Architecture and Design

The Skin of Suburbia

“I don’t know why my place in the suburbs is adequate to the demands of my desire. I can’t imagine it satisfying more sophisticated consumers of place. It’s only the skin I won’t slough off, the story I want to hear told, my carnal house and the body into which I welcome myself." 

(D.L. Waldie, in Where We Are Now: Notes From Los Angeles)

I grew up in a 50s- and then 60s-era suburb, housing that was one step removed from the post-war Baby Boom tract housing built for returning soldiers or even, in the case of Don Waldie, for Okie transplants come to work in the aerospace industries of Los Angeles.  Waldie grew up in a tract house of 957 square feet in Lakewood, California. My house was bigger, and colonial, but it was suburbia nonetheless.  Curb and gutter.  Sidewalks.  Street lights.  Lawns.  Cars to wash in driveways, grass to cut, back yards to traverse at night, a park, a neighborhood school.  Fireflies in summer. Unlocked doors.  Oldsmobiles and Buicks.  Carports.  Backyard grills.  Sounds of arguments bleeding through the sideyards and into windows.  Capture the flag.  Street ball.  Bullys and bikes with playing cards flapping in spokes.  Milkmen and Charles Chips deliveries.

When I walk the streets of my suburb, I trace a bit of that history, let it seep back in.  I cross the creek and imagine it a tributary of the one near my childhood home, wonder if it too has tadpoles.  I kick a rock down the street and watch it skitter across the asphalt, and I remember absent-mindedly doing the same while walking home from General Greene Elementary.  A school streetlight flashes, and I flashback to the one I threw rocks at, the street light I used to kick out.  Sometimes I find myself in the nouveau lodgings of the hip and professional, of the sophisticates, and I try these digs on for size, imagine myself among the bustle of shops and restaurants, among the urbane.  I even say to my wife, “You know, you could walk to everything you need, if you lived here, if we did.”  Then I think about what it feels like to walk barefoot across my grass, to have no one tramping over my roof, to walk on a cool summer morning, alone or with my best friend, and hear the birds, the hum of homes, and the trickle of a brook, to feel the luxurious emptiness of its space and walk among its trees while the irrigation sprinklers rise to their call.

I love suburbia.  It’s a skin I won’t slough off.  It’s in my DNA.  It’s the only home I’ve ever known.  It’s adequate to the demands of my desire.

The Weight We Share

Blue skyOne of the benefits of essaying (the writing of essays) is the freedom to sashay from one topic to another, like some sort of word association game.  Thus, it was with some ease that I moved from writing a review of D.J. Waldie's memoir of Lakewood, California, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, to a scholarly book of essays about the impact of the aerospace industry on Southern California. Blue Sky Metropolis is saved from a pedantic tone, however, by its narratives --- memoirs by D.J. Waldie and M.G. Lord, a biography of Lockheed's Robert E. Gross, details of the alt-space titans like Elon Musk and Burt Rutan, and, of course, by all those Okies in khakis that built the planes and missiles for WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam.  It is, in the end, a story of people, and people never bore.

You can touch down at LAX and drive your rental car down the freeways and byways of Los Angeles County and never give a second thought to why people live where they do and like they do, but I have never been able to do that.  As Wade Graham's essay makes clear, the sheer volume of housing required by workers at the wartime aircraft manufacturing plants (Lockheed's plant in Burbank, for example, had over 18,000 employees in 1941) required assembly line methods that resulted in tract suburbs built around manufacturing nodes. Waldie's hometown, Lakewood, was virtually built in 90 days, a carefully planned grid of tract housing for workers employed by Douglas Aircraft Corporations's WWII manufacturing plants.  As Waldie notes here, the Douglas assembly buildings are nearly gone, and "The City of Tomorrow, Today," is still there, that tomorrow now yesterday.  As Waldie concludes, "None of my neighbors asked in the 1950s what their "city of tomorrow" would be fit for if tomorrow's assumptions were falsified.  Perhaps the persistent ordinariness of places like Lakewood is the only answer." Indeed, the quotidian of most folk is cleaning house, paying bills, going to work, and making ends meet.  Peopled as they are by the ordinary, these essays manage to speak to us of something beyond an aerospace industry, of hearts and souls alive in the rattle and hum of industry.

Convair staircaseNot that they are all about people.  One fascinating essay by Stuart Leslie, "Spaces for the Space Age,"  profiles the aerospace modernism of architect William Pereira.  Many of his lavishly landscaped corporate campuses, his structures of steel and glass that blurred the distinction between interior and exterior space, have already been demolished.  And yet consider the optimism carried by such structures, the impact they must have had on the very real people who worked in them.   To sit in the glass-encased lobby of the Convair Astronautics lobby, with its signature suspended and serpentine ramp to the second floor, must have imbued one with a sense of the future, of optimism, of a belief that the sky was the limit for what could be accomplished.  Behind Pereira's space-age structures lay blue-collar factories, and yet for a worker to arrive each day must have been a reminder that he (and occasionally, she) was involved in something crucial.  The code of secrecy that  governed such projects only reinforced the gravity of the endeavour.

Diminished though it is, the aerospace industry continues to leave its footprint on Southern California. Another essay by Patrick McCray, "From L5 to X Prize," documents the rise of an alternative space movement, one heralded by the 2004 24-minute flight of Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne, who claimed the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million dollar purse offered to the first private team to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people 100 kilometers above the Earth's surface twice within two weeks.  Billionaire Elon Musk, who made his money in PayPal and software development, sited his Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) in Hawthorne, California, a first-ring post-WWII suburb of Los Angeles.  Hawthorne was founded in  the early 1900s, but its growth was moribund until Northrop Aviation moved to town in 1939.  The town boomed with dust bowl emigrants who flocked to blue-collar Northrop and subcontractor jobs, becoming known as the Cradle of Aviation.  (It's also the once site of the childhood home of Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, the Beach Boys, now demolished for a freeway ramp.)  How fitting that Musk would locate SpaceX in this historic place, and how auspicious a beginning was that of last year's launching of the Falcon rocket to the space station.

Elsewhere, these essays explore the environmental effects of the aerospace industry, Chinese-Americans in the industry, labor relations, and that other aerospace mecca, the Silicon Valley. Strangely absent, however, is virtually any mention of the religious beliefs of the aerospace workers and how those beliefs shaped their experience of work or how their work impacted their beliefs.  Is that because most of academia regards religion as a minor player in cultural change?  A more generous assessment may be simply that these essays are only a beginning point in this project (though the Afterword does nothing to suggest that religion may be a topic in future studies).

In the end, I am brought back to Waldie's comment about the "persistent ordinariness" of places like Lakewood or Hawthorne or Inglewood.  In the midst of the boom and bust of the aerospace industry, in wartime and peacetime, in the spectre of then futuristic corporate centers, most workers came back to the quotidian.  The mundane.  That's the place where people live.  Whether driving down the 405, Sepulveda, or I-5, I don't think about great factories or great men of industry and commerce but of my Dad, or Waldie's father, men who got up every day and went to work, of women who raised families in 1100 square foot tract homes, and of a God who providentially and mysteriously weaves our lives together.  It's their dreams and hopes and burdens and woes that are all part of the weight we share, the weight of "persistent ordinariness" that just may be redeemed, little by little, day by day.



The Weight We Bear

Holy landWhat is beautiful here?
    The calling of a mourning dove, and others answering
    from yard to yard.  Perhaps this is the only thing beautiful 

(D.J. Waldie, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir

In my graduate urban planning classes in the early 1980s, the post-WWII suburb of Lakewood, California was a whipping boy for all that was wrong with suburbia.  Stark black and white aerial photographs of what appeared to be a treeless, cookie-cutter development laid out on a grid were offered as examples of all that was wrong with suburban design.  One graduate text, Ian McHarg's Design With Nature, countered the kind of economic calculus that dictated the design of Lakewood, popularizing the notion of ecological design --- a humane, organic, and symbiotic relationship between nature and the built environment.  It was the kind of design by which we ended up with planned communities like Reston, Columbia, The Woodlands, or Celebration.

But I didn't grow up in that kind of planned community, but on a suburban Greensboro street.  Neither did D.J. Waldie.

Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir is not like any book I have ever read.  It consists of 316 readings --- most a few paragraphs long, some consisting of only a couple of sentences --- that are Waldie's reflections on the history of Lakewood and his life there.  One might call it an extended prose poem or, at least, poetic prose.  Certainly it is spare prose.  Mostly his reflections are narrated in the first-person, and yet on occasion he abruptly changes to a third-person voice, stepping out of himself to look on himself and his life in Lakewood as if to confirm his existence, to objectify his subjective musings.

After his mother died, he chose to live here with his father.
After his father died, he chose to stay here.  He stayed partly
because he said he would to the girl he had loved. 

His is a memoir that contains an understated affection for a place.  Though Lakewood's builders were exclusively concerned with maximizing profit, on putting as many houses as they could into the 3500 acres which they bought, his reflections are a testimony to the fact that even a place laid out on a grid, where the houses look similar in size and style and where one place could just as soon be another, can be invested by their human inhabitants with meaning, purpose, and community.  Yet he never says that.  He lets it be seen in what he doesn't say or what his observations imply.

You leave the space between the houses uncrossed.  You
rarely go across the street, which is forty feet wide.
    You are grateful for the distance.  It is as if each house on
your block stood on its own enchanted island, fifty feet wide
by one hundred feet long.
    People come and go from it, your parents mostly and your
friends.  Your parents arrive like pilgrims.
    But the island is remote.  You occasionally hear the
sounds of anger.  You almost never hear the sounds of love.
    You hear, always at night, the shifting of the uprights, the
sagging of ceiling joists, and the unpredictable ticking of
the gas heater. 

What he gives voice to is the tension of being together, and yet apart, of lying in a bed not 15 feet from the wall of a neighboring house where someone else is lying in bed, and listening, thinking, and wondering about life, like  you, and yet in some sense still a stranger to you.  Lying there and waiting.


On Idlewood I spent my first years in a house no bigger than the 1100 square foot houses of Lakewood, houses laid out at right angles, a more generous four to an acre.  We were middle-class, before there was upper-middle class, before I knew anything about class, just people who were rich and the rest of us.  In the mornings, fathers went to work.  Most mothers stayed home. Postage-stamp backyards were populated by children, swing-sets, clothes lines, and barbecue grills.  At night I lay in bed and listened to the low murmur of my parent's voices, to the chatter of my sisters, to, finally, the "shifting of the uprights, the sagging of ceiling joists, and the unpredictable ticking of the gas heater."  Well, at least the latter I remember, the furnace on and off, the frightening thought of the demon that lived in the pilot light. 

Then, my street seemed to stretch for miles, the houses generous.  To cross the street took parental mandate.  My world was circumscribed.  Had I seen an aerial photograph I would have taken note of monotony, of uniform rooftops at right angles on grid.  Power company.  Park. Highway.  Zoom in and see a blue station wagon parked street side, steps and walkway from the street to the front door, and me and my friend Georgie, in a sandbox with trucks.

Like Waldie, I knew no other place. 

Zooming in now compliments of Google World, I see the same house, same walk, same streets.  Someone is living in my home.  Children are playing.  If I listen to those early memories, I even hear the screen door flapping as we run in and out, in and out.


