A kingdom perspective on architecture and town planning

Here are some random thoughts on architecture and town planning prompted by my recent movements between Pamplona in Spain, San Diego in the USA and, of course, our very own Sheffield in the UK plus reading  Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred (Amazon US) by Philip Bess (click here for Amazon UK) and a conversation with David Fairchild of Kaleo Church, San Diego.

Till We Have Built Jerusalem

Here’s my underlying principle. Human beings are made to live and thrive in community. Human societies work well when relationships flourish (individual to individual, to family, to neighbourhood and to the polis). (See my chapter on The Trinity and Humanity for a theological defence and exposition of these assertions.)

Architecture and town planning cannot of themselves create community. But they can facilitate the flourishing of community or they can impede community. This then is one criteria by which we assess architecture and town planning from a Christian perspective.

With this in mind here are some observations.

US culture, particularly in the suburbs, is built around the car. Provision is not made for walking.

Downtown San Diego was great – a good integration of housing, business, retail and civic space. But the suburbs impede community because people live cacooned in their cars. When you walk you meet people, greet people and relate to your surroundings in a way that is impossible in the car. I remember my first evening the USA. I was checked into a hotel and decided to go for a walk round the neighbourhood. It was impossible. I found myself clambering across parking lots and trying to cross roads without pedestrian crossings. I find myself feeling trapped by this. Linked to this is the highly zonal nature of the suburbs. Housing, retail and business are kept separate. You cannot walk to the shops because they are too far away.

Furthermore in the suburbs there are few civic spaces or foci. There are no town squares to provide a focus for the community. There are no symbols of civic identity. It means there is little sense of place, of neighbourhood, no pride in living where you live. You do not feel related to the polis or even to your neighbourhood.

In Sheffield by contrast, the city is littered with corner shops. We also have a strong sense of city centre plus local civic foci. Sharrow, Nether Edge, Heeley and so on all have distinct identities with places, buildings, parks or monuments  that provide focus.

Pamplona was different again. The city consists almost entirely of four, five or six storey apartment blocks. At one level this creates an atomised existence. It is possible to be disconnected from others. In the ten days we were staying in Pamplona we did not once meet someone from the shared stairwell and lift (six apartments in total). But no-one lives at ground level. Instead, ground level space is given over to retail and business usage. This means almost everything you need – from dentists to shops to libraries – is in walking distance. Furthermore, apartment blocks are build around central plazas and running through the neighbourhood was a park. With no gardens, children play in these shared spaces. In the evening children were playing out while their parents sat around chatting. It was high density with plenty of opportunities for community.

What is strong in the US is the role that the front yard plays. We don’t really have an equivalent in the UK. The nearest we have is a driveway, but this is really just a parking spot. In the US there is an expanded driveway that functions as an outdoor room – often with chairs and children toys. As people spend time in their front yards, it is natural to engage with your neighbours.

Even more enviable in my view is the great American tradition of the front porch. In some neighbourhoods I’m told many people sit out on the front of their house, criss-crossing the street to spent time with their neighbours. I wish we had some equivalent front space in the UK.

David was also telling me that the trend in new house builds is towards large master bedrooms which allow for sitting areas, televisions and even refrigerators. Communal space is crunched in favour of individual space. Philip Bess has a chapter on en suite bathrooms, highlighting how many homes have one per bedroom. In other words, there is a shift away from shared space in the home toward separate spaces. This, it seems to me, is a lamentable shift. Families no longer share life together, but are enabled to function separately. Homes become hotels with separate facilities for each family member. Central heating, I believe, had a similar affect in the UK. Before central heating the whole family gathered in one room in the evening because only one room was warm. But central heating allowed the family disperse into separate rooms.

So here are some ideas for a kingdom approach to architecture and town planning:
— the creation of civic foci in suburbia
— the provision of infrastructure for walking
— the integration housing, retail, business and light industry
— the integration of different social grouping through mixed housing
— a focus on shared space in the home rather than segregated space

Christians would also do well to think about shared space for family life and hospitality when they choose homes, and to prioritise this over separate space (like en suite facilities). I would also love to see Christians in the UK finding ways to spend time out at the front of their homes.

I’ve been staying with Drew and Heather Goodmanson whose commitment to spending time in their front yard has led to good contacts with the neighbours. Their house is a place where local children hang out. While I was there two teenage boys dropped by and spent some time watching the Olympics with them.

