in the historic town of New Harmony, Indiana (population 915). Amid the thirty historic buildings left behind by the two communities are a number of cutting edge sites of modern architecture and landscape commissioned by Jane Blaffer Owen. New Harmony is located on the Wabash River in Southwest, Indiana, about two hours from Lambert-St. Louis International Airport (156 miles from New Harmoy)). Surrounded by cornfields, the agrarian environment made the ideal setting to explore the conference theme in a place that juxtaposes high civic aspirations with the realities of a mediated natural world. New Harmony is a work-in-progress for Utopian ideas.

As in the past, the symposium was structured around several subtopics focusing on various aspects of the general theme, and paper proposals were carefully evaluated to ensure an atmosphere conducive to personal connections and in-depth dialogue. Optional meditation was offered each morning and there was some free time for connecting to oneself, other people, and the surroundings. A Pre-conference Worskhop: Sitting: does it belong in Utopia? by Galen Cranz (UC Berkeley) and Chelsea Rushton (University of Calgary) offered participants preparation for attentive engagement. Opening night, Ben Nicholson (Art Institute of Chicago) and Michelangelo Sabatino (Illinois Institute of Technology) gave a preview of their forthcoming book on modern architecture, landscape, and preservation in twentieth-century New Harmony. Another evening was filled by a keynote address by Donald Pitzer (University of Southern Indiana) “New Harmony’s Utopian Foundation,” followed by a reading by Nancy Mangum McCaslin editor of Jane Blaffer Owen’s Like a River, Not a Lake: A Memoir. Ben Nicholson lectured on labyrinths (complementing a candlelight visit to New Harmony Labyrinth). Together we toured New Harmony including historic architecture, gardens, and landscapes, and contemporary sites including Philip Johnson’s Roofless Church, Richard Meier’s Atheneum, and Zion & Breen’s Paul Tillich Park.

The Architecture, Culture and Spirituality Forum is an international scholarly group established in 2007 to advance the development and dissemination of architectural and interdisciplinary scholarship, research, practice, and education on the significance, experience, and meaning of the built environment.

Format & Themes

“The futile, petty disputes between men and nations, about matters of no real interest to the well-being of society, would cease, a new spirit of equity, justice, charity, and kindness, would be created, and pervade the population of the world.”
Robert Owen, The Book of the New Moral World (1844)

Symposium Topic Sessions

These thematic sessions offered participants an opportunity to explore the role that utopian thought and action has played in shaping architecture, the built environment, culture, politics, and spirituality across time and space, and to speculate on how utopian ideas and ideals can continue to inspire design from the micro to the macro scale. Together we explored the implications of Utopia, Architecture, and Spirituality with both contemporary and historic perspectives in order to generate a varied and broad discussion.

Athought specific thematics sessions (within the Symposium Topic) were labeled according to the accepted proposals, a list of possible themes were provided in order to advance the conversations even further: New World vs Old World Utopias; Utopian Design; Urban vs Rural Utopias; Utopia and Architecture; Religious vs Secular Utopias; Utopia and Agriculture; Spirituality, Nature and Landscape; Writing Utopia; Modern Architecture and Spirituality; Architecture, Science and Faith; Green Utopia; Digital Utopias; Utopia and Craft; Preservation and Tourism.

Open Sessions

As in prior ACS Symposia, proposals that considered issues outside this particular Symposium Topic but still relevant to ACS concerns, were welcome and, if accepted in the peer-review process, included in a specially created session.

Pre-conference Workshop

(Thursday 23 June, 10:00am to 12Noon)

Sitting: does it belong to Utopia?

Galen Cranz & Chelsea Rushton

Bodies are designed for movement; the best posture is the next posture. How, then, can we cope with a contemporary sedentary culture whose architecture (the classroom, the library, the conference hall, the office, the restaurant, the sanctuary, the car) requires us to sit in positions that do not support our bodies’ individual alignments?

This workshop, informed by the Alexander Technique and traditions of classical and hatha yoga, offered techniques to activate and mobilize the spine when we must be seated, to remediate ill effects of sedentary behaviour on the body, and to find practical and sustainable alternatives to chair sitting.

Participants completed the workshop better able to find alert rest positions that offer both stability and ease in their own bodies. We thus expanedd a utopian social practice of sitting together beyond sitting, toward the vision of harmonious relationship between body, community, and culture.***

*** Francis Cape’s We Sit Together: Utopian Benches from the Shakers to the Separatists of Zoar (Princeton Architectural Press, 2013) notes the importance of sitting communally for the intentional, “utopian” communities established during the early settlement of America

Galen Cranz is Professor of Architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, a Ph.D. sociologist from the University of Chicago, and a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique. She is author of The Politics of Park Design: A History of Urban Parks in America (MIT 1982), and The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design (W.W. Norton 1998), which received EDRA’s 2004 Achievement Award. In 2011 she also received the EDRA Career Award. Galen has taught “body conscious design” since 1989. She currently studies vision (EyeBody) with Peter Grunwald of New Zealand, and Body-Mind Centering with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen in California. She swims and practices tai chi daily.

