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Obsessed with utopias? Read the books that inspired ‘Nice Try!’

29 titles that informed Curbed’s podcast on creating utopia

The first season of Nice Try! explores past attempts at creating utopias. With host Avery Trufelman, we explored an integrated midcentury suburb outside Philadelphia, a self-sustaining closed ecosystem in the Arizona desert, and a free-love commune in New York, among others. In producing the series, we read many books filled with incredible stories and histories that we couldn’t fit into each episode. If you’re interested in learning more about each of these failed utopias, the 29 books below are a good place to start.

All seven episodes of the series are now available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or in your favorite podcast app.

Episode 1: Utopia for Whom?

The first episode of the series explores Jamestown, explaining how British colonists’ pursuit of a new world devolved into starvation and war. For this story, the research of Kathleen Donegan and Karen Kupperman—two experts in the colony’s history—was indispensable.

Episode 2: The Modernist Utopia

Building cities from scratch is an ever-present obsession: Can you design a certain way of life and a specific culture into a place? Episode 2 investigated how India attempted to do just that with Chandigarh, a modernist city intended to embody democracy. We consulted the research of Vikramaditya Prakash, an architecture professor and son of one of Chandigarh’s architects, to understand how a culture clash played out in the city’s development.

Episode 3: Utopia in Our Backyard

A perfect family in a perfect house, with a backyard and a car in the driveway: The image of suburbia has long been associated with an aspirational life and a very American dream. But aspirational and attainable for whom, exactly? This episode tracks how suburbs, aided by racist financial and urban policy, excluded many—and one individual who tried his best to build inclusively. Research by suburbs expert Amanda Kolson Hurley, Levittown scholar Dianne Harris, and policy guru Richard Rothstein was the foundation for this story.

Episode 4: Utopia, LLC

Today, Oneida is usually associated with tableware, but before it was a brand, it was a commune in upstate New York with radical views on family and sex. Episode 4 of Nice Try! traces the journey, which we devoured in Ellen Wayland-Smith’s book. The research of Laurence Foster helped us understand Oneida’s beliefs in context with other religious groups that emerged during the 19th century.

Episode 5: Architecture in a Fascist Utopia

Cities are examples of value systems: Who gets space and what’s prioritized tells a lot about the people who design and build them. In the case of the Third Reich, redesigning Berlin to be a world capital in its image meant monuments at a size and scale never before seen in history (though the ideas were all copied from past empires). The research of Paul Jaskot—who studies the intersection of economics, policy, and architecture—was a great resource for this episode, as was Martin Kitchen’s biography of Albert Speer, the “master builder” of Hitler’s regime.

Episode 6: The Theater of Utopia

In 1991, eight scientists sealed themselves inside Biosphere 2, a research facility that replicated Earth’s ecosystems. The project became one of the most famous, and infamous, science experiments in the 20th century for its counterculture beginnings, the fascinating people behind it, and the millions upon millions of dollars it cost to build and maintain. Journalist Rebecca Reider’s book guided us through the story, as did accounts from two men who were closely involved with the project’s inception.

Episode 7: The Utopia in Your Mind

Throughout the series, we’ve looked into stories of “failed” utopias—with failure and utopia as two highly subjective concepts—and landed on the question: How do you make a radically new world without being doomed to reenact the mistakes of history over and over again? We explored this question through feminist utopias in fiction, lesbian back-to-the-land communities, and queer spaces. The critical lens of José Esteban Muñoz influenced our approach to the question, as did Davey Davis’s fiction book, which introduced Trufelman to the concept of heterotopias. Juana Maria Paz’s La Luz Journal explores the personal experiences Paz had as a lesbian of color seeking separatism and is available for reading at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, a community library in Brooklyn that’s open to the public.

Listen to the complete first season of Nice Try! on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or in your favorite podcast app.

Season one of Nice Try! may be over—but we have something special planned! Join us on Tuesday, August 6, at the 92nd Street Y in New York City for a bonus live taping of our hit podcast. Host Avery Trufelman will be in conversation with Caity Weaver of the New York Times as they explore humanity’s perpetual search for utopian living. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased at 92y.org/curbed.