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Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred
Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred
Philip Bess
Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006
325 pp., 179.48

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David Taylor


The Good City

Designed for walking.

"The more architects and planners have turned their attention to building up the City of Man apart from some vision of the City of God, the meaner and uglier the City of Man has become.
—Philip Bess (1985)

"But we are now being reminded that the church people go to has an immensely powerful psychological effect on their vision of the Church they are meant to be. The church building is a prime aid, or a prime hindrance, to the building up of the Body of Christ. And what the building says so often shouts something entirely contrary to all that we are seeking to express through the liturgy. And the building will always win—unless and until we can make it say something else."
—Bishop John A. T. Robinson (1962)

I live in a place called middleurbia. Middleurbia is ten miles north of urban Austin, ten miles south of suburban Austin. My middleurban neighborhood is a mix of young, hip professionals and octogenarians who settled the once-dairy farm back in the 1950s. Pecan groves shade our homes. A public park and a swimming pool hold us together in the center.

Two miles to the northwest, plans are being laid for a Wal-Mart Supercenter, a hulking 192,000-square-foot mothership. Two miles to the northeast, the city is installing a shiny new train station and surrounding it with apartments, commercial stores, and a spot of green. I can walk 12 minutes south to a coffee shop, three minutes west to a small Baptist church, 17 minutes north to a mini-mart, barber shop, deli, and acting studio. This is my middleurbian neighborhood.

And the temptation is to think that it's "just" my neighborhood, "coincidentally" set in the city of Austin. But Philip Bess rebukes my wrong thinking, suggesting not only that God cares deeply about cities but also that he has a few good ideas about what it would take to build a good one and to live in it well.

In Till We Have Built Jerusalem, Bess presents a four-part case for good urbanism or, as I might call it, a good experience of a good city. The four parts can be summarized as cities and human flourishing; cities and the sacred; cities and New Urbanism; and finally critical essays on the topic. While lacking a single-threaded argument, the book nevertheless holds together thematically, and the message repeated throughout goes like this: The best life for human beings is the life of moral and intellectual virtue lived in community with others, the chief community of which is the city. The good city is the city with good urban design. Which is what? Very simply, it is a city full of mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods, the vision articulated by advocates of the New Urbanism, or "traditional urbanism," as Bess calls it.

Designs for a good urban experience, Bess explains, would take into consideration the ecological, economic, moral, and formal well-being of a neighborhood. Whether on the outskirts of a city or in the urban core, each neighborhood would enjoy "a walkable and mixed-use human environment wherein many if not most of the necessities and activities of daily human life are within a five- to ten-minute walk for persons of all ages and economic classes." Such neighborhoods would embody the best social and aesthetic features of historic urban life, and to bring this vision to fruition would be to occasion human flourishing. Good urban planning is good theology.

The enemy to this vision is Suburban Sprawl. Call it the Anti-Urban Experience. Bess reckons it a manifestation of fallen modernity: a functionally secular, therapeutic, individualist, technologically enamored vision driven by an oppressive demand for novelty and the "bottom line." Modernity, in this telling, not only underestimates human sin, it overestimates "the redemptive power of steel, glass, and electricity." Its public spaces are dominated by the "sacred" presence of commercial buildings and retail complexes. And its great fruit is suburban sprawl.

Suburban sprawl, Bess contends, dissociates daily communal life from physical place. It is environmentally unsustainable and unjust; it makes people slaves to their cars. Usually it is also ugly; useful and mostly durable, yes, but architecturally unbearably dull.

Worst of all may be this: Christians keep blithely swimming along with modernist, anti-biblical assumptions about the built environment as if our public spaces, private buildings, and the shape of our cities didn't matter—as if they didn't affect our ability to live out the life of Christ, individually and communally. Bess fiercely begs to differ.

In doing so, of course, he joins a chorus. But there's a counternarrative to this account of "sprawl," an alternative story in which the circumstances deplored by Bess and his kindred spirits are seen in a very different light. It would be helpful, some other day, to hear Bess and these contrary voices in conversation. In the meantime, this stimulating book offers a blueprint for neighborly life that many readers will find deeply congenial—and one which describes not just my home life but also my church life. I am one of the rare creatures who get to work out the Gospel According to Bess in the best possible context: the walkable one.

