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Heterotopias: living lessons from destination communities

Since they were born, our three children have visited a space whose layout they seem to naturally understand and benefit from at least once a year. They are small, modern, typically wooden cottages surrounded by nature and courtyards that invite socializing and exploring the outdoors.

Even if they will visit a different house and sometimes an outright different place, they have built a continuity around such communities, mostly —but not only— planned communities in unincorporated land in the US West, from Sunriver (in the Oregon high desert) to Sea Ranch, the coastal community 3 hours north of San Francisco.

Both places prioritize the right of way of pedestrians and bicycles on the trails that make “the commons,” including an oceanfront walking path along the entire 10 miles of seashore in Sea Ranch, and a pervasive trail along Eastern side of the Deschutes River south of Bend.

In 2017 we met Donlyn Lyndon. A member of the then young group of architects who in 1965 transformed an abandoned ranch that had been partially used as a military facility during World War II, Lyndon helped create Sea Ranch. In this idealist community, shingle-clad buildings aimed at blending seamlessly with the rugged terrain and, instead of fenced-off yards and driveways, the “commons” would share facilities, infrastructures, fields, oceanfront, and walking trails.

Places aren’t interchangeable

Sea Ranch founders found inspiration in a belief of local Pomo Indians of “living lightly on the land.” Consequently, the place became an alternative location for those who didn’t want to conform to what planners and builders believed in the new so-called luxury resorts of the moment or the expanding American suburbia of the era.

According to Donlyn Lyndon, Sea Ranch is about “experiencing the place rather than following a golf ball or something,” a place where houses “are strong without being assertive, simple without being plain.”

Some years ago while in Sea Ranch

The Pomo Indians’ ethos that inspired Sea Ranch is more than unearthed PR from the Sixties. In our stays, our children have experienced the place on the same terms, getting in touch with the Ocean —and driftwood construction— like nowhere else.

We have lived a similar experience in Sunriver, which, as opposed to foggy-in-summertime Sea Ranch, has enjoyed crispy clear and dry high desert weather for much of its history, even though extreme weather events are transforming it for good.

Along with intentional communities and pocket neighborhoods, destination and planned, experimental communities such as Sea Ranch have valuable lessons for today’s challenges regarding housing prices and a very human aspiration: our need to sense we settle not only in a house and its immediate surroundings within a community.

The subjectivity of living somewhere

French philosopher Bernard Salignon argues that living somewhere is much more than getting shelter. Settling somewhere implies committing to a place and filling it up with our projects, hopes, and subjectivity.

The habitat creates habits and both host and place will coexist one way or another. Some of the communities we have created don’t consider the habitat’s local particularities, hence creating entrenched misunderstandings between inhabitants and their surroundings.

The state and use of some communities’ surroundings provide as much information about the occupants as clothing on the wearer. One can feel at home somewhere and yet not consider the surroundings play any role in it. Still, it’s only the possibility of sharing an intimate story with others around the place each of them appreciates differently that creates lasting bonds. This is, at least, Bernard Salignon’s point of view.

We all arrive in destination communities with an open predisposition to experiment around a better way of living, one where homes only have spaces we use and windows that open to the winter sun with the solace of a painting by Edward Hopper.

Such places don’t offer a culture of settlement but an open window to experimentation with architecture, light, experience, and a meaningful, poetic relation with the surroundings, its enchantment surpassing the constraints of utilitarianism.

Could people live permanently on “vacation mode”?

When we are there, it is not about whether it makes sense to be that close or far from here or there, that hot or cold, that high in the mountains or close to the sea, but about the freshness that allows the visitor to build something beyond bland routine.

Everyman’s dream home

Philip Roth’s novel Everyman starts with the funeral of the protagonist, whose life we visit in retrospective. After his third divorce and the beginning of some health issues that arrive perhaps “too early,” the narrator confesses on his behalf, the protagonist moves to a retirement community. The place’s description depicts the template of a successfully-executed destination community:

“A few years later he followed through on the promise he’d made to himself immediately after the 9/11 attacks and moved from Manhattan to the Starfish Beach retirement village at the Jersey Shore, only a couple of miles from the seaside town where his family had vacationed for a portion of every summer. The Starfish Beach condominiums were attractive shingled one-story houses with big windows and sliding glass doors that led to rear outdoor decks; eight units were attached to form a semicircular compound enclosing a shrubbery garden and a small pond.”