Chelsea Rushton, MFA, IRYT-500, is a visual artist whose creative research focuses on the intersections of art, ritual, and spirituality, and the ways in which art practice can document and facilitate personal and collective growth and evolution. She is the designer and instructor of Art of the Soul: Creative Process as Spiritual Practice, a combined lecture and seminar course offered at the University of Calgary. Chelsea began teaching yoga in 2010. Her practice holds as a primary goal the experience and alignment of the physical and energetic aspects of the self. Her teaching interests include the philosophy of yoga, yoga nidra, spinal health, and meeting pain from a yogic perspective.

NOTE: There was no charge for the workshop (as it was included in the symposium fee), but participants were asked to pre-register.

Papers and Works

To view this year’s papers and works, please click here.

Collected Abstracts of the Eighth ACS Symposium (June 23-26, 2016)

Edited by Ben Jacks & Michelangelo Sabatino (Symposium Chairs)

Note: all submissions to the symposium underwent peer review by at least 3 readers. Archived 06/07/2016

General Topic: Utopia, Architecture, and Spirituality

Session 1: Places of Worship
Rebecca Pressimone Exploring Nineteenth Century Church Architecture in Saint Louis, Missouri: 1870-1900
Sarah Angne Disneyland or Holyland? The Crystal Cathedral, an Architectural Wonder
Tammy Gaber The First Mosque in Canada, Al Rashid, A Utopia of Place and Community Engagement
Session 2: Spirituality, Nature, and Landscape
Roberto Chiotti Finding Our Way ‘Back to the Garden’ Implications for Designers and Educators in the 21st Century
Dennis Alan Winters Utopia as Heaven from The Twilight Zone to the Buddha Fields
Session 3: Utopia and Architecture 1
Thomas Barrie Domestic Utopias: the 18th Century English Anglican Evangelical Movement and the Birth of the Suburb
Janet White The Oneida Community: Spirituality and Architecture in a Bible Communist Utopia
Timothy Parker & Margaret Grubiak Landscapes of Religious Pluralism: Understanding Difference and the Common Good
Session 4: Utopia and Architecture 2
John Alexander Inventing the Tridentine Utopia: Two Sixteenth-Century Urban Projects in the Duchy of Milan
Julian Norman-Webb Building Utopias
Tracey Eve Winton Traversing the Threshold: Ornament and Liminality in Balinese Architecture
Session 5: Green Utopia
Nader Ardalan The Quest for a Spiritually Inspired, Holistically Sustainable Habitat: Nuran- The City of Illumination, Isfahan
Ming Hu Is the eco-district a new model of Utopia? Examining sustainable development through the lenses of Utopia
Phillip James Tabb Rural URBAN Eutopias: Compresent Unity of Opposites
Session 6: Writing + Drawing Utopia
Lindsay Jones Locative versus Utopian: Two Competing Approaches to Sacred Space
Mark Baechler Abrahamic Mythological Universe
Alireza Karbasioun Re-Launching History: Utopia and Spirituality from Carceri to Junkspace and Beyond
Session 7: Design Pedagogies
Mikesch Muecke The Aurelian Wall as An Existential Place and as Utopian Projection
Clive Knights Uninvited Guests: Digesting the Unfathomable Implications of Multiple Horizons
Ben Jacks The Institute for Food: a University Small Farm Living/Learning Community as Transformative Idea and Utopian Ideal
Session 8: Utopian Visions
Norman Crowe The Environmental Movement and Utopian Visions of the City of the Future
Michael Crosbie & Theodore Sawruk Playing the Starring Role of Utopia/Dystopia: Architecture in Film
Session 9: Utopia and Architecture 3
Prem Chandavarkar The Utopia of the Everyday
Wendy Redfield Peter Zumthor’s Beautiful Silence
Julio Bermudez Utopia: A Phenomenological Critique with an Architectural Promise


To download a copy of this year’s Symposium Program, click here.


To download a copy of this year’s Symposium Participants, click here.


The ACS 8 participants posing together (7 or 8 attendees missed the shot, sorry!).

Organizing Committee

Ben Jacks (co-chair)
Associate Professor, Miami University
Nancy Mangum McCaslin (co-chair)

Ben Nicholson (co-chair)
School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Michelangelo Sabatino, PhD (co-chair)
Professor, Illinois Insitute of Technology

Julio Bermudez, PhD (webmaster)
Associate Professor, The Catholic University of America