Monday, December 10

Wolterstorff's "City of Delight"

American philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff made a case back in 1983 for taking seriously the aesthetics of cities. In his Kuyper lectures, he noted how a steadfast commitment to economic growth and technological progress has undermined the beauty of cities.

One problem he noticed was the car,

"When one is traveling in a car in any case it is almost impossible to get enjoyment out of the public environment of the city. Thus our commitment to the car as our principle means of transportation reinforces our tendency to think of the city not as an integrated public environment for our life together, but as a collection of individual buildings. We race at great speed from one destination to another, paying no attention - indeed, finding it impossible to pay any attention - to what lies along our way, insisting only that the traffic move swiftly and that our various destinations be more or less pleasant oases in the bleak urban desert."

He also points a finger at the tendency for contemporary intellectuals to consider beauty a quality for museums and theaters only.

"There is, indeed, no current theory of the aesthetic that leads to the conclusion that the aesthetic dimension of reality is confined to art, and yet the assumption is commonly made that what lies behind art is always the aesthetic intention, and conversely, that the aesthetic does not go beyond art. The aesthetic is thus bound up tightly with art; and the critics' concern with the aesthetic in art never leads them on to where the aesthetic touches almost all of us almost all of the time - in the city."

As a Christian, Wolterstorff laid out a case for what he called a "world-formative Christianity," a faith that moves beyond internal contemplation and toward a social vision of justice. The organizing concept he uses is shalom, the Jewish word for "peace" - but much more. It encompasses a right and harmonious relationship between humans and the divine, humans and each other, and humans and the natural world. It assumes a fairness of treatment for all people, and beyond that a genuine joy shared in mutual life.

"There is yet one more dimension of the relation of the city to shalom that resonates in our consciousness: the image of the biblical writers for our ultimate destiny is that of life in a city - not, be it noted, in a garden."


J.W. said...

I just reread this brief essay this morning. Man, what a vision. I especially appreciate the Jacques Ellul quote at the end of the chapter.

Daniel Nairn said...

Yeah, I really enjoyed reading it too. Thanks for pointing me to this book. It wasn't available in any of the libraries around here, so I just broke down and ordered a copy online.

Jacques Ellul's Meaning of the City is also on my list, but it's out of print and too expensive for me. I feel like I've seen Ellul's name all over the place, but I've never actually read anything by him. It would be nice if someone released an Ellul Reader or something like that. He's written so much.

J.W. said...

i've only read the technological society, but it is an astoundingly good book. i think it's a pretty good place to start, and the viking version is available for cheap on amazon.

J.W. said...

also, i'd be interested in seeing yr city planning reading list. i've read a couple of the classics you've posted about here, like jacobs and mumford, but some of the others are new to me.