On non-inclement days I can walk to my church in 13 minutes, bike it in five. Hope Chapel sits quietly in the middle of my neighborhood, a moderately sized non-denominational evangelical church whose architecture is, lo, theologically immanent.

This last fact I only know after reading Mark Torgerson's An Architecture of Immanence. In this book published in the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies series, Torgerson asserts: our "built realities can both shape theological understanding and unleash or restrict practice and ministry." No architecture—no building, no design—is ever neutral. And that style of church architecture which Hope Chapel shares with most of Western culture in the 20th century he calls "immanent." An immanent style is that which gives emphasis to the presence of God in the people gathered.

A simple way to tell the difference between immanent architecture and its opposite, transcendent architecture, is this: one is a House of the People God, the other is a House of God. In the one we give emphasis to the nearness of God, in the other to the transcendent holiness of God. Here is the house church, there is the Gothic cathedral. The history of church design then is a history of swaying back and forth between one and the other. The 20th century for its part represents a striking turn towards immanence.

Torgerson identifies three key movements that gave rise to this style: the ecumenical, the liturgical, and the modern architectural. With the first, the ecumenical movement, you have the creation of relational conduits through which ideas about church design could be swapped on both national and international levels, across denominations and traditions. Such cross-pollination created an unusually fertile environment for change.

With the second, the "worship renewal" movement, you have a theological turn toward "man in his social setting" (largely a liberal influence) and a pastoral frustration at the lack of participation by the laity at worship (initially a concern of Catholics). For example, in the 1920s the German priest Romano Guardini led a Mass at Burg Rothenfel where "he initiated the singing of the hymns in German instead of Latin, pursued a more conversational style of preaching, and had the young people gather around a freestanding altar with the presider facing them." The idea here was to help lay believers understand their worship and encourage them to participate actively and fully. Taking this idea far enough out we get the mass revision of worship books—Roman, Lutheran, Anglican, etc.—from the 1960s onward.

Finally, the modern architecture movement supplied the material conditions for immanent-styled worship to thrive. For modern architects, out went the lugubrious, Gothic love-fest spires; in came the hyper-simple, aesthetically minimalist, geometric, functionalist, man-centric machine-houses. So Le Corbusier, so Bauhaus. For churches this meant a design that was more people-oriented, for both those inside and outside the faith.

Designs featured a centralized space and a flexible, multi-purpose arrangement. Ornamentation was spare. Sacred space looked secular—like a factory, theater, exhibit hall. Concrete was beautiful. Authenticity was paramount, for Catholics as much as for charismatics. And the "relevancy" that Schleiermacher so cherished, St. Mary of the Assumption and Willow Creek kept alive.

Torgerson summarizes all this by saying, "The building was to be a genuine expression of the architecture of the day, serve the people who built the space, and facilitate ministry to the world," and in this way "model God's immanence through the presence and activities of the human 'body of Christ.' "

My little church, Hope Chapel, is architectural immanence with flying colors. Built in the mid-1950s by Church of Christers, esteeming spartan, utilitarian spaces with minimal windows, exposed concrete block, and simple laminated wood structural frames, it is now the dwelling place of charismatics who busted open a skylight, hired an arts pastor, and hung a sign above the entrance to the sanctuary which reads "Living Room"—to which the Dutch bishop Monsignor Bekers might have said a hearty amen, believing the Domus dei to be a "kind of great living room."

Whether we are a beautiful living room or not could be debated. We try. We let the artists help us out. Whether we adequately point our people to the reality of the one true God, immanent and transcendent, is even more debatable. Torgerson exhorts us that a knowledge of both, architecturally speaking, is crucial to our spiritual formation and our public proclamation.

What I do know is that my church and I have an important role to play in the well-being of my middleurban neighborhood. It is this: we need to keep reminding each other that good design is good for the soul of the community—for believer and nonbeliever alike—and good for our witness to the beautiful, joyful City of God. That, I think, would be a good place to begin.

David Taylor is a pastor in Austin, Texas. He is currently organizing a conference for pastors and artists with the hope that churches will clamor loudly, among other things, for good design (www.transformingculture.org).


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