Waldie never left his 1100 square foot house.  He lived there with his parents until they died.  Then he kept living there.  He went to work for the City of Lakewood.  He invested himself in his place.  Neighbors died and new families moved in, creating a more multi-ethic neighborhood in place of the uniformly white neighborhood of his childhood, one where "Negroes" could not even be sold a house.

He stayed.  He cared for his parents and watched his mother and then father succumb to disease and death.  He remained unmarried.  He rooted himself in his parent's Catholic faith.

He could not choose to deny his father, even less his father's 
beliefs.  These have become as material to him as the
stucco-over-chicken-wire from which these houses are


    "I am still here," he often tells himself.  This is how he has
resurrected his father's obligations, which he sometimes
mistakes for his father's faith.
    "I will never go away," he once told the girl he loved,
because it suited her desperation and his notion of the
    Loving Christ badly was finally the best he could do.

 He stayed put.  After college he came back home and got a job.  He spent years seeing the details, the particulars of his house and surroundings, walking home from city hall on straight flat sidewalks four feet wide, by streets 40 feet wide, separated by a strip of grass seven feet wide, one tree required in front of each home on that strip of grass.  He details the construction of the home, its foundation, walls, rafters, attic, and roof.

    This pattern --- of asphalt, grass, concrete, grass --- is as 
regular as any thought of God's. 


 When I was about four, we moved to another suburb with more generous lots and larger, colonial styled homes.  You could no longer as easily hear what the neighbors were engaged in, though air conditioning was still minimal, windows still open, and sounds still wafted from the rooms next door.  We gathered around black and white TVs, watched Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, dialed for dollars and ate bologna sandwiches.

My mother watched The Fugitive with David Jansen, a man unjustly accused.  She was riveted by his adventures.

We knew our neighbors, and then we didn't.  Each house stood alone, and yet we shared what developers had left us.  Wide streets.  Streetlights.  Curb and gutter.  And yet McHarg would have been glad to see the contours, the curved streets, the natural areas around streams, the hills retained, unlike Lakewood with its "houses on ground so flat that the average grade across the city's nine-and-a-half square miles is less than a foot."

We had no black neighbors then.  A Jewish couple did live across the street, a fact referred to respectfully as if righteous Martians had come among us, as in "they bought a new car, you know. They're Jewish."  We reminded ourselves that aliens were among us, a peculiar people, God's people.

My friends and I knew that neighborhood in a way our parents never would.  The paths we traveled took us through unfenced backyard shortcuts, through creeks and tunnels under roads, unbounded.  Our parents navigated streets; we traveled lightly, off-road, free.

Or I did, until my father died when I was just 14.


Holy Land is a mixture of scruptulously researched history and science of a place and terse, sometimes enigmatic, personal narrative of life in that place.  At one point Waldie muses on the aquifers that lie under his house, vast underground reservoirs of water that for many years supplied the water needs of Long Beach and Lakewood.  They have names, these layered aquifiers --- Artesia, Gage, the San Pedro Formation, Hollydale, Jefferson, Lynwood, Silversado, Sunnyside.  He speaks of them as if they are a part of him and his small home.  And technically, they are, as real property lawyers would say that if you own property in fee you own all the land right down to the center of the earth.  But he doesn't go that far: "Beneath them," he says, beneath all the aquifers, "two miles below my house, is a wide nameless valley."

Elsewhere, he details the city's flood control system, peculiar city ordinances (like one forbidding the telling of the future), the personal histories of the city's developers, real estate sale practices ("We sell happiness in homes"), shopping centers, and people of his neighborhood.  None of this is boring.  These ordinary details of life, taken together, give a richness to life without portraying it in a simplistic, sentimental, or nostalgic way.  Taken together, it doesn't glorify suburbia, and yet it dignifies these communities as places where real people live and love and get along, mostly.

The critics of suburbs say that you and I live narrow lives.
    I agree.  My life is narrow.
    From one perspective or another, all our lives are narrow.
Only when lives are placed side by side do they seem larger.


I have lived in the same home and same city for 29 years.  While that is less than half that of Waldie, and while I do not live in the house in which I grew up, I know something of what it means to stay put, of the constriction of choice that arises from a commitment to place.  We had a house fire.  We did not move.  We are very soon to be empty-nesters.  We do not plan to move.  To stay put constricts choice, entails a certain kind of narrowness.

In one quote early in the book, obtuse on its face, Waldie says "each of us is crucified.  His own crucifixion is the humiliation of living the life he has made for himself."  I did not understand the quote until the last essay in the book, where he links that crucifixion to that of Christ.  He describes a Good Friday service, and ends with a stanza of a traditional hymn, the Latin words of which are translated as

Sweet the wood
Sweet the nails,
Sweet the weight you bear.

If we stay put, what we bear is the weight of place, the constriction of choice, the burden of community, the inescapable obsolescence of all we see.  And yet, that humiliation, like Christ's, is grace and sets us free, gives us real life.

A place is more than wood and nails, though it is that.  It's the weight we bear.  It's the price of loving His world.  It's the "answering from yard to yard."


How to Build a Booth

The Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, or Feast of Booths, was intended as a reminder of the Jewish nation's 40-year pilgrimage in the wilderness and, to a larger extent, to their very pilgrimage on the earth, to their status as aliens and strangers.  When Nehemiah mentions this feast after leading the rebuilding of the walls and gates of Jerusalem (Neh. 8:13-18), surely he remembered the estrangement of his exile --- his and that of his people.  The feast had a visible, very tangible symbol: the Jews built fragile booths from tree boughs and such, and lived in them for a period of time.  Reading about this I sometimes wonder what visible reminder God's people can now construct to remind us of our exile, to help us hold lightly to the world while still putting down roots and building houses and living among Babylon.

In Craig Bartholomew's Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today, one of the things he argues is that the Christian's obligation is to image heaven (our place of lasting, perfect placement) by working to build a home here that not only points to, but in some mysterious way is already a part of, the greater home to be realized in the fullness of time.  This doesn't conflict with our sense of estrangement, our exile.  Rather, to build a home, literally and figuratively, prefigures our heavenly home.  It posits hope --- some significant continuity between this world and the one to come.  The tension we feel between place-making and exile is a good one: we hold lightly to what the world offers, yet we take all that is good, true and beautiful and adopt it and build upon it.  We seek to make our homes, our cities, and our country prefigure the one to come, and yet we come to the task humbly, realizing that we cannot erect heaven on earth.

How does my home prefigure Heaven's home?  For one thing, it is bounded.  It is protected from the elements and yet lets in light.  For another, in and of itself it has differentiation: special corners, a favorite chair, a stairwell, a study.  It's not all the same, or shouldn't be, but fits the contour of the land and of the lives of the people who dwell in it.  And it has a spiritual and physical foundation: it is literally rooted in earth, built on Christ. Bartholomew says more and, if you have a mind for it, you can take it up, but I have to get on with life, and place, and loving the world the way Christ loves it.

Jesus said he would prepare a place for us.  I, for one, look forward to that.  In the meantime, I attend to my own place-making by listening to what is around me and taking up all that is virtuous. The first step is learning to see and listen --- and that's a good part of what Outwalking is all about.

Oh --- if I start building a booth in the backyard, don't judge me.  Join me.

Attending to Wonder: The Photography of Robert Adams

Ex_adams"If we come across innocence, beauty, caring, joy, or courage, even in lost places, are we not obliged to acknowledge them in defiance of ironists?" 

(Robert Adams, Photographer)

It is always a pleasure to discover an artist --- in this case a photographer --- who enjoys finding what is true, beautiful, and good in the world, who overcomes cynicism to shine light on simply what is there for all to see.  Robert Adams does that without sentimentality, well aware of what is problematic in the world and yet hopeful.  Not many of us can make it to the exhibition of his work at Yale University, and yet we can still peruse the gallery online, each series prefaced by a text profound in its simplicity, each a provocation to wonder.

I found the most arresting of these photos those of mothers and children in a suburban mall parking lot, circa 1980, entitled Our Parents, Our Children.  Childrens' faces have a way of disarming our disinterested gaze, the face we often put on in regard to life.  If you let your eyes settle on a child's face, you begin to melt a little inside, see a soul of wonder.  Against a barren, paved backdrop, next to a pitiful tree in a planter, a mother holds her baby close, communicating love and concern and hope in a sterile landscape. One father (or, perhaps, grandfather) stands his baby girl on the hood of the car and appears to be letting her jump into his arms.  Sometimes Adams takes the shot from the child's perspective, and we see how large the world is from a place only three feet off the ground, how brave children must be to walk about in a world of giants and often insurmountable obstacles.

Adams is best when he asks questions, and in the text accompanying this series he asks:  "Are there affirmable days or places in our deteriorating world? Are there scenes in life, right now, for which we might conceivably be thankful? Is there a basis for joy or serenity, even if felt only occasionally? Are there grounds now and then for an unironic smile?" Of course, we would say.  Christians of all people have reason to say this, as they see the operation of common grace in the world.  And yet it's easy to miss it.

It's true that the photographs, whether landscapes natural or man-altered, often record what Adams recognizes as "a separation form ourselves, and in turn from the natural world that we professed to love," an unstated testimony to the dissonannce of The Fall.  The late Francis Schaeffer in an article that serendiptitously appeared about the same time many of these photographs were taken, put a theological name on the point made by Adams, that The Fall's ripple effects were separations --- first between man and God, then between man and woman, and then between man and nature and between man and himself.  Adams makes the point and yet points beyond to faith, hope, and love, even if he does not name the source of that trilogy.

Robert Adams is saddend no doubt by the lost of first-growth forest to clear-cutting and loss of lives to war, and no doubt much more, and yet neither his photos nor the associated texts rail against The Man or bitterly prophesy of impending doom, as might a man in his twilight years.  He doesn't dwell on our loss but reminds us of what we are gifted, of that for which we can be thankful.  His photos are a reminder to me that there is beauty all around --- in a patch of suburban lawn, a mall parking lot, an urban allyway, and even the empty buildings of a decaying urban center.  To a great extent it is what you choose to see or how you choose to see.  But not only that:  we also have the promise that Christ is at work reconciling all of creation to himself, with the hope that all of it will be liberated from its bondage to decay.

Adams leaves us with this profound last statement, one that still resonates with me.  He said that

Stanley Elkin suggested that “all books are the Book of Job,” and in general he was right. Certainly many writers and picture makers want to repeat in a fresh way what the voice out of the whirlwind said, that we are not the creator, and that rather than ask an explanation we ought to attend an inventory of wonders—the Pleiades, the morning star, the sun, the rain, the grass, the raven, the whale. Common to each is beauty. And so a promise. 

And so, when I am outwalking, whether in a suburban neighborhood or an alley in New York, I know my task: to attend to what is in front of me, to remember who I am, to see in dust the promise of life. If you want to better see, I commend the photography of Robert Adams to you.

(The photo above is from the gallery of photographs of Robert Adams exhibited at Yale.  This one, from Colorado Springs, 1968, suggests the impersonal tract housing that multiplied in the post-war boom.  A lone figure, no doubt a housewife, seems to be looking out the window, and you want to suggest what she might be thinking: Is it the dispair of "is this all there is" or the the joy of watching children play in the backyard? Or is it both?)



