Arcosanti, Arizona desert

Utopian living in Europe and North America

People across the world are implementing their visions of utopia. From a spiritual 'magic garden' in Scotland, to the world's largest underground temple in the Italian Alps, these 'intentional communities' rest on some highly unusual technological inventions.

A couple of years ago I decided to go off in search of utopia. For a long time I'd been fascinated by 'intentional communities', places outside of conventional society that challenge our idea of a modern lifestyle. I'd come to wonder whether we'd lost our sense of belonging in modern cities and if community life could be more utopian. I ended up spending 12 months visiting and living in different communities in Europe and North America. Along with a rich array of experiences, I discovered a hidden world of outsider art; modern architecture designed without architects; and some inspiring approaches to green technology. Oh, nearly forgot: I also came face to face with a "fully functioning time machine".

Christiania - Copenhagen, Denmark

In the heart of Copenhagen stands Christiania, an anarchist community that has survived five decades with just three rules: no violence, no hard drugs; and no annoying your neighbours with incessant bongo-playing. Christiania occupies 84'acres of disused waterways and barracks once used by the Danish military. You might be forgiven for thinking that a bunch of stoned hippies left to their own devices would have created a down-at-heel shantytown, but visitors come in their thousands not just for the obligatory tie-dye T-shirt stalls, but also to marvel at Christiania's singular architecture.

Navigating the community isn't always easy. Christiania is car-free and has no signposts, house names or street names. Instructions for finding a home are like following a treasure map: "left at the big tree, past the pirate ship, right at the tree house".

Dotted around the community are over 200'homes, each uniquely constructed and designed by residents with little or no professional knowledge. Every Monday, a team scours the city's wastelands for potential housing materials and stores them in one of Christiania's giant hangers, their equivalent of Ikea. Residents have built mock-Tudor hobbit homes, dwellings with trees growing through the centre, a 'UFO', and even a hexagonal three-storey dwelling with a glass mandala in the ceiling. Unburdened by the rigid planning rules of the outside world, Christiania's residents have shown how creative we can be when left to our own devices. They have also taken a fluid approach to architecture; houses are regularly modified to accommodate changes in the community. If one family's needs are greater than their neighbours' (e.g. by having more children), a common solution is to move a few interior walls to redress the balance. In 2006 Christiania won an initiative award of the Society for the Beautification of Copenhagen. Now, with over 65 per cent of Denmark's residents living alone, it's no surprise that some of the country's top architects and planners are taking inspiration from Christiania for a more humanistic approach to city design.

Findhorn - Scotland, UK

Findhorn Foundation in northern Scotland was originally a caravan park. In 1962, it was also home to a trio of unemployed spiritualists living in a cramped caravan until one of them, Eileen, reportedly began to receive instructions from God during a morning visit to the site's municipal toilets. God's message was clear: "Build a magic garden and they will come". Findhorn is now the UK's largest spiritual community. Its pioneering work in environmental technology has earned itself the lowest ecological footprint on record in the industrialised world. Phasing out its caravans, Findhorn has created an eco-village of homes, many created from the discarded barrels of the nearby Dallas Dhu distillery. When I asked a resident what it was like living in one of these houses, he replied: "Wonderful, provided you like the smell of whisky".

Findhorn boasts 61 zero-carbon buildings; uses only renewable energy sources; and has one centralised gas condensing boiler providing heat for the entire community. In the heart of the development stands Europe's first organic waste-water installation, the 'Living Machine', where bacteria and plants do the job of chemicals in water treatment. Waste water passes from tank to tank, each containing diverse communities of bacteria, plants, snails, fish and trees, in a process which mirrors the natural cycle of water purification. Developing this work further, Findhorn trustee Michael Shaw helped set up Biomatrix Water, an ecological engineering project that tackles pollution in urban canals and waterways, installing floating structures packed with diverse ecosystems, inspired by the structure of coral reefs. The company received the Rushlight Award in 2010. Two years later, Findhorn won the Gaia Award for 'birthing a new sustainable culture'. The community and its founders seem committed to setting an example for how we can make our cities greener.

