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This photograph is from Sternfeld’s series Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America, for which the artist extensively researched and photographed alternative communities of past and present. Sternfeld composed the accompanying label to explain the history of this location.
In the early 1800s, Robert Owen, a wealthy industrialist, took on the role of social theorist after radically improving labor conditions at a Scottish mill while increasing profits. New Lanark was famous throughout Europe because the minimum working age had been raised to ten, a form of health insurance was initiated, and working hours were shorter than at other mills. Owen came to believe that by changing the conditions of people’s lives it was possible to change their character, and that the final aim of character formation should be happiness. Happiness, he held, “will be the only religion of man.” He and other similar thinkers of the time were referred to as socialists because they had a theory of society.
The opportunity for Owen to put his theories into practice came in 1824, when he purchased the entire town of Harmony, Indiana, and turned it into America’s first secular utopian experiment. But what had worked in a narrow and isolated mill valley in Scotland did not work in the United States. Despite the participation of prominent scientists and of Owen’s four highly educated sons, the experiment failed. There were many reasons: the purchase of a ready-made town did not allow members to gain the shared satisfaction and unity of purpose that might have come by building from scratch; deep disagreements churned between Owen and American co-founder William Maclure over education (leading some to dub the town “New Discord”); and the frontier farmers and mechanics who responded to Owen’s invitation to join a new “community of equals,” took him at his word, and resented the “uppity” standards of speech, table manners and courtly rituals imposed upon them by the leaders. Despite the brevity of its life as a formal experiment, New Harmony proved highly influential throughout the nineteenth century. Without a community against which they might be measured, Owen’s ideas could stand for general reformist principles and they did.
The Roofless Chapel was commissioned by Jane Blaffer Owen, widow of a descendent of Robert Owen, and designed by architect Philip Johnson in 1960 to echo the mark left by New Harmony as a place of inspiration. Johnson’s concept was that only one roof—the sky—can encompass all worshipping humanity. The dome was built in the form of an inverted rosebud, tying it to the New Harmony Community of Equals, whose symbol was the rose.
Leonard Knight at Salvation Mountain, Slab City, California, May 2005
Joel Sternfeld (American, 1944-)