Super 8


In 1971 urbanist William H. Whyte, mentor to Jane Jacobs ("The Death and Life of Great American Cities"), began the Street Life Project in New York City.  Whyte and his team trained Super 8 cameras on plazas, streets, playgrounds, and other small urban spaces and simply watched, via time-lapse photography, what people actually did.  What they found led to changes in the way we view the social settings of cities.  Whyte, the consummate participant observer, found that what people actually do and not what they say they do is the best key to the success of a place.  His observations seem, at times, remarkably unprofound, like common sense, and yet it was a common sense bereft of urban planners driven by notions of rationality and efficiency.  People were attracted to small spaces with high densities.

But better than the wisdom gained from such observation --- novel at the time but now more common if institutionalized (think web-cam, movement studies) --- are the black and white photos contained in the book that recorded his observations, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.  (There is also a one hour color film of the study here.)  The people.  Remember that this is 1971, the waning of the counterculture, pre-Watergate, and, judging by the photos, a time when life was of a slower pace, even in New York City.  African-American children ride bikes and play games in the middle of 101st Street in East Harlem, a couple kiss, a woman reads, people sunbathe.  Men watch women,  a woman and man (him in a checkerboard suit) clasp hands in the street, an older man points to the sky, a well-dressed  woman looks on.  People sit wherever there is room to sit --- on the ledge around St. Peter's church,  on a simple round bench at Rockefeller Center, or on the steps at St. Thomas church where the sun warms the stone.

What Whyte did was apply the power of observation so often used to study wildlife and natural areas to the urban landscape. In so doing, he unintentionally discovered more than just how people used small urban places.  He demonstrated the great diversity and richness of human social life.  Well-heeled shoppers, street people, children, the elderly, hippies, construction workers, office workers, policemen, and merchants all show up in his Super 8.  And he noticed something very important about place: "When you study a place and chart it and map it, you begin to acquire a proprietary right in it.  You do not reason this.  Obviously, you have no such right.  But you feel it.  It is your place.  You earned it."  He even noticed that he developed this same regard for people as he considered their patterns of behavior, sensing that "[t]hese are my people out there."

I would say it is much more than Whyte postulates.  Built in our very nature is a longing for community and for place, one that stems from our being made in God's image.  The triune God exists in community; we best image Him when we exist in community, not as isolated individuals.  Our very embodiment means that the body and place has deep meaning for us.  We are more human, and more humane, when we deeply connect with a people and a place.

In a new book, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement With the Built EnvironmentEric Jacobsen notes that "[w]e live in a culture that has become convinced that there is no longer any connection between geography (where one lives and the distinctive qualities of that place) and our experience of community."  We think place becomes irrelevant when social technologies foster relationships irrespective of place.  And yet I suspect a strange and disembodied anomie takes root when we live and interact primarily in front of monitors and television screens, with IPads and smartphones, and we begin to feel hollowed out and detached.

Whenever I travel one of the first things I do in a new place is to leave my hotel and walk in it.  These walks are always memorable, at least to me, however pedestrian they may seem to others.  I stop in a coffeeshop in Milwaukee and sit and listen to the conversations around me, see the somewhat different dress and features of the people that surround me.  I note street names, see people lounging on the grass and looking out their windows, reach out and touch brick and mortar, railings and trees, historic buildings and bridgeworks, relishing their physicality, their permanence.  And for a moment, like Whyte, I sense that the place is mine and the people, my people.  I am the Super 8.  But more than a mere recorder, I am outwalking in my place among my people.

God did the same.  He made a people and a place.  He walked in the cool of the Garden.  And throughout the history of the Hebrew people, he was never far way, covenantally bound with his people and their land, moving in and among them.  And then, quite amazingly, He came and walked among us.  His people, His place.  At the end of time, He will dwell with His embodied people (not spirits) in a real and tangible place.  Yes, we long for place and people --- for real community and "land" --- because it is who He is.

When I was a kid my friend Bobby and I walked the streets of our neighborhood, navigating backyards, jumping fences, avoiding dogs, and rehearsing for adulthood, among a place and a people that we will never forget.  Even now, I can remember the feel of fence posts, telephone poles, pavement, curb and gutter, and the grass in his backyard on which we lay looking out at stars.  It may only have been a barely noticed corner of suburbia, but I was Super 8.  I was outwalking.  Even now, I can see the street names, the navigable backyard paths, feel the asphalt under my feet.

I don't want to live life vicariously or virtually.  I don't want to just be a Super 8.  I want to live life among a people and a place that I deeply and intimately know.

I want to walk in it like God did.

 [The photo of William Whyte and his Super 8 camera, featured on the back cover of his book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, is by Margret Bemiss, a researcher in the Street Life Project.]



Roads Well Taken: A Review of "The Big Roads," by Earl Swift

165516735One of the most delightful things about Earl Swift's history of the American interstate highway system, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, is the deeply human story that courses beneath the miles of concrete and asphalt that makes up what is still the best highway system in the world.  Far from a dry account of how we got from dirt and mud to ribbon-smooth freeway, Swift's book is one about the fascinating people that dreamed it up, fought for and against it, and made it happen.  Never will I take the road for granted again.

He begins in dirt and mud, at the advent of the automobile, when driving literally meant taking your life in your hands.  He recounts the story of Carl Fisher, the man who built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and led the push for better roads. He tells of Thomas McDonald, an engineer who actually conceived of the interstates years before Eisenhower gave thought to them.  I became reacquainted with Lewis Mumford, a critic of the highway system, familiar to some from sociology or urban planning studies.  Joe Wiles, an African-American neighborhood activist in Baltimore, figures in as well, as Swift recounts the over-decade long battle over siting and construction of an urban section of interstate highway in Baltimore.

But the story that I found most endearing was that of a bureaucrat, Frank Turner, a public works engineer who rose to the top of the Bureau of Public Works due to his dedication and hard work.  It is easy to caricature government employees as overpaid pencil-pushers.  Turner was neither.  He was truly a public servant, doing grunt work, rising through the ranks, all the while apparently humble, irenic, and though painfully shy growing in statecraft and respectability.  We owe our highways in large part to his dedicated work.

And yet as wonderful as a good road may be, this is also a story of the the problems which their building. Sprawl,  displacement of homes, and the sidelining and decline of small-town business districts are just some of the results.  A sameness permeates the experience.  And while the highways, bridges, and interchanges are a thing of beauty at times, much good was lost in their wake.  Swift quotes Steinbeck, from 1962's Travels with Charley: In Search of America: "When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing."  Mumford picks up the critique, and Swift recounts it well, but the book is benevolent, acknowledging the benefits of the highways without overlooking the damage done.

Swift brings the story down to ground at times in a way that makes me want to be there.  He recounts visiting the remnants of the test rack built for the planned interstate highways near Ottawa, Illinois, and I too wanted to be there, to touch that history.  Or walk the streets of a vibrant Rosemont neighborhood in Baltimore, before a stop and start again highway planning process slowly nibbled away at the patience of homeowners and let to the decline of a once vibrant neighborhood.  Real people, real places.

As Swift concludes, the highways "turned out to be more than just fancy roads. . . [but], often in ways unanticipated by their creators, they had been agents of far-reaching change and had reordered the American landscape."  It's literally a 47,000 mile world of its own, where you can visit any one of numerous chain restaurants at interchanges in state after state and not meet locals but fellow travelers, much like airports.  A predictable yet stupefying sameness permeates the experience.  Drive a few miles off interstate, and you're in a different world.  That world goes unnoticed.

His concluding remarks offer a sobering assessment of the state of our highways and bridges.  They are aging.  Like homes, they must be maintained, and the funds to do so have diminished.  Over time, the cracks will show, tarnishing the luster of what was a jewel of a system.  It still retains that splendor (if that's the right word) over much of its passage, yet the fault-lines are there.  Its neglect may in fact be symptomatic of the cracks in our national fiber: it took wealth creation to enable this massive public works program, and it will take an economic resurgence from a productive and far-sighted workforce --- one willing to sacrifice now for a legacy to come --- to fund the taxes that will maintain it.  That kind of concern for posterity takes a generational selflessness that we may no longer have.

Next time I accelerate on the on-ramp to I-40, I'll roll the windows down, feel the road, marvel at the speed and ease with which I drive. . . and thank Frank Turner and those who labored hard to give us what we have.  Perhaps Swift's recounting of that story will engender a gratefulness that bears the fruit of attention to its decline.


Sanctified Development

"We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced.  We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness."

(Alain de Botton, in The Architecture of Happiness)

Where my house stands was once a pine forest, and before that farmland, the furrows still visible in one place, and likely before that a mature stand of hardwoods.  And though my neighborhood of homes has stood here for some 26 years, as difficult as it is to think of it, the neighborhood may eventually decline, then gentrify, or even be razed to create more high density development, wiping out any notion that I lived here.  In fact, it may well be that were I to visit here a century from now, familiar landmarks would be missing, and I would feel disoriented, even lost.  

Even now, walking 26 years later on the same roads, there is evidence of change.  The modest brick home and country road I once looked forward to seeing has been widened, the home torn down, the elderly couple moved off to relatives or an old folks' home, the only evidence of their being there, the only orienting landmark the trinity of trees that centered their front yard --- two dogwoods and an ornamental pear tree.  I'm thankful whenever I pass them.  They tell me that not all is lost to change, that the developer had a heart.

New, however, is not necessarily bad, not something to always lament.  We sometimes cling to the past in a nostalgic way, remembering selectively, seeing it through rose-colored glasses.  We are promised a new heavens and new earth, and I doubt we'll be lamenting the passing of the old.  With redeemed memories, memories transformed by God, we'll see the true and good and beautiful of the old in the new, like it was there all along.

Still, when I round that corner, when I look for that trinity of trees, I have hope that God provides something in that new earth that reminds me that these trees are still here, that the old is enfolded in the new.  All the good here is carried forward.

The promise of development, the challenge even, is that what we do to the land, places, and buildings we have is faithful to the people and places that inhabit them, so that when we tear down or plough up the earth, it becomes more of what it can be and not less of what it was, that its sanctification will, albeit dimly, mirror our own, that in these remade places we will see something of the place Jesus has gone to prepare for us.

That's a lot to hope for, I know, and yet God's remaking of my own architecture tells me He can also remake that of the world around me.  Now and then, I see it.


The New Urbanist: A Review of Eric Jacobsen’s “Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith”


Most of us, Christians included, take for granted the places in which we live and rarely get beyond superficial considerations about traffic and congestion or good restaurants or convenient shopping. Besides, more and more we are people who do most of our living on the interior --- in our automobiles, houses, and offices. The exterior, including the built environment around us, is simply the backdrop on which our interior lives are played out. Not so for Eric Jacoben. His 2003 book, Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, is a testimony to his passion for cities, his commitment to seeing our urban areas through the lens of Scripture, and his goal of bringing us into an attentive consideration of the places where we live.

A pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Missoula, Montana, Jacobsen is also a keen observer of and participant in city life. His book is divided into two parts. First, in a section entitled "Thinking About Our Cities, he shares a philosophical and theological perspective on cities, beginning with a consideration of how sprawl has affected our lives and ending with a section on "Learning to See Our Cities: A Theological Approach," where he roots our resurrection hope in community rather than the individual, relates stewardship not only to nature but to the built and cultural environment, and encourages the discipline of seeing city places as "gift-places," as holy sites where God meets us and reminds of the future hope of a New Jerusalem. To receive the blessings of cities, he says we need to "train our eyes to see the corner coffee shop and grocery in a neighborhood as the rare and beautiful species that they have become. We need to learn to stand back in awe at the broad, tree-lined avenue that has as a terminating vista a grand public building. . . . and take advantage of the pedestrian-friendly setting of the grid-pattern layout with ample sidewalks for walking (alone or with our children), treating each corner as a fresh opportunity for exploration and adventure. . . ." What he counsels is a settledness that requires reflection for a people often too busy to see the majesty of what is at hand.