Arcosanti - Arizona, USA

In the Arizona desert, architect Paulo Soleri took his vision of utopia to its logical conclusion. In the late 1960s he began a monumental experiment in response to what he saw as an "epidemic of suburban sprawl in the US". To demonstrate how we could balance urbanisation with nature, Soleri created Arcosanti, a low-impact city built on a mesa, one of the countless plateaus in the desert landscape. Occupying only 25 acres, Arcosanti was built to hold an optimum population of 5,000, sharing and nurturing a sense of community in the city's uniquely designed car-free, high-density dwellings.

"Our cities of the future," Soleri wrote, "will be integrated ecosystems, dense megastructures that grow their own food and produce their own energy. Designed for human intercourse and discourse, the city is our appropriate habitat. We must all live communally in order to learn from each other and grow our compassion. In nature, as an organism evolves it increases in complexity and becomes a more compact or miniaturised system. The city is a living organism that must follow the same process."

While hugely ambitious, Arcosanti remains only part-realised. Building has been painfully slow in the last 20 years with fewer than 100 full-time residents. It is architecturally somewhat disappointing; Arcosanti resembles a cross between a 1960s university campus, dated by the excessive use of concrete, and an old 'Doctor Who' set. For decades, all funding has come from the sale of bronze bells designed by Paulo Soleri and sold in the city's gift shop. Unsurprisingly, Arcosanti is broke. With Soleri's passing away in 2013, Arcosanti may now be freer to decide how it chooses to develop; but time will tell whether its fate is to become a utopia or a ghost town.

Damanhur - Piedmont, Italy

Damanhur is a 600-strong community in the Italian Alps, and is in a league of its own. Arguably one of the most ambitious architectural and engineering feats of the late 20th century, it generates income by building eco-houses, utilising high thermal caulking insulation, solar and photo-voltaic panels and natural non-polluting materials. Residents live in nucleos, micro-communities of 15-25 people.

One essential principle of Damanhur is the 'Game of Life', in which individuals and nucleos are set great challenges as a means of self-development. One such challenge led to the building of an entire village of tree houses, now inhabited by over 50 residents. As "a nation of builders", Damanhur's most astonishing accomplishment is the Temples of Humankind.

In 1978 its founder, Oberto Airaudi, instructed the group (then numbering only'28) to "build a temple, the like of which has not been seen for thousands of years". Rudimentary diagrams were drawn up for an elaborate series of nine giant chambers linked by passageways and corridors. With no professional architect or engineers in their midst, all the group had to guide them was an 'Idiot's Guide to Engineering'. For the first year they dug by hand with just one cement mixer between them. Excess water was drained into a nearby dam.

Some 25 years later, ten million buckets of rock, earth and clay had been removed from the mountainside, leaving a structure the size of St Paul's Cathedral and a place in the 'Guinness Book of Records' for "the World's Largest Underground Temple". The temples are constructed to include secret hydraulic doorways, a labyrinth, floor mosaics of luserna stones and the world's largest Tiffany cupola. Egyptian paintings, used as code to decipher secret doorways, appear in many of the passageways. Walls slide back, staircases appear, each chamber more stunning than the last, reminiscent of the catacombs of Paris and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The final temple is a small, round chamber. From the ceiling hangs a circle of long glass tubes. A giant magnetic strip coils around the walls. There is space inside the circle of tubes for a person to stand. This is Damanhur's 'selfic connection', which also doubles up as a 'time machine'. One group member claims to have travelled back in time over 7,000 years.

Damanhur's 'time machine' is claimed to work through 'Selfica', an energy system which is said to have been handed down from the Atlanteans. Selfic devices ('intelligent batteries') are created from alchemical liquids, spirals and copper wiring. Damanhurians say that they built the Temples of Humankind as a giant battery to jolt the Earth on to a new time line as the fate of our previous time line was the imminent destruction of Earth. As for the purpose of the 'time machine'? The Damanhurians don't make a big fuss about it; its main use is for visits to Atlantis to shop for spare parts for 'time-line maintenance'.

While Damanhur could be dismissed as a crackpot cult with a high work ethic, there is more to it than meets the eye. Its founders are careful to describe Damanhur as a myth, not to be taken too literally. In an age where the decline of religion and the rise of individualism have contributed to a growing sense of isolation, Damanhur provides a new myth by which to live. As one resident explained: "Myth gives you an inner connection with what a community is built for."

The consensus amongst four of the world's largest intentional communities seems to be that utopia is a place where our conurbations are sustainable and green, citizens nurture a greater sense of sharing and we all play a creative role in the development and design of our urban environments.

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