Is God A New Urbanist?
Conor Dugan reviews architect and Notre Dame architecture professor Philip Bess’s wonderful 2006 essay collection, Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred. Bess identifies himself as a New Urbanist.Excerpt:
The background of Bess’ book is formed by a profound awareness of the incarnational nature of Christianity and its implications for design. The body matters. Place and space matter. Bess takes a decided stand against the functional dualism of modernist architects and contemporary Christianity. Bess writes that while “good design cannot ’cause’ happiness . . . good design can be an occasion for and manifestation of happiness” and that “good design can both foster and be an expression of community” (emphasis added). Therefore, how we interact with our physical and built environments matters much. Bess’ essays are a wake-up call to Christians who can tend to reduce Christianity down to what then-Cardinal Ratzinger called “a packet of dogmas, a moralism.” Christianity is, instead, a way of life that has something to say about everything: how we have sex, how our food is grown, and how we build our homes, offices, churches, cafes, cities.
All of this leads Bess to what he describes as a “genuinely modest proposal,” but which is one of his more powerful ideas, namely, that New Urbanists and religious leaders work together to help create and develop humane towns and cities. Bess notes that “religious communities have been, and could be again, instrumental in the creation of towns and cities.” Thus, Bess argues that “Christian communities today should consider taking a development role analogous to the London aristocrat[s]” of the 16th–18th centuries who “would contract with a developer to build . . . a square surrounded by housing.” He then asks a series of questions that every American Catholic bishop would do well to consider:
Instead of building a church and a parking lot on our typical six to fifteen suburban acres, why could we not make a church building, a public (not private) square, perhaps a school, and the beginning of a mixed-use neighborhood? Why couldn’t a church partner with a developer and use some of the proceeds from the development of its property to pay for part of the construction of its church building(s)? Why couldn’t churches use this strategy to begin to integrate housing and commercial buildings into suburbia as part of mixed-use neighborhoods?
Bess is proposing the Church anew as the driving force of genuine culture, architecture, and community.
Read the whole thing. And buy Bess’s book; it’s really good.
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