In a second section, entitled "Markers of the City," he attempts to define what makes a city, using six markers: public spaces, mixed-use zoning, local economy, beauty and quality in the built environment, critical mass, and presence of strangers. He finds the markers helpful in suggesting what is good and valuable in existing cities and what needs to be repaired, relating the existence of public spaces, for example, to incarnational ministry, noting that public space requires sharing and, thus, an opportunity to practice love and kindness, promotes relationships, and facilitates communal discourse. He demonstrates the value of a local economy to local culture and community, lamenting the narrowness of our thinking about economic decisions, noting that "[w]e compare prices, and if we can get the same product for even a slightly lower price, we will do so. What we need to learn is to take one more step and say 'What else is being impacted by the purchase of this product?'" It's a good point, as not every cost is factored into our economic decisions. In other chapters he links density with connectivity and the existence of strangers with opportunities for hospitality, weaving in and out anecdotal strands that illustrate his points and challenging us to a New Urbanist perspective, one that values a rediscovery of the classic virtues of the city.

This is not always an easy book to absorb. There is a lot being said about things we don't usually give much thought to. Having finished the book, I have the sense that I need to read it again, carefully, or make it a part of a discussion group. But that's really a testament to the thoughtfulness of the project, to the many years the author has been engaged with the topic. I recommend the book for pastors, church planters, community leaders, and city planners, to anyone concerned with the nature and shape of our cities, for the ordinary places where we all live. As Eugene Peterson says in his foreword to the book, "Geography and theology are biblical bedfellows." Jacobsen shows us why.

A New Architecture

fallin down Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.  In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.  And you know the way to where I am going.  (John 14-1-4)

For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.  (Heb. 11:10)

A few years ago my I visited some old friends who moved away when their children were young and with whom I had not been for several years --- perhaps as much as a decade.  One morning, as I was coming up the stairs from the downstairs guest room, my eyes caught sight of scuff marks on the white walls.  Needs painting, I thought.  I paused.  My eyes drifted up to the place where the wall meets the ceiling.  I noticed how cracks had appeared, how the wall had begun to separate from the ceiling.  The rest of the morning I could not take my mind off of the house, noticing black marks and scratches on the floors, peeling paint, stains, and the chipped edges of walls.  Walking the halls, I heard the creaks of floorboards working their way off their fittings, like the creaking of mature bones.  The smells of new paint, wallpaper, and varnish that I remembered from years before were gone, replaced by a settled mix of musty age, dust taking root in carpet, humidity seeping into walls, invisible mildew and the smells of many, many cooked meals adhering to the furniture and draperies.  The house had matured.  Once full of shine and fresh smells, it now knew the imperfections of age.  It had been lived in and had been a silent witness to the laughter of birthday parties, the tears of smaller and larger heartaches, the hurried mornings and leisurely Sunday afternoons.  I realized how much I had missed by not having my friends close by, and how much this place had seen and meant to them, how much living had been done.  A bittersweet feeling welled up in me.

People build things.  They always have.  They adopt places as their own, build houses, and buy and attach themselves to objects, and they hold all of these with some affection, with some love.  And knowing love, they also inevitably consider loss.  In his book about how buildings affect us, The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton recounts a conversation between Sigmund Freud and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke on a mountain walk on a beautiful summer's day:

The psychoanalyst was glad to be outdoors (it had been raining all week), but his companion walked with his head bowed, his eyes fixed on the ground, and remained taciturn throughout the excursion.  It wasn't that Rilke was oblivious to the beauty around him; he simply could not overlook how impermanent everything was.  In Freud's words, he was unable to forget "that all this beauty was fated to extinction, that it would vanish before winter came, like all human beauty and all the beauty that men have created or may create."

I think I understand how Rilke felt.  Whether walking in my friends home or my own home, I am keenly aware of their impermanence, of their advancing age, of how they're drawn back to the earth by the leveling forces of gravity, rain, wind, and sun.  We can struggle to keep up appearances through new paint, carpet, kitchen remodels, or even by a take-down and rebuilding, but despite the beautiful places we create and re-create, they last but for a time.  For most, this depressing conclusion is held off only by a suspension of disbelief in aging and death or a continual remaking of a place, like the woman my builder friend knows who remodels her kitchen every two years.  An aging kitchen likely would remind her that her kitchen won't last forever, that, more importantly, she won't last forever, that all is destined for decay.  Viewed this way, architecture is a fantasy, a cruel joke, an attempt to create something beautiful, functional and permanent when all is hopeless.

And yet there is another way to look at it.  While it's true that my friend's home is aging, that he is aging along with me, there is a permanence to what we build.  Our hope is that God is preparing a place for us, a city.  In his new architecture, not only will He craft new hearts and habits but new buildings, streets, houses, parks, courtyards and trails.  All the good we now make --- all that is beautiful --- is a shadow of the permanent architecture we'll know in a restored earth --- a very physical, tangible reality.  In fact, the genesis of my friend's new home in a restored earth is already here --- in the bricks, wood, and nails of the temporal one he now knows.  And the affections he now has for particular sunny nook, a comfortable chair in a cozy corner, and a perspective through the window, as well as for objects such as his favorite old sweater, wood-carved box, or even the beautiful lines and styling of a classic Corvette --- all foreshadow the love he will have for the new architecture of our restored earth.

We are not ascetics, nor are we called to disdain the physical.  Rather, we are called to have a proper affection for the tangible reality in which God has settled us.   C.S. Lewis once said that "every created thing is, in its degree, an image of God, and the ordinate and faithful appreciation of that thing a clue, which, truly followed, will lead back to Him."  Conversely, he warned that "every created thing, the highest devotion to moral duty, the purest conjugal love, the saint and the seraph, is no more than an image; that every one of them, followed for its own sake and isolated from its source, becomes an idol whose service is damnation."  Buildings, gardens, natural places and urban parks --- all, loved properly, lead us to God.  Idolized, they lead us away from God.

He's preparing a place.  He's building a new city.  It's made out of what we know and yet He will make all things new.  That which we properly love here we will also love there, in a remade earth.  The houses there are foreshadowed by the houses here.  We'll recognize them.  We'll be at home, finally.

Between Eden and the New Jerusalem

KidsThe Sixties era new neighborhood that I grew up in, that I tramped around in, played capture the flag in, and literally breathed in, sported such street names as Surry, Gracewood, Fernwood, Cornwallis, Pembroke and others such as that -- a kind of mix of colonial (the largely brick house style) and pleasant names that would tend to appeal to the "new" suburbanites. It may have been suburbia, but it was a different suburbia -- one where you knew your neighbors (even the more eccentric ones) and where you left your doors unlocked and windows open. As kids, we lived in the streets and backyards and rode our bikes with impunity all over the city with no concern for our safety. Those were mostly good days. There was a sense of community in those neigborhoods.

How things have changed. The houses are larger, the windows seldom open to the world outside, the people glued to TVs and computer monitors. Guilty. It's happened to me too. And yet sometimes, like today, I throw open the window and just listen to what is outside, just remembering that I am a part of something larger than what goes on in my self-contained house environment. One of my neighbors has a kid with a dirt bike that ocassionally rides it down the strip of land behind my house. How annoying, I think, and yet I remember the same, riding my mini-bike all over the woods and backyards, having a blast at my mobility and noise and coolness at the age of ten. So, thank God for the dirt bike, a valuable memory-prompter. I hear trucks and cars, the unloading of groceries at the supermarket nearby, the drone of an airplane, the chattering of a squirrel, birdsongs, and the kids two house over jumping on the trampoline. I can sense connections when I can hear, when I open up to the world and leave the sometimes ghetto of the house. You see, mostly I choose what goes on in here, but out there I have to take what comes, and I have the sense that that's what's good for me, that's the sound of true community.

WorldI'm prompted to think of such things by the excellent special issue of World Magazine which arrived today, an issue devoted to Architecture. I'm all over it, soaking it up. There's so little reflection on architecture and urban design from a Christian perspective. When Eternity Magazine folded over a cecade ago (or was it two decades ago?), World inherited its subscribers, and yet I've always felt that World lacked the kind of deep reflection on all of life that Eternity had, though I give it an A for effort. This issue gives me hope. In fact it makes me remember an old issue of Eternity devoted to Architecture! (My architect friend Andy will enjoy this issue.)

It's always amazed me that though much of our lives as believers in the world but not of it are spent in and around the built environment, we so seldom reflect on it. Beyond matters of taste ("What an ugly building," or "nice house") we are constantly readjusting to a ever-changing landscape. We lose landmarks, the very land is reshaped, and we find it difficult to remember what was there before. Call it urban drift --- the change that happens while we sleep. The old mall where my wife and new baby used to eat (cheaply) is gone and a new shopping center has risen from its ruins, but I sometimes wonder where exactly was that restaurant? I can't even locate it on the site anymore. Where are the people who worked there ("serve you please?"), where did they find new jobs, and what happened to all the old folks who used to meet there for dinner and community? How disorienting it must have been to them.

SuburbI know that we can't simply design community, can't simply build subdivisions differently or homes differently and have "community." It takes much more than that kind of environmental determinism. It requires an understanding of what it is to be human, of what we each need and desire, and it requires souls that are willing to look beyond themselves. In fact, it begins with a very human architecture: Me. And you. Us. And it's rooted in the community that was there in the Trinity from all eternity.

I like what Christopher Leerssen said about churches in one of the articles in World: "[C]hurches and their buildings should be less clubby, private affairs and more of that common ground for "the Church" proper to interact with the outside world and skeptics. Churches should throw open wide their doors by hosting art shows, financial seminars, offering mercy, and musical performances --- invite the public and create that haven for public discourse."

Open doors. Open windows. Open hearts. I guess the kid on the bike is not that annoying. And I'll bet he wants to belong, somewhere. In fact, I might just sleep with the window open. It might do my heart good.

Settling In: Why We Like a Home

Manhouse Sometimes people come to our house for a visit and then, upon leaving, remark that they felt so "at home" with us.  I'm always pleased to hear that, and yet I've never understood why it should be so.  We significantly remodeled our home about one and a half years ago, after a fire, and we've done little to it since moving back in.  Some walls have no pictures, some lights bulbs have no fixtures, and there are some odd mixtures of decorative items (love those 'tures) -- a kind of eclectic style, as a designer once remarked, for a fee.  That's a nice way of putting it, I guess, if expensive.  But still they say they felt so "at home."

Two articles I read in Books and Culture recently resonated with all my ruminating about the connection between faith and the built environment, one by Lauren Winner entitled "Getting Comfortable," in which she looks primarily at Winifred Gallagher's book, House Thinking, and one by Andrea Nagy entitled "Anti-Bland Design," in which she reviews Sarah Susanka's Not So Big House series.  I have skimmed Susanka's books but never seen House Thinking.  I wish I had -- about two years ago -- before we remodeled.

The bottom line of Gallagher's book is apparently this insight:  our surroundings call forth certain behavior.  This is intuitive, and yet not very articulable, and not very notable even when we do articulate it.  For example, overhead lighting always makes rooms seem bright, and yet somehow cold.  We might say such lighting ruins the ambiance (even though we're not sure what ambiance really is if called upon for a dictionary definition), whereas table lamps tend to create a warmer feel.  There's nothing brilliant about that insight, and yet just notice how few people seem to take note of it.  Visit a few homes.  You'll see what I mean.