10 thoughts on “A kingdom perspective on architecture and town planning

  1. You know, this makes me think of the game Sim City–it must be over ten years old now. To build a city you don’t place buildings, but residential, business and industrial zones (I think–it’s been a long time since I played it). I don’t know how else they could have done it, but I wonder if that reflected an American idea of urban planning.

    A lot of American pop culture seems to reflect a yearning for community, though–small-town America is still an ideal.

  2. Tim, good thoughts. I live in a St. Louis, Missouri (USA) suburb and can attest to the fact that we have no real provision for community gathering. Walking is usually not practical, as things are so far spaced.

    The yards: you are right that the opportunity is there, but practically not much interaction goes on in neighborhoods. People are usually gone from the neighborhood shopping or playing organized sports. The city is often better for this–smaller, closer.

    Some areas are trying to build around a “central district.” I hope it works.


  3. I am from the US, but live in Carlisle, England. Been here since 1991. Spent 8 weeks in the US this summer, great weather 80% of the time. The Uk weather this summer in Carlisle sucked. You need nice weather to have an outdoor culture. The UK has an indoor culture because of the weather. Build with what you have!

    We have people eating with us 2-3 times a week. Hospitality is a Biblical value regardless of the culture we live in. Christians make culture, not respond or submit to culture.


  4. Thanks for this Tim. Fascinating stuff. I trained as an Architect and have always been interested in how as Christians we can do ‘kingdom’ Architecture. I look forward to reading this book. For more on American urban design – Mike Davis has written some great books like City of quartz. There is also a book by Timothy Gorringe looking at a theology of the built environment. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Sx2xpTTNh_0C&dq=Timothy+J+Gorringe&pg=PP1&ots=6AN7pFgFBy&sig=t8qfcDoy2X5z75PvxR5C-ATB3Q8&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result

  5. “a conversion with David Fairchild” or was that a conversation?

    I was going to wait until Sunday to discuss this in person but I couldn’t let that particular typo go ignored.

    This is similar arguments that the great architectural minds of the past 50+ years have been “preaching”. Essentially, architecture can change people. I realize your point was more about opportunity for fellowship and community (“Architecture and town planning cannot of themselves create community. But they can facilitate the flourishing of community or they can impede community.”) but one question people seem to never ask is “why don’t they?”

    Why don’t people seek out the neighborhoods that foster community? Most of my brothers and sisters (like David, Drew, etc) look at their home as a place for fellowship and gathering. When we were looking for a home, our budget limited us to a condo. one of our top priorities was a place that offered lots of guest parking – because we wanted to gather.

    But there’s something to be said for the solitude. One, we need a time and place for meditation. If we’re constantly in the thick of it, quiet study becomes difficult. And, much like the “problem of evil”, without solitude, we wouldn’t miss community as much.

    I fear I may be rambling now and that I’m not reacting to you as much to my many years of architecture schooling.

    Should Christians seek community? yes. Does architecture and urban planning prevent that? no, but it does not encourage christian/non-christian interaction. And maybe that was your point all along.

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  7. Have you seen ‘Kevin’s Big Town Plan’ on Channel 4? It’s about the attempts to regenerate Castleford (northern English ex-mining town, struggling economically and socially, typical of many in the region) through nine architectural design projects. Last week was all about a#the building of a new, and very attractive, bridge across the River Aire.

    I will be interested to watch the series and see how the kind of principles you’ve outlined Tim will or will not be reflected in the projects they undertake.

  8. I’m a Christian town planner in the UK – trained in Sheffield, used to be involved in the Association of Christians in Planning and Architecture, which sadly I believe is now defunct but which in the 80s and 90s did some useful thinking around these issues.

    I was struck by how your ideas for a Christian approach are very similar to current ideas in planning practice and even Government policy in the UK. Pedestrian-friendly environments and mixed use developments, for example, are positively encouraged. Creating shared space in the home is an interesting one, more the province of housebuilders who will follow consumer demand rather than something planners can influence.

    On front yards, I’d agree there’s definitely a climatic element there. But a big difference between the US and UK is of course that the UK is much smaller, space is limited (and therefore expensive), and that is reflected in smaller homes and higher densities.

    I agree absolutely that while planning can encourage community, it can’t create it. It works best by working with the grain of culture than against it, so I’m not sure we’ll see a front yard culture in the UK anytime some. Radical urban ideas in the past haven’t always worked, even with the best of intentions (remember tower blocks?). We can redeem the city, but we need redeemed people to live in it.

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