An unfamiliar way of designing community underlines the siloing and distrust that mark American culture

Mass fascination with images of destruction is almost always indicative of something deeper. More than the sheer grandiosity of a given event, they show to each individual, like art, a different story. We keep them close, returning again and again—through remembrances and reproductions—to these sites and images.

Thirty years ago, a bizarre, sprawling structure burned on the edges of Waco, Texas. Called Mount Carmel by its inhabitants—a sect of apocalypse-awaiting Christians known as the Branch Davidians—the structure was completely destroyed by fire after a weeks-long standoff with law enforcement agencies who were responding to reports of illegal activity. It’s unclear, still, whether the fire was set by those within the compound, or happened in a botched attempt by the police to barrel their way in and release tear gas, hoping to flush out the residents (76 of whom died) and their leader, a self-styled messiah known as David Koresh.

What is clear, though, is that the image of Mount Carmel burning left an indelible imprint on the minds of Americans as they sat at home, watching the scene unfold at the edges of civilization and understanding. Some thought that justice was being served and that Koresh led his followers to doom, and others maintained it was a case of government overreach—a belief that, in its most extreme case, helped bring about the bombing of the Oklahoma’s Murrah Federal Building in 1995.

Communal living, especially when it’s off the grid, has always had multiple connotations in the American psyche. On the one hand, there is respect for people who seek to rethink our stagnating, individual culture to experiment with shared resources, space, parental responsibilities, and belief. On the other, there’s a deep skepticism toward those who choose to bar themselves from the outside world. The former opinion is driven by socialistic and utopian ideas; the latter, by libertarianism and militant (often Christian) millenarism, often tucked away in what has come to be known as the compound.

The idea of utopian communal living is seeing something of a renaissance—due to COVID or rent price hikes or a rediscovery of the hippie ethos—yet it’s the millenarian or military compound that provokes perhaps the most visceral reactions. The hippies dissolved into cities or ethical farms or Costa Rica; the millenarian compound haunts any discourse on “leaving society.”

In the 1930s, Edward Hopper set out for Cape Cod to use the countryside as inspiration—a practice that the painter, then in his 50s, would repeat yearly for most of the rest of his life. Lesser-known than his depictions of New York City—which were recently revived in a thoughtful yet dull exhibition at the Whitney—the Cape Cod paintings show collections of barns and rural houses in states of decay, being slowly overtaken by grassy Massachusetts dunes.

“What if these strange structures, so different from the America we’re used to, represent what is to come? Their sloping walls and fences and ideologies, small worlds set apart for some feudal future, when systems fail in some climate apocalypse?”

Pictured at the height of the Great Depression, Hopper’s rural subjects appear to be fading into the past—slumping into the landscape that supports them. Even then, this isolated rural life was degrading, becoming historical. Driving through such areas today, more often than not, we are reminded of the past; decaying structures line the roads, left behind in the shadow of mechanization and all the other ills that have plagued this continent’s agricultural centers.

Much has been written about Waco, but very little attention has been given to that building itself. We know that individual dwellings were torn down from the site, since the Branch Davidians moved there mid-century. The materials were used to build one large structure so that all of the members could live together. We know that it didn’t have proper electricity or air conditioning, meaning that the Branch Davidians had to use gas lanterns. In a promotional poster for a recent biopic detailing the crisis, a long-haired Koresh (Taylor Kitsch) stands in front of the compound, which has details similar to a farmhouse and the proportions of a small castle, as if the body of one of Hopper’s Cape Cod houses were exhumed and turned into a ’90s Frankenhouse.

In terms of definition, the compound is slippery. Generally, it is a collection of connected or semi-connected dwellings that house the operations of a family group or institution.

Probably by design, searches for compounds in America yield few results, with much of the relevant discourse taking place on message boards like Reddit, where users post Google Maps screenshots of clusters of buildings such as a Latter-day Saints compound in the Black Hills. One of the structures has 26 bedrooms.