Gallagher notes that entryways should mark a gradual transition form the world outside to an inviting home without dumping you abruptly into someone's den.  Amen.  People need time to adjust without feeling intrusive.  And yes, we have big, bright, airy rooms now, with lots of sunlight (it's all the rage), but (and I've noticed this) such rooms lose the sense of refuge that a closed in nook of space may provide.  A small, cozy room reminds me of all those cardboard and blanket-over-card-table forts my friends and I made (and my children made when younger).  What we liked about them was the sense of protection and refuge (their snugness).  Amazing what  blanket wall can do, or a tent canvas, for that matter.  The outside is close, perilously close, and yet we have the feeling of security created by a piece of canvas.  It's an ephemeral security and yet innate need. I like to think of the invisible hedge God places around us.  Such places remind us of our real and true and strong refuge.

If nothing else, these books are good reminders that we need to be cognizant of how our surroundings impact our behavior.  They also offer a helpful corrective to the bigger is better mentality (sorry, I bought into that a bit, and I repent).  Marketers tell us what we should have.  But our bodies and minds, if we listen to them, if we listen to God speaking through them, tell us much better what we need.  Homes ought to be places of refuge, a reminder of our sabbath-rest.  Now that's a home to hope for.

Beauty and Utility

Suburbs"Everything, from reaping the corn to blessing the meal or carving a chair, was an action giving thanks for God's creation, and artistically satisfying activity.  All they made and did was essentially functional: there was no time, energy, or space to make anything without a practical purpose; beauty and utility were inseparable.  Today we find the reverse.  Beauty and utility are widely regarded as separate streams: we all need utility, but beauty is considered to be an indulgence, peripheral to our main concerns in life." 

(Christopher Day, in Places of the Soul, speaking of pre-industrial peoples)

Beauty is absolutely essential to life, almost as necessary for our sustenance as food and shelter.  Places should have beauty, and yet we we look across much of suburbia and we see uniformity, a kind of deadening conformity brought on by strict appearance codes or busy-body planners or simply unimaginative builders and designers.

I live in a suburban area, and yet my neighborhood touches on what is (barely) left of an old two-lane country road, where Johnny the firewood salesman still lives in a ramshackle mobile home under the trees, firewood stacked all around, a few simple ranch style homes, next door to him.  Is this beauty?   Well, it may not suit our refined tastes, but I like it.  I like the reminder that once we didn't all live in 3000-5000 square feet houses with manicured lawns and sprinkler systems.  (Johnny resides in a bed of pine-straw, with no grass.) 

Looking closely at a couple of the ranch homes, I see flower beds and fruit trees, not the manicured kind but the homegrown kind, a little ragged but still with color.  One ranch home has been removed, the property slated for town-home development.  Four or five hand-planted flowering trees next to a circular drive remind me that this was a "place" for some souls, at one time, that life was lived out here for probably more than one generation.  And I find it sad that this place is now almost gone, for when the trees are cut and bulldozers have reshaped the contours of the land, we will no longer know where that "place" was, as it will finally be gone.

Beauty doesn't have to look like what we think it should be, or what city planners think it should be.  It's individual.  It's not neat and tidy and uniform.  New subdivisions are functional (they provide shelter), and they have an appearance of order and beauty, but real beauty is a bit wild, a bit unsettled.  How do we get that back?

My Friend, the Architect (Part Three of A Conversation)

Hometown_2 [The following is a continuation of my instant message conversation on Christian faith and the built environment with my architect friend, Andy.  For Parts One and Two, see the posts of September 18th and 20th.]

AO says:

    Hi SW - shall we pick up with gridded communities?

SW says:

    That's as good a place as any.

AO says:

    The gridded street layout is pretty modern.  It's generally most effective where the land is flat and valuable.  I know you're a proponent of obvious order in design - is there a right way to order a city?  Is a grid the right way?

SW says:

It can be efficient, and if I imagine a city like Paris, for example, were it all curved streets and cul-de-sacs, it would be difficult to get around.

SW says:

Funny that we started here -- I just skimmed a section in Gorringe's book on suburbs, mentioning the gridded cities of Levitts (Levittown, for example).

AO says:

The curved streets in Paris go with the Seine and the hills.  Is that relevant?

SW says:

Yes!  It is.

AO says:


  has other issues . . .

SW says:

I think the built environment should take advantage of and cooperate with the natural environment

SW says:

My problem, biblically, is that places that ignore the natural environment and the need that people have for community and beauty, will ultimately fail.

AO says:

That sounds like a Biblical description of order.  That relates to Genesis' comments about taking dominion of nature in a perfect garden

SW says:

I think so.

AO says:

Yes, that's a good highlight of a modern problem.  And I believe that's correct that ignoring nature will cause even ultimate failure.  That's worth a few provoking examples: 1) Manhattan, the most unnatural island in the world, but the most prosperous 2) I recently saw a proposal to fill in the Hudson to add much needed real estate to Manhattan - this is a bad idea, right?  3) Ulmstead, master landscape architect - literally moved mountains (or at least large hills) to create the beauty of the Biltmore landscape - was this okay?  4) Nitrogen runoff - whole new sections of law and building code have been written to attempt to compensate for the problems of clear cutting to make way for parking lots.  Climate change is linked to area of asphalt.  5) Falling Water – Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece, a house built on top of a waterfall.

SW says:

Yes, some places we have come to love, like Manhatten, or Biltmore, though they were built at great expense to the natural environment and great alteration of topography.  They become a new landscape. But I think it better to respect what's there -- not unalterable, but carefully alterable.

AO says:

Jesus said we could throw mountains into the sea.  Are you ever open to this option if the result is some greater beauty?

SW says:

Ha!  Different context.  But yes, I don’t think landscapes and environments are sacrosanct.  The better thought I have is to look at what's there, appreciate it, and try to build with it, letting it enhance what we do.

SW says:

That whole thing of Adam naming animals implies a real knowing of the natural order, so much so that he could give appropriate names.  We should know what's around us and then respect it.

AO says:

I agree.  I would love to see a shopping center molded around an flowing landscape, taking advantage of the natural space in some profoundly creative and integrative ways.

SW says:

Cost is a factor that kills such design, isn’t it?

AO says:

Cost.  No, cost does not kill design.  A perverse sense of economy becomes an excuse that kills design.  A developer (I've had some experience with box store developments, so I'm going to stay on this thread.) assumes that maximum profit can be made by a building of maximum square footage at minimum expense.  Meanwhile, is invented, making shopping centers irrelevant.  Developers and retailers should be profoundly more creative and resourceful than they are, and easily could be.

SW says:

Interesting -- news to me -- but you're on scene!  So it's possible to take a modest budget and "design with nature?"

AO says:

In many ways, yes, absolutely.  Some answers to this are fundamental: construction is at a cost/square foot.  Smaller homes are cheaper to build, cheaper to cool, cheaper to maintain, exponentially less harmful to nature.  If we understand better the value of space, we can save huge amounts of money.  Square footage is much more expensive than good design.

SW says:

I agree.  I think I could downsize if space were valued more and used more efficiently.  But most of what I see built around this city are bigger and bigger homes -- quite amazing.

AO says:

But, this brings us back to cities.  How can a city be designed with nature?  In a city, nature is cordoned off from the built environment intentionally.  If development happened in the garden, would it have looked like Central park?

SW says:

Cities inevitably disrupt the natural environment, and the density is desirable and really can help protect natural areas outside the city from sprawl.  But I think we can provide parks, communal gardens (I've seen this), and even room for wildlife (like Central Park).

SW says:

I don't remember how successful it was, but Montgomery County, MD had a wedge and corridors plan, allowing high density around metro and limited access highways, progressively, and severely limiting development outside these zones.  It did attract some court challenges.  The density obviously impacts the natural environment, but it prevented more widespread harm.

AO says:

Yes, that's relevant.  Babel was more efficient because it brought so many people together to share resources.  Anything without moderation is dangerous - all city isn't a great idea, and sprawling suburbs is a perpetual waste of almost everything.

SW says:

I agree.  And yet, I wanted to live in the suburbs.  Why?  Well, I want some privacy, and yet community.  I wanted green space around me, a yard for children, and yet other children to play with in a safe place.  These things aren't bad, but when we all want them, they create something ultimately not very livable.

AO says:

There's been some really fun architecture dealing with this question.  Bucky Fuller, of course, with his geodesic domes attempted to test the integration of nature and city to the extreme, but more recently, we have wonderfully creative actual solutions by Norman Foster and Glenn Merkut as just a couple examples.

SW says:

Name-dropping, Andy!  Tell me about their designs, because I don’t know them.

AO says:

Foster has a new skyscraper in NYC with an indoor ice-waterfall that cools the whole tower.  In Europe, he's been a pioneer of adding gardens throughout skyscrapers at various heights.  He ventilates his towers in extremely efficient ways that fill buildings with fresh air.  He's got one tower design on the books now that is aerodynamic in such a way that it actually generates its own electric power through strategically located wind turbines.  I don't know enough about Merkut, but he's made great creative moves with homes that capture rain water and use the resources of the wind and the landscape to make beautiful, simple homes.

AO says:

WakeCounty too is notable here as well.  For example, the school board has made many creative and ingenious moves to demand "green" systems and materials in schools.

SW says:

Oh -- I may have to change my opinion of them!

AO says:

Well, the school board still has problems, but the buildings are getting, well, smarter anyway.

AO says:

It's still an interesting question.  The biblical tabernacles weren't "green" really.  The new heaven uses a lot of materials that are assumedly difficult to mine - maybe God has a better idea.  But it's a morally relevant question today because of our excess.

AO says:

You had a question about work?

SW says:

Yes: Work is obviously not what God intended, so it has elements of toil and is impacted by considerations other than simply the true, the good and the beautiful.  How do you deal with this?  How do you try and redeem the work is some significant way?

AO says:

Brother, we've been friends long enough that you know this is a personal struggle for me.    For example, I did some early designs several months ago on elevations (facades) for a new development.  I prayed while I worked then, I sweated through the details of the proportions and the integrality of the design, ya da ya da.  I liked it.  My boss liked it, and the client liked it.  The town really liked it.  So, all these things encouraged me, and I came to conclude that in some way, my sketches of these elevations were "right."  They were true.  Months went by, I got pulled off that job for certain reasons (a long, but not irrelevant story.)  Another project manager was put on the job.  Now, I'm back on the job in a subordinate position.  He's re-drawn my elevations!  I think they're "wrong".  If I take this too far in my mind, you know, I think it's something that I, as a Christian, have to fight against.  I think that proportions are a moral certainty.  But if I fight the wrong way, I'm not much of a "team player."

SW says:

Yes, you have prayer and gentle persuasion at your disposal, though you can be assertive and yet respectful.  You work within a structure of authority, and to obey the 5th Commandment, you owe respect to the superior and prayer.  I have as yet had no occasion where a superior told me to act in a way that violated God's law, so I may disagree but I go along. (Sometimes grumbling!)

SW says:

This tension exists in every job, I think, for the Christian.

AO says:

For me, it becomes an issue of communication, maybe education, definitely of humility.  All great weaknesses for me and most architects I know.  Friends have shown me scripture that seems to suggest that we let God sort out a lot of this, which is right, but it's a challenge to know what to fight for, especially in design.  Often in design, the best ideas are the ones you can't describe, and that's challenging.