Among the common facilities spread around 100 acres, Philip Roth mentions tennis courts,

“a large common garden with a potting shed, a workout center, a postal station, a social center with meeting rooms, a ceramics studio, a woodworking shop, a small library, a computer room with three terminals and a common printer, and a big room for lectures and performances and for the slide shows that were offered by couples who had just returned from their travels abroad.”

The protagonist’s attitude towards his new place contrasts with impersonal, merely utilitarian living:

“As soon as he moved into the village, he turned the sunny living room of his three-room condo into an artist’s studio, and now, after taking his daily hour-long four-mile walk on the boardwalk, he spent most of the remainder of each day fulfilling a long-standing ambition by happily painting away, a routine that yielded all the excitement he’d expected.”

Experiencing heterotopia

Why the layout and design tips of such places are only acceptable for destination, retirement, or intentional communities? Why giving up the centrality of the car, breaking up with the space maxing arms race to store things we don’t need, or valuing things that make us feel good (such as properly designed winter rooms, landscape windows, forest gardens, etc.) doesn’t seem to interest remain in the realm of the extraordinary or outright odd when it comes to conventional urbanism?

Conventional cottage at Sea Ranch, “strong without being assertive, simple without being plain.”

A meaningful contemporary architecture designed for people, like the one described by Donlyn Lyndon (one made of modern homes attentive to the local vernacular, “strong without being assertive, simple without being plain,”) seems to reach excellence only in experimental communities, sometimes conceived as “different” or “special.”

Between the spaces, we dream to inhabit (utopia) and those we fear or despise (dystopia), there is a third category formed by other places that don’t fit either category since they belong to a different world outside conventional classification. Welcome to heterotopia, a term first used in this sense by French philosopher Michel Foucault:

“There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places—places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society— which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias.”

Experimenting beyond conventionalisms

As opposed to ideal places and hellish ones, heterotopias refuse conventional classifications. To describe the term, Foucault began the preface of his essay The Order of Things with an imaginary classification described by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges that seems “to break all the familiar landmarks of my thought —our thought and all the customary ways of dividing up the world in order to understand it.”

Big log

A doctor named Franz Kuhn, explains Borges, discovered a Chinese Encyclopedia entitled Celestial Empire of Benevolent Knowledge where one could read the following classification of animals:

“(a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied (j) innumerable. (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies (Foucault, 1970: xv).”

Such contradictory and unthinkable spacescape from our conventional thinking, one that drives anyone to consider the classification absurd, also makes us wonder, feeling completely disarmed and in awe. We give all credit to the Linnaean frame of thinking and expel from the realm of possibility (or even of plausible speculation) anything that doesn’t fit the worldview of our time. Utopia and dystopia are distorted images of our classifications of today, while we refuse to explore heterotopia, a realm outside our conception of reality.

Places’ reality distortion field

Heterotopia is a pause in a postmodern, ever-accelerating world, wrote Walter Russell Mead back in the nineties, way before the consolidation of the digital realm that we work hard to keep updated despite the toll it is having in our personal lives:

“Utopia is a place where everything is good; dystopia is a place where everything is bad; heterotopia is where things are different —that is, a collection whose members have few or no intelligible connections with one another.”

But there is a learning opportunity in such spaces where the conventional laws of physics and social relations don’t apply. When Steve Jobs’ collaborator Bud Tribble insisted in Jobs’ “reality distortion field,” he acknowledged the effect upon reality that fantastic or outright extravagant ideas can have if they happen to come with charisma.

Religious cults, politics, or corporate leadership seem to have bred their own types of cultist heterotopias, spaces with a “reality distortion field” where customary laws don’t apply.

Heterotopias at Sea Ranch

Heterotopia cannot identify with cultural, institutional, or digital worlds that try to be different or extraordinary but still play by the rules of meaning we understand and recognize as “subjective universals” or “intersubjectivity.”

To Foucault (Des espaces autres, 1967,) heterotopias are real places and objects that conceal more meaning than what is evident in front of us. Such alternative sites attract outcasts who feel inspired by their “distortion field” or “otherness” or may feel obliged to inhabit them. In a “crisis heterotopia” is:

“reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis.”