“Although largely viewed as a fringe development, compounds have deep roots in the historical development of the American landscape,” write researchers Kelley Snowden and Perky Beisel in a bizarrely short research summary titled “The American Compound,” noting that, in the late-1990s, states as culturally distant as New Hampshire and South Carolina adopted legal language in their zoning codes to accept “traditional family settlements,” comprising multiple or combined structures.

The pair of researchers outline three types of compounds: residential, elite, and utopian. They’re nearly identical in definition, with the only differences constituted by “seasonal” inhabitation in the elite instance, and some sort of creed or admission required by the utopian one. More common, though, are American compounds outside of the United States, which don’t fall easily into any of these categories. Take a military encampment in the Middle East, or a dormitory for workers at multinational corporations—like oil companies in destabilized countries, where there could be resentment towards the extraction.

This form of living is also very old. Some of the first cities in humanity’s history were based around the compound, such as Çatalhöyük in Turkey, which existed 9,000 years ago. Archaeological renderings of the ancient site show a cluster of earthen structures with ladders providing access, likely for defense or insulation. The tradition of millenarian sects barricading themselves against apocalypse and the outside world goes at least as far back as the 16th century, to the Münster rebellion in Germany; members of a radical Anabaptist faith took over the city under the helm of a charismatic leader, and battled for months against the authorities.

“Like with our ancient cities, the clustering-together of people suggests a fortification against prevailing society. For some, the city may represent a prison upholding the values of the moment.”

In the United States today, most people are privileged enough to live in single-family residences or individual apartments in large urban buildings. In the developing world, the compound is more common. In Ghana, since decolonization, the huge push of rural residents to urban Accra created a huge amount of family compounds, as populations in search of employment and city services tried to preserve some aspects of rural life. These buildings are usually collections of houses with 10 to 15 roofs and a central courtyard.

“The compound offered close kinship connections and semi-private space, even in the heart of the big city,” writes Yinka Ibukun, noting that a growing preference for “international-style” apartments has turned many of these structures into slums, generating talking points for politicians and eager developers alike. The American military compound, too, is a way of embedding one world—American capitalism—into other contexts.

These comparisons tell us a bit about why communities like Mount Carmel garner such fascination and horror; we turn a blind eye toward this form of living, except when it goes up in flames. And while the compound’s dynamic is certainly economic, and its ideology perhaps conservative or libertarian, it is the aesthetic container—the structure itself—that reveals these shards of ideology in the present. And when someone mentions the utopian thinking of the hippie commune, it could be worthwhile to respond with the clear lineage between it and a certain impulse to disengage.

This line of reasoning is not meant to outright condemn those who live this way. Rather, it’s to think about why compounds, and the communities they house, hold such an eerie place in the American imagination. Like with our ancient cities, the clustering-together of people suggests a fortification against prevailing society. For some, the city may represent a prison upholding the values of the moment, and the choice between a white picket fence and a wall is proof that the iron laws of individual property need not be made physical, because they are so ingrained, with a malicious government incessantly peeking through the slats.

The elite compound may represent a strange, cancerous accumulation of individualism, like with neighborhoods dotted with massive McMansions. The rural compound represents something else entirely. There, materials and forms shut off the outside world, recall an older time—one we are taught was full of danger and disease. And it is also a warning. What if these strange structures, so different from the America we’re used to, represent what is to come? Their sloping walls and fences and ideologies, small worlds set apart for some feudal future, when systems fail in some climate apocalypse? This is the mentality of that other form of collective living—the bunker that sinks below even our vision, forecasting the worst fears of those who would shut themselves off from humanity in an attempt to save what they built, be it wealth or creed.

In a quickly-changing world, structures become time capsules, like with Hopper’s Cape Cod paintings. Slivers of the past that interrupt our daily lives, make us aware of different rhythms. But they can also be strange omens, just as Waco was for a change in communal aesthetics—one that predicted the distrust and siloing that we are experiencing today.