SW says:

I can see that.

SW says:

Humility is in short supply in many professions.

AO says:

Artists often get caught in this question of "Truth is beauty and beauty truth."  I don't necessarily believe that. I think truth was here first.  However, if it is a correct adage, then for me to draw an elevation that is not beautiful is to lie.  But, my project managers rarely appreciate me calling them liars.

SW says:

Yes!  I agree.  Truth was first, but, before that even, was love.  Speaking the truth in love is critical.  And challenging.

SW says:

So may gray areas, requiring prudence.

SW says:

Well, we better wrap. . . Any last words?

AO says:

Yes, it's a good conclusion.  I think it's good to tie this conversation to the practical.  It's easy to talk ethereally about art, and that's interesting, but easily irrelevant.  Also, I think it's important to remember that the questions of beauty apply to every profession.  Also, I think it's important to remember that discernment is appropriate within our daily experience -

SW says:

Good words

AO says:

not just in the movies we watch, but also the food that we eat and the retailers we visit, and the cities we promote.

SW says:

Yes, and I think it is communal -- that is, we do it in the context of the Body of Christ, learning from one another.

AO says:

Man - cities.  A bunch of people have tried this one, you know?  Just within the last century, we've gone through a lot of extremes.  What a wild ride is design and thought.  But, the gospel does not change.  Our need for our creator doesn't change.  Our need for each other and for the church is the same.  And our creative call has yet to be revoked.  Thanks SW.

SW says:

    You bet.

My Friend, the Architect (Part Two of A Conversation)

Hometown_1[Continuing a conversation begun a couple days ago, my architect friend Andy and I continue to discuss Chrustian faith, architecture, and planning, trying to discern the good, true, and beautiful.]

SW says:

Ok, now where were we?

AO says:

Something about cities vs gardens, but let's move on.

SW says:

Here's a big question.  Take from it what you will. . . .

SW says:

I know that you work in downtown Raleigh and live not too far from the downtown, and you have observed the changes occurring there.  As Christians, how do we evaluate what is happening downtown or consider what should happen downtown?  How do we determine what is good or what is bad from God’s perspective?  What are some of the healthy things happening?  What things may prove problematic later?

AO says:

There are a lot of question marks in that instant message.

SW says:

Ha!  It wasn't intended to be one, you know

AO says:

It's okay to start basic and elemental.  This is a question of discernment, as with anything we see in culture.  What is good and bad in the news?  What is good and bad in this TV show I'm watching?  Those questions and the interpretive role of the Spirit and of Scripture are relevant to the built environment.  I've traveled some recently, and in Raleigh/Cary et al, it seems more symptomatic that people think it's rude to be critical or worse, that it's irrelevant to make value judgments on events.  Well, that's a rabbit trail, isn't it?  Cases in point: criticism of the Coker towers versus criticism of the Freedom tower (World Trade Center replacement).  Let me get back to a couple other question marks above.

SW says:

Let me just agree that discernment is a great word for what must be done.

AO says:

Intention is significant.  In any art, the intention of the artist has some relevance to the good/badness of the art - though not all relevance.  Architecture is similar, but somehow it seems to be more transparent.

SW says:

You may need to explain -- is intention really important, or do we just evaluate what is done – objectively?

SW says:

After all, the intention may be X, but the result on the ground may be Y.

AO says:

For example, some of our clients want to put up a shopping center quick and cheap so they see immediate returns.  They may even plan to sell the building during construction.  The level of detail and quality of materials plummets.

SW says:

But I would evaluate that apart from intent -- it's just bad, ugly construction (to be inarticulate).

AO says:

On the other hand, a developer who plans to hold onto property and leases it to tenants will be very concerned about the appearance and durability and innovative schemes because he wants to attract tenants and build a good reputation in the neighborhood.

AO says:

In architecture, human intention is present in the expression, constantly. 

SW says:

But again, I would evaluate what he did and does, not what he intends.

SW says:

Human intention is present in everything!

SW says:

I'm not saying intention is unimportant, but a more objective evaluation must deal with what is, not what was intended.

AO says:

We can look at the retail buildings from the early 1900's.  They are extraordinarily simple.  They are literally brick boxes.  The faces which aren't promptly on the street front have brick that is poorly set.  But, if the owner’s intention was a shiny facade on a street, that is where his detail is, the brick work is done by a skilled mason.  This is where Wright/Sullivan's line comes in about form following function.  The built work becomes the embodiment of what the owner/architect/government/time and place created them to be.  It sounds vague, but in architecture, the art has a raison d’etre, and that is inescapable in assessing the work.

SW says:

Intention. . . Take a song – a writer may have intended a man-woman love song, but it may be widely interpreted as a love song of worship for God.

AO says:

Ah - songs, i.e., renovation!

AO says:

Absolutely, architecture will be modified for a new intention just like a bar-tune may become a hymn.  And then, your city gets much richer.  This is how a city adds the layers that make it rich.

AO says:

So, that's something good downtown.  We're adding layers to what's already there instead of bulldozing and building more Styrofoam.  We're turning parking lots into three-dimensional space.  That's positive.

SW says:

Yes, I think so.

AO says:

I'm not sure how to make it spiritual, but I like the idea of it.

SW says:

I do too, but that does point out the difficulty of relating what is done, that is, what is good, to a biblical worldview.

SW says:

For example, I think that we can argue from the idea that we are made in God's image, to the principle that people have a dignity that needs to be respected in the built environment, but then it gets difficult to make hard and fast applications of it..

AO says:

It's something about making the earth into what it longs to be, that whole Romans 1 bit.  That whole "subdue the earth" bit from Genesis.  It's what we're made to do.

SW says:

Yes, the cultural mandate.

AO says:

And so, that's good and right.  That's absolute.

SW says:

I understand that idea of Adam tilling and keeping actually means, in a strong way in the Hebrew, to actually serve the earth.

SW says:

That's a good perspective for planning and building.

SW says:

Places need to not simply be beautiful structures but humane structures, places that are livable (if residences) and which build community.

SW says:

I also think community is inherent, and eternal, present in the Trinity.  As we image God, we must image community.

AO says:

I used to walk frequently down the Dawson Street block, west of the police station and Nash Square.  That one block has two gay bars, a pornography store, and a goodwill outlet.  The buildings are one-story, brick, dilapidated except for some upfitted retail bits.  When I walked there, I would pray that God would tear down those buildings.  He hasn't yet.  I wonder if he wants me to pray another way.  In either case, those buildings are more than symbolic of what's inside.  They're also a haven for what's inside.  But, they're also ugly, and I don't think that's irrelevant.

SW says:

No, me either.  There are people there desperately trying to connect, to have someone, some community, and yet it's not what God intended.So evaluation is difficult, isn’t it?

AO says:

Well, architects are critics.  We're brutal (I'm nice.)  Our school experience was pouring our hearts and minds into [something], pinning it to the wall, and having a professor tear it apart - often literally tear it apart.

AO says:

Evaluation is part of the mystique - on a good day.

AO says:

What's next?

SW says:

How about this: What biblical narratives or doctrines do you find instructive for how we plan and build cities?  (I’m thinking of Creation, or the wild imagery of Revelation, or the doctrine of the incarnation or the trinity, but there are undoubtedly more.)

SW says:

Another biggie!

AO says:

Wow - that's an awesome question.  Every time I read the dimensions of the tabernacle or the temple or the New Jerusalem, I want to start drawing it in CAD [software].  I haven't done that yet.

SW says:

Your employer may not appreciate that!

AO says:

The first thing I got excited about, architecturally, in Scripture, was meeting Bezalel and Oholiab.  These were men who were filled with the Spirit to be craftsmen for the temple.  That doesn't tell us how to design buildings or cities, but it tells us to care about the skill and materials we use as we are led by the Spirit.

SW says:

Yes, very important.

AO says:

Yeah, it's a great question, but I'm not sure where to go with it.  Sometimes I do put crosses in my designs, and I'm happy when I find them there, but I don't think it has to be that symbolic.

SW says:

Well, let me try something on you. . .

SW says:

Let's begin with Creation.  There is diversity in the created order.You cannot argue in a strict way from that fact, but I think you can formulate a normative principle that a design must allow for a healthy diversity of function and use.  What we do is make a creative response to that norm.

AO says:

We saw Gaudi's Sagrada Familia - he had sculpture around the bottom depicting Bible stories, he had twelve spires for the disciples and then in the spires, he wrote "Hallelujah" in tile and glass.  That's literal and beautiful, but my office buildings don't have spires.

SW says:

But all that stuff is like propaganda in a way -- using the design as a soapbox for witness.  It's not that crass, but you know what I mean.

SW says:

What I'm talking about is something that inheres in the design.

AO says:

Okay, yes.  Diversity is good, order is good, even propaganda is good, but it kind of happens anyway.  Tadao Ando makes chapels out of concrete.  The finish is impeccable - he creates bare, gleaming, absolutely smooth concrete boxes.  Yet, because of that monotony of material, the light on the surface shimmers, the corners glow.  And order, architecture especially is bound by physics.

AO says:

Even in the attempted disorder of the postmodernists, that structure comes out even more.

SW says:

Well, I think order is inevitable -- because of how we are made.  Any artist (like John Cage) who has attempted to produce pure randomness in his art has been frustrated.  Order rears its head.

AO says:

So, architecture uses that order as part of the palette.  It's a sweetly spiritual art in many ways.

AO says:

I'd like to hear your comments about bringing order to a city.  Should a city be a grid of streets?

SW says:

     Yes.  But I’ll get back to you later on that.  OK?

My Friend, the Architect (Part One of A Conversation)

Hometown[Who says instant messages can't be substantive?  My friend Andy and I began a significant (we think) discussion on Christian belief, urban design, and architecture.  We've only begun, but the talk was stimulating.  I hope you think so, too.  Stay tuned for Part Two.]

SW says: Hey -- ready to try this?

AO says: Hi SW - did you have something provocative to ask me?

SW says: You bet I do.

AO says: Bring it on.

SW says: First up: How did you decide to make a career in architecture?

AO says: Okay - I'd like to keep this two-sided. I may send some questions back to you.

SW says: Go right ahead!

AO says: I had a lot of jobs all through high school and when I started thinking about a career, I mostly had that idea about work being something we always do. That once you're out of school, this is the real world where your ideas and your faith perpetuate into the way to support yourself, that spiritually, continuing to work is a way of continuing to follow and obey and converse practically with God.

AO says: I've never written that sentence out before, but it starts to make sense about why Architecture makes sense to me.

SW says: Well, you were more spiritual than me. That's great! I just didn't know what to do with myself, so I went to law school.

AO says: Architecture has this profound and wonderful mix of the practical and absolutely tangible, the literally concrete elements of experience with perfect ideals of space and time that are so lofty that virtually every author I've ever read on architecture just sounds silly when trying to explain a work.

AO says: The best descriptions I heard and learned about architecture was were through these medieval drawings showing God the Creator with a compass in hand. The drawing I remember was called, "The Architect." Anyway, so it's this very cool loftiness and mysterious wonder mixed with the absolute physicality of basic shelter and place making. That's exciting to me. I didn't know that that's what this was about right away, of course, but I had notions of it, and it looked like enough fun to sustain me.