Entertainment utopia

There can also be heterotopias of spiritual enchantment or of healing: for example, a community garden around an undeserved urban community could attract the interest of individuals not having much in common up until then; a rural farm attracting individuals fighting homelessness, addiction, mental illness or all of the above could become a “heterotopia” of positive transformation for their lives.

If “heterotopias of time” like museums try to make sense of our tormented relationship with time and knowledge, those of “ritual purification” (saunas) or of learning (camps or stages, etc.) serve as a catalyzer of our hopes for the future.

There is one heterotopia with special weight in the hopes of reaching an ideal life in contemporary society. In such “communities,” old conceptions and penalties regarding everyday reality vanish. Like in Alice’s Wonderland or in Dorothy’s Land of Oz, such experiments shaped the American Imaginary after World War II.

Inside Edward Hopper’s paintings

Opened in 1955 in Anaheim, California, Disneyland entertainment resort was, according to Walt Disney,

“Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”

Disney tried to inspire residential suburbs with his uprooted and eclectic proposal that imagined a past that had never been quite the way it was depicted and attempted to shape an elusive future:

“Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future.”

Breakfast at Battle Creek’s Sanitarium

Decades before, before the age of antibiotics, the prevalent hygienist concept of medical healing helped develop sanatoriums to treat long-term illness, mainly tuberculosis. Usually located amid nature, often settled in dry, high-altitude valleys (as is the case in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain,) such sanatoriums are the testimony of what Foucault described as “the architecture of discipline.”

The normativization of minds and bodies gave birth to dubious experimental institutions. Medical doctor John Harvey Kellogg’s imprint in popular culture is not far behind Disney’s, as one might find out by retrieving from quotidian life the commercial version of some of his ideas, beginning with breakfast cereal, mechanical massaging, or peanut butter (attributed to him, among others).

Kellogg’s “reality distortion field” was also as big, believing that health improvement could transform human populations, he endorsed the so called “clean living movement” and tried to put his ideas to work at his Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Looking for some driftwood

He believed in racialism and supported eugenics (both ideas supported by progressives of his time,) and his health principles were inspired directly by customary religious observation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (including vegetarianism, holism, and kosher food laws.)

Yet heterotopias also enclose other “destinations” for “otherness,” which became the testimonies of some of the boldest experiments in intentional communities that, affirming their difference, tried to escape the society of their time.

No exit (for cars)

Usually built in unincorporated land, destination communities experiment without resorting to the enforcement of religious beliefs or ideologies prevalent in the American utopian communities attempted since nationhood.

Now developers are testing some ideas of destination communities and trying to relegate cars to a marginal position outside a courtyard-oriented, pedestrian-friendly layout. Culdesac in Tempe, Arizona, will try to offer this “heterotopia” of a no-car community in one of the most car-reliant parts of the United States.

Culdesac will keep emergency and service vehicles, as well as ride-shares and easy access for visitors to park. Besides the aforementioned destination communities, European town centers have applied similar strategies for years with remarkable success, from Freiburg im Briesgau to Oslo, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Florence, among many others.

Ryan Johnson and Jeff Berens from Culdesac think it’s key to relegate cars from the project’s centrality:

“(…) the feel of the community, it’s as if you’re living in a park, and so there are no asphalt streets running inside of it. It’s using things like permeable pavers or decomposed granite.”

Learning from destination communities

As we venture the decade amidst challenges big and small that bring little consensus, anybody can agree on the power of imagining a richer, more interesting life in properly designed homes light on the land, modern but inspired in the vernacular, around communities that don’t feel threatened but learn instead to coexist and collaborate if needed.

Understanding destination communities

Existing neighborhoods can also learn from destination communities and traditional urbanism from all over the world, from thriving alleyways to the streets we can walk and make us wonder, often laid out before World War II.

“Quite recently, a new kind of temporal heterotopia has been invented: vacation villages, such as those Polynesian villages that offer a compact three weeks of primitive and eternal nudity to the inhabitants of the cities. You see, moreover, that through the two forms of heterotopias that come together here, the heterotopia of the festival and that of the eternity of accumulating time, the huts of Djerba are in a sense relatives of libraries and museums, for the rediscovery of Polynesian life abolishes time; yet the experience is just as much the rediscovery of time, it is as if the entire history of humanity reaching back to its origin were accessible in a sort of immediate knowledge.” (Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias, 1967.)