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.
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.