AO says: Law isn't altogether different, is it? You have those same ideals of bringing the cosmos of what is absolutely, divinely right down to the totally tangible of the guy with the parking ticket, right? A difference, I think, is that lawyers are better at expressing themselves.

SW says: Yes, I think you're right -- there a mix of the concrete, or particular, and the universal ideals -- I suppose that's important in every vocation. Writers deal with concrete, particular images, and yet they want to say something more universal. I think that's a part of our creatureliness, of how God made us.

SW says: It really hearkens back to the Incarnation -- meaning is incarnated in real, physical ways, as God took on human form.

SW says: But I like your idea that "continuing to work is a way of continuing to follow and obey and converse practically with God." I really like that. It's like the "tilling and keeping" that Adam was called to do while he walked in the Garden with God. We only know dimly what that is like.

AO says: Absolutely. That's what keeps this fascinating. That's what keeps us asking divine questions about physical things. That's how we know that we, who are a little lower than the angels, are important to and can communicate with the God who is above all - because the incarnate Christ made that connection.

AO says: A friend in high school gave me Brother Lawrence's "Practicing the Presence of God" about praying continually. That opened my heart to keeping our work as an open conversation with God.

SW says: Yes -- great book.

SW says: Amen. Hey, this is good -- the soundtrack for me now is the very mellow Mojave 3, on Spoon and Rafter. That helps. You listening to anything?

AO says: Kristen has NPR's "Fresh Air" on. I can hear that. I can also smell pasta cooking downstairs.

SW says: Hmmmm. OK. Next question.

SW says: As a Christian, do you view the design and construction of buildings any differently than someone who has merely a secular framework from with to operate?

AO says: There's the quick answer to that, something like "Well, yes, SW. I see buildings as more than just bricks and mortar. More than just form and function . . ." But I know Christian architects who think about architecture very plainly and I know plenty of heathen architects who know more than I do about what a building can be.

SW says: Same with lawyers.

AO says: This is a great question, but probably we should just take me out of it. As Christians, we do have a different perspective, and that does help. A start - we have Jesus' beautiful parables, and so many in the OT too about right foundations and the Cornerstone, and our bodies are temples, and the joy of ornament, and the gifts of craft, and golden streets and our mansions that are being prepared.

SW says: It's actually too big a question! There's too much to say.

AO says: it reminds us that our world here has sweet lessons for us, it reminds us of what we hope for.

AO says: Back to perspective, maybe I do look at architecture as a bigger deal than others. When I see a bad strip mall, I'm pretty quick to associate that with a moral sin, a wrong against humanity, and affront to the God of beauty.

SW says: It is interesting that our future hope is envisioned not as a return to the garden but a city.

SW says: I think that says a lot.

AO says: I don't always admit that to other people [about the immorality of, say, strip malls], but it goes through my mind.

AO says: That's one of those sweet parables. I don't know what that means [heaven as a city, that is]. If the garden was perfect, without any structures, why is the city more perfect? Has God changes his style after these years? Has he changed His archetype? But, yes, I'm better at cities than gardening, so I'm looking forward to it.

SW says: Well, it's certainly true that our morality or ideology is projected into what we do and what we build. I like what T.J. Gorringe says, that ""[t]he ideology of space is inescapable: we encounter it the moment we emerge from our front door, drive to the out of town shopping centre, or visit the local post office."

SW says: Back to the garden and the city -- well, I think it is indicative of cultural development, something God placed us here to do. He didn't mean for it to just stay in a pristine garden state!

AO says: Yes, but why? In the perfection of eternity, can you say that mankind, or God with mankind has made progress? It's a strange question.

SW says: Indeed!  But let's carry on tomorrow with this, OK?

AO says: OK.

Why Is There Space?

AirIn one of comedian Bill Cosby's humorous monologues, he pokes fun at the air-headed girlfriend who walk around his friend's San Francisco house all day pondering questions like "why is there air?"  We laugh because "normal" people don't generally consider such topics, at least not publicly; we dismiss such talk as nonsense.  But theologian T.J Gorringe doesn't do that and he's very serious when he asks the question, "Why is there space?"

You know I've been slogging through Gorringe's very academic book entitled A Theology of the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment, Redemption, trying to better myself, I suppose, being reminded all the time of some of the sociologists I was required to read in college, like Lewis Mumford.  It's tough going, and yet it is effective in allowing you to peel back the veneer of lived life, in this case, the built environment we live and move in, and see both how it is shaped by our prevailing assumptions about life as well as glimpse, perhaps, how God would have it be shaped.  It is true that for most of us all the time and some of us most of the time we simply move through our days in a fairly unexamined way.  I know I do.  And yet, on occasion, that question pops in your brain, like "why is there air?" or, for me, "why do things look like they do?"  And yet such questions are forgotten in the midst of busy schedules or dismissed as not worth pursuing.  Gorringe simply asks the questions we seldom ask, and then unlike most of us, he pursues them.  The results seem rewarding and have provoked my own thoughts.

ManOne of the points Gorringe makes is that space is constructed, that is, it doesn't just happen but is a product of a society's particular vision of the world.  Pull up the sidewalks, the buildings, and streetscape, and you find that "[t]he ideology of space is inescapable: we encounter it the moment we emerge from our front door, drive to the out of town shopping centre, or visit the local post office."  Quoting Henri Lefebvre, he notes that "[a]ll ideologies 'project themselves into space, becoming inscribed there, and in the process producing that space itself.'"  This itself is worth thinking about, albeit it is difficult to think this way about something we take so for granted.  I walk out my door in the morning, and in the quiet I walk around the streets of my neighborhood, and it all represents something of what we believe is the good life.  The shape of things, as he says, rests on what we think human beings are, and that, of course, has much to do with what God says in Scripture. 

GorringeMore on this another day, perhaps.  But just one thought before I go --- this culture now, more than in my 1960s childhood, is oriented toward pleasure.  For example, growing up in my medium-sized city, we had perhaps two movie theaters, each with only one or two screens.  You just didn't go out that often.  We also had a lot less restaurants, because we seemed less focused on food as a sensory delight or as recreation and more on eating together as a family, at home, that is, more on food as the lubricant of social intercourse (sorry, I couldn't help myself).  Obviously these assumptions effect what is built.  Shopping and eating then were more functional; you need something, you go buy it.  Now shopping and eating are experiences.  The very landscape has changed as a result.

Gorringe goes on to articulate a theological grounding for space in the Trinity.  Why?  Because unless we have a basis in revelation for what space ought be, we cannot say "ought" about anything built, whether structure, streetscape, or landscape.  He notes that for much of history John's claim that "God is Spirit" has been understood "to mean that whilst God may have created space God in Godself must be above it --- spaceless [or a-spatial] --- in the same way God is 'above' time."  Relying on Karl Barth, he points out that unless God has space, there is no theological ground for space and its importance is greatly diminished.  After all, it'll all be annihilated eventually, right?  Wrong.  Space has intrinsic ground with God.  It will be a part of eternal life with God, much as we will be embodied and enjoy a material, recreated world.  You might say we will be en-spaced (though I don't know if that's a word.)

Three_in_one_1Moving on, he points out that space is pre-existent and eternal, being found in the Trinity.  This is how he says it: "God is present to Godself, [where] there is a divine proximity and remoteness, [and this] is the basis and presupposition of created proximity and remoteness."  My, my, my.  This sounds so difficult, but really he is just saying that in the Trinity there is distinctiveness (God is not the Son is not the Spirit) and yet sameness (God is the same substance as the Son is the same substance as the Spirit).  And in this apartness, there is love, and fellowship, and real community.  Oneness, and yet threeness.  Proximity, and yet remoteness.

So what's this got to do with anything?  Well, as we talk about how we should build, how we should shape communities, why certain things should be built here, or there, we can think about it from the standpoint of the grounding of space in God.  It belongs to Him.  He's gifted it to us.  We are compelled, indeed, enjoined, to consider how we use space.  I don't know what applications Gorringe will draw in the following chapters about what this Trinitarian grounding for space means in real life, but maybe it's something like this: 

  • Healthy communities invite both intimacy (proximity) and privacy (remoteness).  While you can't compel people to know and care for one another, our building patterns and structures can provide conditions where the growth of community is encouraged and a right privacy is preserved.
  • Healthy communities are differentiated.  Not all is the same, from the experience of buildings to the cultural life.  Sameness is a bane, and while it may satisfy some urban planner's idea of what is "nice", it's ultimately deadening to the human spirit.  I think this is rooted both in the Trinity and in the differentiation in Creation.
  • In healthy communities, there is concern for others.  In the Trinity there is love.  This side if Eden we may not have love, but we should seek civility and civic concern.  These are difficult things to encourage, but it seems to me we can build places and shape communities in such a way to encourage decent behavior.

HousesLet's face it.  Many of us live in suburbia because we are ambivalent about the proximity/remoteness thing.  We want intimacy, so we live around people, sort of, and not way out in the country.  And yet, at the same time we want people on our own terms and, sometimes, we want to be left alone.  We're the ones who made the suburbs, and I'm not bashing them too much, because they reflect a human reality that is unlikely to change.  But maybe, just maybe we can live Trinitarian lives in the midst of this tension.  You think?

If you made it this far in this longish post, you either felt sorry for me that this is all I have to spend my time on, this practically useless nonsense.  Or maybe you're a rarity and are really enthralled.  But if you're the prior, just tell me one thing before you go: "Why is there air?"  err, I mean, "why is there space?"  Think about it, will you?

The Little Tradition

Mobile_home"[W]e find in Scripture, classically in the Magnificat, a preference for the ordinary, the modest, humble and ordinary, and we cannot but take account of that in reflecting on the built environment.  This leaves us with an embarrassment, because to be interested in 'architecture' is to be concerned almost solely with what I will call, following Redfield, 'the great tradition.'  Redfield distinguishes between the great tradition, the written and celebrated, the work of the philosophers, historians, theologians, the learned, and the little tradition, which for the most part comes to us only in scraps, in folk memories, songs, tales and ballads, in pamphlets crudely written.  One of the remarkable things about the New Testament is that it contains so many documents which bear the mark of the little tradition, written in a Greek which was an acute embarrassment to the first educated Christians.  In the built environment the great tradition means the work of prestigious architects or planners, whilst the little tradition corresponds to the work of unknown craftsmen who have left their mark on every ancient village, town and city.  Christianity, I shall claim, is wedded to the little tradition."  (T.J. Gorringe, in A Theology of the Built Environment).

While the Bible certainly does tell the story of some great men, at least men great in the world's eyes, men such as Solomon, it is mostly a story of little people and little places.  Christ is born in the backwater village of Bethlehem and a smallish land called Palestine, some distance from the great cities of Rome and Athens.  His disciples are uneducated fishermen, and he never travels more than a few hundred miles from the place he was born or reared.  He lived simply.  He grew up simply, among ordinary people, doing ordinary things.

Today I'm riding by small brick homes, farmhouses, and mobile homes in the eastern part of our state, past the everyday built environment, watching homes built by unknown builders.  There are no great cities here, no monumental architectural works, no cathedrals -- only the ordinary.  It all makes sense to me.  If we are to think Christianly about what we build, we have to be able to do it here, amongst the ordinary, and not just about the great tradition of architectural works, of planned urban communities. If we can't relate God's truth to these places, what good is it to think of it in regard to the great works?

My City Was Gone?

