Wednesday, February 13

Book: Till We Have Built Jerusalem

Phillip Bess stands in a rather unique position. He is at once a member of the Congress of New Urbanism and a Catholic scholar at Notre Dame University, firmly committed to the Aristotle-Thomas-MacIntyre intellectual tradition. The collection of essays Till We Have Built Jerusalem could be considered a project in cross-pollination between these two camps, simultaneously an appeal to fellow Catholics to consider how their belief system plays out in the built environment and an encouragement to pragmatically-minded New Urbanists to consider the foundational philosophical beliefs they hold about humanity, the world, and divinity. Playing the matchmaker, Bess suggests a few practical ways this connection could be fruitful.

Taking a deep breath, here's my plunge into some essential parts of the historical narrative Phillip Bess is working with. He carefully articulates and repeats this underlying point throughout the book:

"The good life for individual human beings is the life of individual moral and intellectual virtue (or excellence) lived with others in communities."

Then, still following Aristotle, he asserts that the community of communities, absolutely necessary for human flourishing, is the city itself. Next, Saint Augustine is brought into the picture to remind Christians that they maintain a sort of "dual citizenship" between the City of God and the City of Man. While the church is rightly an essential focus for Christians, there is still an obligation to care for the order of the earthly city, of which the Christian community is one participant among many. The "principle of subsidiarity" comes to us via Thomas Aquinas. This states basically that issues ought to be resolved at the smallest level of authority possible. A few centuries later, Tocqueville warns against the individualistic excesses of democracy, which can lead to an unhealthy understanding of an autonomous self. Finally, Alistair McIntyre arrives to revive the Thomistic tradition, while softening some of it's scarier hierarchical elements. He asserts that communities are self-defining entities and they do so mainly by telling stories. Humans are not autonomous beings but thrive within a particular community and tradition.

ok. Now what does this have to do with architecture and urbanism?

According to Bess, a faulty moral vision is the primary impetus behind the modern problem of suburban sprawl. We care more about the number and size of bathrooms in our houses than we do about a robust public realm. To make matters worse, most of the architectural establishment has been thoroughly immersed in this skewed emotivist vision, celebrating novelty and personal artistic expression over genuine beauty and the common good.

The way to remedy this is to go back to the basics of traditional urban design, focusing on the neighborhood as the essential building block of a city. Civic buildings should be given a prominent place, in order to encourage a virtuous citizenship. If cities are built to a human scale, in conformity with a natural order, all different aspects of life will be within walking distance of each other. He outlines the typical methodology of New Urbanism, from the form-based codes to the "Charette" style of public engagement, while also acknowledging some of the difficulties of working from within the marketplace. Bess stresses that churches can play an active role in advocating for a traditional urbanity over contemporary sprawl, even going so far as to suggest that churches work with developers to create urban neighborhoods around their facilities.

At one point, Bess claims that the principle"humans should make walkable, mixed-use settlements" should be considered a universal natural law, alongside such principles as "do not take innocent human life." At least one of his fellow Catholic legal scholars doesn't want to go that far, and, in response, Bess does seem to soften his stance a little. He still remains an unwavering proponent of the New Urbanist vision for human settlement.

The essays contained in Till We Have Built Jerusalem are intentionally provocative, but they also eschew any easy labeling on the standard political spectrum. Hopefully, his New Urbanist readers, if not entirely persuaded by every argument, will at least be driven to consider the deeper drive for why they care about what they care about. And Christian readers could come away with an ability to view the places they live through the lens of their faith.

Note: First Things published a review of this book in last months issue, but I'll have to wait until it makes it to the free archives to read it.

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