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Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture,…

Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred

by Philip Bess

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No-one likes suburban sprawl, even the people who live in suburbs. It's hard to imagine any environment uglier than a typical new housing subdivision, with row upon row of shoddily-built, cookie-cutter mansions located in a maze of cul-de-sac streets without sidewalks. The suburban resident cannot walk to school, work or to the corner store, and why would he want to? There's nothing to see outside but rows of garage doors. Such considerations are not merely matters of aesthetic preference; they have serious social consequences. The suburban environment depends upon the automobile, and its traditional layout makes it impossible to accomplish any daily task without driving; this contributes to existing problems of pollution and traffic congestion while preventing non-drivers (the elderly, the disabled, and children) from having any sort of independence. Because suburban developments contain only middle- and high-income housing, their increasing prevalence tends to exacerbate social stratification along class lines; the flight of middle- and upper-class families to the suburbs causes large pockets of poverty to develop in the inner city, contributing to the decay of the downtown core. And the physical layout of suburbia tends to discourage meaningful community interaction, encouraging instead an increasing level of social isolation and insularity.

All of this has been discussed before by advocates of the so-called New Urbanism, a movement seeking a return to traditional principles of city design (i.e., walkable mixed-use neighbourhoods). The achievement of Philip Bess, a professor of architecture at Notre Dame, has been to connect the ideas of the New Urbanists with the principles of natural-law ethics. Principles that set out the best standards for a livable city are, after all, normative standards about the sort of physical structures that support human flourishing, and this approach to planning precisely matches the methodology of Aristotleian moral philosophy. Bess calls for churches and synagogues, the current custodians of the natural-law tradition, to enter into a dialogue with the New Urbanism and to explore the possibility of collaborative projects. After all, the Church has a long history as a patron of architecture - what could be more natural than for a church building, the meeting place for an institution deeply rooted in human communities, to serve as the focal point of a newly-constructed, pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood? This idea is a wake-up call equally for those in the Church who accept slovenly architecture and for those in the New Urbanism who embrace a radical secularism; the two camps have more in common than they realize.

The appeal of this book is somewhat diminished by its fragmentary format; this is not a full-length treatise but a collection of essays originally written for a variety of different purposes. (This is not made clear in the book's marketing by ISI Books, although the author freely acknowledges it in the introduction.) Some longer pieces in the book provide a more unitary presentation of Bess's ideas on urbanism and the natural law, while others were clearly intended as occasional pieces (book reviews and the like). This becomes problematic in the case of the many essays originally written for audiences at the Congress for New Urbanism; these pieces naturally assume familiarity with the movement's basic policy proposals, a familiarity which the average reader of this book may or may not have. It is a shame that the ideas in this volume could not be presented in a more unified fashion, because Bess has extremely interesting and important things to say.

Those interested in a more comprehensive treatment of the New Urbanism should read Andres Duany's excellent book Suburban Nation, which clearly explains the exact practical structure of New Urbanist proposals. ( )
1 vote hauptwerk | Mar 21, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 193223697X, Paperback)

“The city comes into existence . . . for the sake of the good life.” So wrote Aristotle nearly 2,400 years ago, articulating an idea that prevailed throughout most of Western culture and the world until the environmental consequences of the Industrial Revolution called into question the goodness of traditional urban life. Urban history ever since—from England’s early-nineteenth-century hygiene laws to mid-twentieth-century modernist architecture and planning to today’s New Urbanism—has consisted of efforts to ameliorate the consequences of the industrial city by either embracing or challenging the idealization of nature that has followed it.

Architect Philip Bess’s Till We Have Built Jerusalem puts forth fresh arguments for traditional architecture and urbanism, their relationship to human flourishing, and the kind of culture required to create and sustain traditional towns and city neighborhoods. Bess not only dissects the questionable intellectual assumptions of contemporary architecture, he also shows how the individualist ethos of modern societies finds physical expression in contemporary suburban sprawl, making traditional urbanism difficult to sustain. He concludes by considering the role of both the natural law tradition and communal religion in providing intellectual and spiritual depth to contemporary attempts to build new—and revive existing—traditional towns and cities, attempts that, at their best, help fulfill our natural human desires for order, beauty, and community.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:25 -0400)

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