Bull"For good or ill buildings, from the humblest garden shed to the grandest cathedral, make moral statements" (T.J. Gorringe, in A Theology of the Built Environment)

I suspect that most people never think of buildings in this way.  I know that until recently, I never did.  Backing up just a bit, I am now terribly conscious that everything I perceive as I drive through my city, walk down the street, and enter a building, like Scripture says of rocks, cry out to me.  I am first of all aware of the fact that thousands of decisions have been made without any input from me that effect what I see and experience as I move through my day, a sort of pre-moral awareness.  For example, I can point to areas of experience in my city where I once drove, shopped, or walked that are now imperceptible to me.  The buildings once there are gone, the earth itself moved, old stands of trees gone, new plantings made, roads realigned --- and now I find it difficult to find the place I once knew.  Yes, I often think of that great Chrissie Hynde song, "My City Was Gone:"

I went back to Ohio
But my city was gone
There was no train station
There was no downtown
South Howard had disappeared
All my favorite places
My city had been pulled down
Reduced to parking spaces
A, o, where did you go Ohio

Well I went back to Ohio
But my family was gone
I stood on the back porch
There was nobody home
I was stunned and amazed
My childhood memories
Slowly swirled past
Like the wind through the trees
A, o, oh way to go Ohio

I went back to Ohio
But my pretty countryside
Had been paved down the middle
By a government that had no pride
The farms of Ohio
Had been replaced by shopping malls
And Muzak filled the air
From Seneca to Cuyahoga Falls
Said, a, o, oh way to go Ohio

Beyond lamenting my lack of control, I also now sense that moral statements are being made, sometimes intentionally and sometimes quite unintentionally.  For example, when, as I just said, old buildings are razed, earth moved, old landmarks obliterated, and new buildings and "natural" areas implanted, what is communicated, whether intentional or not, is that new is better, that life is malleable, that history is of little value, and remembrance unimportant.  Well, something like that.  Not that preserving all old building is an absolute moral good. There are bad traditions of building, as well as good.  But perhaps a better way to speak of it is by seeking a reformation of the built environment, preserving the true (well-built), the good (the buildings and landscapes that at least are conducive to virtue), and beautiful (aesthetically pleasing), and rooting out the false (poorly constructed), evil (designs that encourage uncharitable and damaging behavior), and ugly.  In this planners and architects and builders anticipate God's rebuilding project, a new heavens and earth that is a reformation or re-creation of the one we have, not a complete tear-down and new construction.

I am not an architect, and though I studied urban design it was with anarchists, Marxists, and post-moderns where I learned little to help me shape a moral awareness of the cityscape.  I'm just beginning.  But there is grace to help, grace that infuses the ordinary with a sacred character, grace that helps us think God's thoughts after him.  I like what Gorringe says in his book after his demolishing of the dualism of the sacred/profane dichotomy:

"Because creation is grace, grace is concrete: it meets us in what Padraic Pearse called 'the bulks of ordinary things' --- and this of course includes buildings and settlements, the places in which we live and work.  The theology of everyday life, therefore, is a theology of gratuity, of love 'for nothing,' and of joy in the minutiae of things."

Maybe we can build and rebuild, renovate and redesign, out of gratitude, out of love for what is given.  To "till and keep" is, after all, in the Hebrew meaning of the words, about serving the creation.  That is humbling.  That dispels any utopian hubris and throws us back on God, the one Who is building His Kingdom --- one brick at a time.

Marketing Utopia

For_saleThe built environment, which provides us with all the most direct, frequent and unavoidable images and experiences of everyday life, is never just happenstance.  It reflects conscious decisions which in turn reflect ideologies and class positions" (T.J. Gorringe, in A Theology of the Built Environment).

True enough.  That a brick is here and not there, a sidewalk on this side of the street and not over there, a house with a porch or not, is certainly not chance, and yet I suspect many building decisions today reflect pragmatic marketing and not value-laden and principled decisions.  For example, a slick brochure (actually, more like a magazine) I received recently has stories about a new "community" that developers are shaping north of my city.  With homes starting in the $900s, this is definitely a community that will lack socioeconomic diversity.  And yet the well-heeled will pay dearly to join a "sustainable" community, an ecologically conscious one, and one focused on "bringing families closer together."  With one to six acre "private reserves," though, and 5000-8000 square foot homes, it's difficult to see how a sense of community will be encouraged.  You won't even be able to see your neighbors' homes, much less get to know them.  No, these are much more like private vacation retreats where you can get away from everyone, particularly those who are uncomfortably unlike you.  In fact, even in your own home there's enough space so that you need not see anyone in the family, if you choose not to.

Actually, our guilt and emotions are being played on.  We are being told that it's OK to have a home that is beyond our means because it will make our family happier and, besides, we are protecting the environment.  We're told we can be a part of a community, when the exclusivity and large lot design practically guarantees there will be no community.

In fact we do long for community, for beauty, and for a sense that we are living justly.  God made us this way.  Marketers play on those longings to sell to us.  To be fair, they are not always conscious of this, not always so crass as do do it intentionally, and they often have mixed motives, desiring to do something good and yet not beyond playing to our emotions.

I confess I'm a bit of a skeptic about even high-minded planning and design.  Perhaps well planned subdivisions can be conducive to a communal spirit, but I doubt that true community comes from such designs but, rather, from hearts shaped by another kind of Planner.  Communities look the way they do because of the kind of people we are.  When we change, the built environment will follow.  Form follows function.

This is why I'm interested in Gorringe's book.  If a meditation on God's word can bring forth a theology of the built environment, we can better understand why we build and plan as we do, how our own fallenness has such deleterious consequences, and how, with God's grace, an with new hearts, we can design and built more human places for all people.

Place matters.  Our living space matters.  These tangible realities say something about who we are and have something to do with shaping our behavior.  God's grace infuses life, and yet so does the curse of sin.  Planners and builders can't build a heaven on earth, a utopia, despite what the slick brochures promise.  But they can acknowledge human weakness and promise and reflect on what kind of design will best allow the good things in human character to thrive.  We can do better.

Urban Christians

Dscf0076_editedWhen a friend confided recently that she was considering leaving her current ministry position in a suburban church for a new calling in an urban area, it reminded me of a recent article by Tim Keller entitled "A New Kind of Urban Christian."  Keller, Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, addresses the question of "How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good?"  His answer, in short: many of us need to move to the city, to urban, not suburban or exurban areas, and not for the short term but for the long term.

Part of why we move to suburbs is because we love the city with its vibrancy and anonymity, but we also hate it for its traffic, crowds, and lack of community; and we love the bucolic countryside for its peace, beauty, and community, but we also hate it for its lack of privacy and lack of "action."  So, we are conflicted, and we find in the suburb the best of both, or hope we do, and the automobile has facilitated our having it both ways.  I can argue for moving to suburbs just as well as I can argue for moving to cities or rural areas.  But, this is not about that.  Keller's article is about how we engage the culture, and his point is that people who live in our largest cities have a disproportionate impact on how things are done in our culture.

But Keller is not simply talking about individual Christians living in cities but, rather, about Christians living as an alternate culture within the culture of the city, a city within the city, a dynamic counterculture.  To us is the task of showing how the big Three -- money, sex, and power -- can be used in nondestructive ways.  It is not a club, another interest group, another association, but a community radically committed to the good of the city as a whole.  Finally, he says we must demonstrate how the Christian worldview has everything to do with how we work; the two must be fully integrated.

It's a great vision for life in the city.  But it's also a great vision for life as a Christian counterculture anywhere.  For those of us deeply entrenched in suburbia, we need to give some serious consideration to how a gospel community should look in the suburb and how we will live as "aliens and strangers" not just in cities but also here in suburbia.

Feng Shui Hooey

Mainbg_1 House cluttered?  Bad karma or, rather, bad chi feng shui practitioners would say.  In a recent article from the local newspaper's Home and Garden section, the writer extolled the benefits of what some would say is just another philosophy of interior design.  According to one practitioner cited, feng shui is "simply a way to arrange your surroundings to promote energy flow and balance, which can help enhance the quality of life."  Hmmm.  Maybe they should talk with my son, as he has plenty of energy and I can't see that his room is arranged for positive energy flow at all! 

Actually, what the article only hints at is something I only found out about with more digging.  According to Marcia Montenegro in an article called Feng Shui: New Dimensions in Design, adherents of feng shui believe invisible, magic forces are tamed through occult forms of divination.  They posit a "seemingly harmless facade of intricate and detailed decorating advice [and need we also say costly], but behind it is a spiritual belief system based on the concepts of a magical force called chi, the opposing but complementary yin and yang [I sorta think of them as Glenda the Good Witch and her sister the Wicked Witch of the West], and the interaction of the five elements -- earth, water, fire, metal, and wood."  Since all objects channel energy, or life force, experienced practitioners need to help you arrange your surroundings in such a way as to channel the energy in positive ways.

Christians need not go much further.  Impersonal life force.  Channeling energy.  We've heard all this before in the many variations of New Age religion.  Why people will settle for this impersonal life force over a personal, loving God is a good question.  Is it because a personal God demands relationship and relationship accountability?  I suspect so.  So, it's no surprise that feng shui is not only hooey (I know, shui doesn't really rhyme with hooey, but I couldn't resist) but downright deceptive. Keep your eyes open.

But it's not good enough to see what's wrong with feng shui.  We can also make it a practice to look for what's right in what's gone wrong, something I'm really more interested in here -- that is, what is true, good, or beautiful about this pagan philosophy masquerading as an interior design craze?  At least three things come to mind.  First, as Christians we share a sense that objects are sacred, only we do not believe they emanate life force or energy.  Rather, created things bear the imprint of their maker.  Just as a painter's canvas is a window to the painter, so objects are windows to the transcendent God.  Pablo Neruda (who I do not know to be a Christian) says that "[e]verything in the world has a hidden meaning. . . . Men, animals, trees, stones, they are all hieroglyphics.  When you see them you do not understand them.  You think they are men, animals, trees, stars.  It's only years later that you understand."  I think the Orthodox believers among us understand this best in their use of icons as windows to God.  One can perhaps understand how this re-sacralization of the inanimate appeals to our naturalistic, materialistic culture who innately sense that something more must be at work here than what meets the eye.  Second, just as place matters in feng shui, so place matters to Christians.  Indeed, Christians have a penchant for the particular.  The Bible is not a book of abstract doctrines but for the most part is rooted in particulars of place, personality, and object.  God pronounces the created world good, in all its variety, and so we can and should pay attention and deeply appreciate the place we live in and the things that surround us.

Finally, that our surroundings effect us emotionally is no surprise.  God made us as sensual beings who taste, touch, see, and smell things.  It didn't have to be that way.  That it is that way says something about God and what matters to God.  Place matters. People matter.  Things matter.  In fact, everything matters.  And yet, we can also say with feng shui adherents -- "need it, use it, love it, or ditch it" -- as we can become obsessed with things, unable to de-clutter our lives of them, rather than having only those things we need or love.  So, feng shui has much to say about the focus of our homes, and about aesthetics, if we can only jettison the underlying pagan spirituality.

One item saved from our somewhat recent house reconstruction is a part of a door frame that has pencil marks on it showing the growth over the years of my two children.  Our carpenter saved it for us -- because he knew it had special meaning for us.  It does.  It symbolizes all those years of growing up and all we went through.  It evokes emotion just to see it.  Chi?  Naah.  It's a signpost pointing to the One who gave us that life together.  And I'll take a personal Holy Spirit over an impersonal life force any day.