Suburbs are often unfairly maligned as lacking the qualities that make cities great. But one place that criticism can be fair is in the area of sacred space. There most certainly is sacred space in the suburbs, but usually less of it than in the city both quantitatively and qualitatively. In fact, the comparative lack of sacred space is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the suburb that makes it “sub” urban, that is, in a sense lesser than the city.
So what evidence does Renn provide for this claim? Well, actually, none that I can see. (Are there fewer sacred spaces in suburbs than in cities, proportionate to population? Has anybody counted?)
The post asserts many points but doesn’t support any of them, nor is it clear in defining its terms. For instance, in the section of the post called “What Is Sacred Space?” the only example of sacred space cited there is the Indiana World War Memorial in Indianapolis, which seems to suggest that the patriotic and nationalistic are forms of the sacred. I’m not even sure the people who built the memorial would cop to that.
The only other place mentioned in that part of the post is Times Square in Manhattan, but Renn doesn’t say whether he thinks that is sacred space also — though if it isn’t, I don’t know why it would be mentioned in that context. My view is that only an impoverished and incoherent notion of the sacred would identify Times Square or the Indiana World War Memorial as sacred space. “Sacred” and “civic” (or “civic-monumental”) are not synonyms. May God have mercy on any city in which they come to be.
To these spaces he admires Renn contrasts suburban churches, which he says are terrible because of Protestantism. They are indeed often terrible, but if Protestantism is the problem why are there so many Catholics made miserable by their own recent church architecture? I think Randall Smith is correct to argue that the very real problems with most recent church architecture cross denominational boundaries because the buildings are the product of an architectural profession that in the 20th century followed paths that are inimical to good ecclesiastical buildings. (Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House remains, thirty years after its publication, a wonderful guide to these pathologies.)
But more important: Wouldn’t it make more sense to compare suburban churches to urban churches instead of to war memorials?
If we were to compare suburban churches to urban ones, what would happen? I suppose that would depend on where we were. There are many different kinds of cities and many different kinds of suburbs, as I never tire of saying, such that it’s probably impossible to draw any universal conclusions. For instance, there are some magnificent medieval churches in the suburbs of London — but that’s because those places weren’t always suburbs: centuries ago, when the churches were built, they were villages. And even in the suburbs that were built in the Victorian era, the churches are often to the amateur eye indistinguishable from medieval parish churches, thanks to the enormous influence of the Ecclesiological Society.
But let’s try confining ourselves to some general notion of the typical American city — Kansas City, say, or Charlotte, or Eugene — and its suburbs. If we were to go church-looking in such places, what would we be likely to see?
First, that the city churches are (for obvious reasons) older. Second, that they are likely to be designed in some historically referential style, probably though not inevitably some version of Gothic. Well-educated people will likely prefer those to the big cavernous boxes of suburban megachurches, but there are many eyes that will find Willow Creek more impressive than St. John Cantius. Sad but true. However, I shall for the moment restrain myself from writing a screed on the necessity of aesthetic education.
There’s another side to this matter of older urban churches, which is that there are so few new urban churches. Most of the recently-established urban churches I know of do not occupy ecclesiastical buildings, but rather have rented or bought and adapted existing commercial buildings. (If any of you know of interesting counter-examples, please let me know on Twitter or by some other means and I’ll write another post.) If you wanted to argue that suburban churches are aesthetically and spiritually impoverished in relation to urban ones, you could make your case better if there were urban ones to compare the suburban ones too. But they’re thin on the ground.
In light of that, a more plausible argument than Renn’s might go like this: Only in the suburbs are Christians still concerned to build sacred spaces, that is, spaces specifically dedicated to the celebration of and immersion in the holy, the divine. Urban Christians, by contrast, are content to — must be content to — find sacred experiences in spaces never consecrated to such a quest and bearing always the marks of their wholly secular purposes. I don’t think that’s an argument I want to make, but it would be a more plausible one; and it would have the further merit of raising a very important question: whether “sacred space” is primarily a function of architecture or, rather, primarily a function of the character of the communities that dwell in built environments.