Counter Communities

Movement – United States

1967 onwards

The US has a rich tradition of utopian communities, starting with the early Puritan settlers that sailed for the New World and including the longest surviving utopian community of the Shakers, the European influenced Fourierist settlements such as Brook Farm through to the hippie communes of the 1960s. Whilst extremely diverse in their approaches, these settlements all aimed at establishing a new social order away from the major population centres; they therefore needed to be built from scratch both physically and socially. In particular during the 1960s, many counter communities were set up in the hot arid desert landscapes of California and Arizona. Many of these projects were looking for an alternative to socially and ecologically damaging lifestyles and were usually established under the guidance of a visionary architect, artist or activist. Whilst the aim was to create a lifestyle that could be replicated, their message spreading through example, most counter communities remained as single projects. Some are still operating today in different guises, for example Nader Khalili's vision of low-impact adobe building is still being promoted and researched by the Cal-Earth Institute.

An early example is Arcosanti, the brainchild of Italian architect Paolo Soleri, who envisioned a mega-structure built in the middle of the Arizona desert, which could accommodate 5,000 people. Established in 1970 the project is ongoing, following Soleri's design principles, which he refers to as arcologies. A mixture of architecture and ecology, the term and idea originated in science fiction and was first used by H G Wells. Soleri's arcologies advocate a number of extremely dense, mixed-use, self-contained and economically self-sufficient communities that promote a frugal lifestyle and are able to inhabit the planet with minimal environmental impact. Although there are some similarities to the ecovillage concept, Soleri's arcologies were initially concerned with the production of an ecological architecture and did not focus on the cooperative or spiritual elements that are often also a part of the motivation for ecovillages. Arcosanti is the built testing ground for Soleri's ideas, envisioned as an alternative to suburban sprawl, it would eventually be a dense city with walking as the main mode of transport. Due to lack of funds, only a small part has been built to date and there are only 60 permanent residents. Despite this, the project is continuing with a strong pedagogical focus and over the years many volunteers from around the world have participated in its construction, workshops and seminars. The emphasis on learning through building comes from Soleri's time spent working with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin in the late 1940s.

An example of a counter community that has spread beyond the US are Earthships, which were first designed in the mid-1970s by architect, Mike Reynolds. They aimed to be self-sufficient passive solar dwellings that were affordable, easily built without any specialist building knowledge, and using waste material wherever possible, including drinks cans, glass bottles and scrap metal. Over the years, the basic design has remained the same, with a glass façade on the sunny side and partially buried walls made from tyres rammed with earth. These act as mass heat storage devices, gaining heat during the day and releasing it at night, reducing the need for heating systems. Earthships incorporate solar panels for electricity and hot water, whilst rainwater is collected for use and greywater recycling is incorporated into the design, using the 'living machines' system first designed at the New Alchemy Institute.

Recently, with growing concern over climate change, Earthships have gained popularity and Reynolds who has always had a difficult relationship with professional architecture and building regulation bodies, is now being accepted by them; some Earthships are also being used in disaster relief situations.

The Lama Foundation was established in 1967 by artists, Steve Durkee, Barbara Durkee and Jonathan Altman who moved to Taos, New Mexico to found a commune based on the goal of spiritual well-being and to live without hierarchical forms of organisation. They constructed buildings in adobe with the help of the local Native American population, whilst their friendship with Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, led them to be introduced to Steve Baer who helped erect geodesic-type domes similar to those at Drop City. Finally, geodesic domes were also used at Dome Village, founded in 1993 by activist Ted Hayes and closed down in 2006. Unique for its location in the middle of the city, in a car park next to the financial district of downtown Los Angeles, it was established as a settlement for the homeless. A self-managed community of around 35 individuals housed in 20 geodesic domes, it not only provided shelter but its organisation as a small village provided a support structure for its residents. Dome Village also organised workshops, including computer literacy, community gardening and help with job seeking. Due to its location the rent was eventually too high and Dome Village was evicted, although there are plans afoot for a second version.

Other Work

'The Lama Foundation: A spiritual community in San Cristobal, New Mexico', [accessed 7 April 2010].

'Dome Village', [accessed 7 April 2010].

'Earthship Biotecture Sustainable Green Buildings', [accessed 7 April 2010].

'Arcosanti', [accessed 7 April 2010].

References About

Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser (dirs.), Counter Communities: Projects by Paolo Soleri (Arcosanti), Lama-Foundation, Mike Reynolds (Earthships), Nader Khalili (Cal-Earth), Ted Hays (Dome Village), 2003/2009, [accessed 1 April 2010].

Michael Dear and Jurgen von Mahs, 'Housing for the Homeless, by the Homeless, and of the Homeless', in Nan Ellin (ed.), Architecture of Fear (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997), pp. 190-200.

David Grierson, 'Arcosanti', in Karen Christensen and David Levinson (eds.), Encyclopedia of Community: From the Village to the Virtual World, 2 vols (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2003).

Oliver Hodge (dir.), Garbage Warrior, 2007, 86 min.

Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise fo Digitial Utopianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

Yale University, 'America and the Utopian Dream', [accessed 6 April 2010].


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