The Sabbath City

A city should design for useless things.

September 6 th 2018

Every architect and urban designer is an anthropologist. That is, every architect and urban designer has an anthropology, a view of the human person, of what kind of a thing she is, and of what she needs from the structures in which she lives. The positions that architects, planners, and city officials take toward these kinds of questions have real influence on the people who live within the spaces they create, because every built environment facilitates certain patterns of life over other alternatives.

The founding father of contemporary urban planning, Le Corbusier, quite self-consciously sought to change the way designers think about these questions, and about the purpose of city life. It was high time, Le Corbusier thought, to do away with the disorder of cities that had arisen piecemeal over the centuries and to create instead “machines for living,” which were streamlined for the city’s real aim: efficiency of economic production and consumption. Although the “City of Tomorrow” envisioned by Le Corbusier, with its vast, identical concrete housing blocs encircling equally uniform office towers, did not become the template for the modern city, his anthropology remains influential. In the kind of economic calculus of human life he promoted, however, the things that matter most to us have little place, because they cannot meaningfully be captured by statistics and have no straightforward utility. These are things like friendship, family life, the practice of craft, the appreciation of beauty, and communal worship—they are use-less things, ends in themselves and not mere means to any material gains.

The result is urban design that, by its aesthetic, leaves people alienated from their surroundings and, by its structure, isolated from their communities.

The trouble with the functionalist city, planned chiefly in terms of statistical measures of material productivity, is that it reduces city dwellers to abstract economic actors, and leaves as secondary those goods and relationships that make for a full human life. The result is urban design that, by its aesthetic, leaves people alienated from their surroundings and, by its structure, isolated from their communities. This is true in both planning and architecture, inasmuch as both disciplines relate to the common built environment of the city. In architecture, the reductive view of the human person is most apparent in the aesthetics of the buildings themselves; in urban planning, it is most evident in how the structures of the city support our ability to pursue non-commercial goods in community. A more adequate architectural philosophy is needed, one that recognizes the meaning-giving bonds of a community as among the most central of human needs, and which likewise acknowledges the transcendent goods around which human communities cohere.

The Aesthetics of Alienation

The anthropological assumptions of planners and designers are incarnated in and communicated by their work. Le Corbusier himself agreed with those of his critics who held that all architecture embodies a kind of “moral vision.” When designers take a reductive view of human life, their work communicates that same view to those who live within it. The result is a sense, on the part of the one experiencing the architecture, of dis-integration. There is a felt dissonance when the environment fails to match up with the real needs of human nature.

In some of the most ancient anthropological musings, the human being was distinguished from her fellow animals by her ability to rise above the world of appetites and into the world of contemplation. This special capacity is what makes her human; it is her ability to stand back from the world in an appreciative pose, which moves beyond mere consumption to—in the words of Josef Pieper—“take in the reality of things.” When we step outside the instrumental activities of daily life we enter the realm of “leisure,” where things are done for their own sake and not for any extrinsic purpose. All true leisure, Pieper thought, has in some way the character of appreciation and contemplation. That the capacity for this kind of thing exists in the human person is evident to us from daily life whenever we stop to enjoy some natural beauty, talk with a dear friend, pray, or engage in any kind of play.

These activities are intimately tied with community life, in which we learn to practice them and wherein they find their highest expression. In community the activities of leisure become the work of culture. An anthropology that is closed to this transcendent and social element in the human character may see instead only the material exchanges of life as having real significance. It was such a view that Le Corbusier represented and passed on in the philosophy of city-building.

The reason that people feel alienated in so many contemporary developments is that they experience what the design of the space is telling them; they know that they are being reduced to something a bit less than they are, and that the architect and client have thought of them as interchangeable units in a process over which they have no control and which they can never even totally see. The significant effects of the look and shape of such architecture on the psychological and physical health of those who live in it, likewise, have been fairly well-documented.

In community the activities of leisure become the work of culture.

This sense comes, in part, from the uniformity of the architecture, which looks nearly the same in Wilmington as it does in the suburbs of Memphis, Minneapolis, or Montreal. The functionalist way of building is intentionally universalizable, because it thinks of residents in terms of abstractions: as so many units to be managed, labourers to be organized, housed, and move to and fro. But, as Wendell Berry wrote, “abstraction, of course, is what is wrong,” because it is unable to “distinguish one place or person or creature from another.” Real human beings’ lives play out in particular places and within particular communities, and architecture that is non-reductive will reflect the character of the place and community for which it is built.

If the universality and impersonality of our environment signals to us that we are but movable parts in the formulas of designers, planners, corporations, and policy makers, the stylistic elements of our structures tell us that the builders of our environment have reduced city life to its most basic economic aspect. This is evident when buildings eschew ornament for bare utility, or when they are given only the minimal aesthetic attention needed to serve their economic function. The experience of estrangement, if we are to look at the evidence of environmental psychology, also has to do with the infrequency of interpersonal contact between residents, the lack of proximity to natural landscapes and availability of natural light, and the absence of “biophilic” forms and materials in the buildings themselves. Notably, it is the degree to which architecture provides for a set of needs that are not straightforwardly useful, like aesthetic satisfaction and human interaction, that seems to matter most to the experience of those who use it.

In any actual town, these elements will be mixed. There will be areas and structures that are alienating and impersonal, and others that, by their welcoming and human atmosphere, draw life and activity toward themselves. People do not travel to a city for its strip malls or apartment blocks; they do not gather in the darkened streets between office buildings unless it is for some extrinsic reason. Almost invariably, people congregate toward older parts of town where buildings remain that are built on human scale, in brick, stone, and wood, and in patterns and forms that fit with the surrounding structures and landscape. It is to Omaha’s Old Market, Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties, Toronto’s Distillery District, and Charleston’s King Street that locals and visitors alike gather. The aesthetic of these places is the product of each community’s unique history, and so endorses the life of the people that inhabit them, and it does this both by its particular ability to fit the existing environment, built and natural, and by fitting the actual tastes and nature of those who live there.

If the architectural appearance of our cities has the power to alienate us by making present to us a reductive, utilitarian conception of life, the structural forms of the town itself, when built on those same reductive principles, has the power to keep us from pursuing the activities that are unique to our nature.

The Physical Structures of Community

Just as the aesthetic of a built environment communicates the priorities of planners and architects, so also the layout of urban developments embodies certain objectives and determines the range of possibilities open to those who live within them. The ease with which residents are able to form meaningful communities will depend, in part, on the extent to which the streets and organization of the city allow them to do so. If these are shaped by a view of life that prioritizes commerce at the cost of non-commercial human ends, the community will suffer, and those who would be members are more likely to be left isolated from their neighbours. The anthropological assumptions with which planners work have an important role, then, since planning necessarily favours certain patterns of movement over others and limits our choices about how, where, and with whom we spend our time.

A city inevitably has crescendos, centres to which its roads lead and around which its other structures congregate.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre famously argued, in his book Dependant Rational Animals, that human beings, as dependent animals, are also necessarily communal animals who always stand in need of their neighbours. The goods that human beings seek are the goods of community, and the virtues human beings need to reach those goods are born out of communal upbringing. For MacIntyre, then, it is of chief importance that children be raised in the company of a particular community, and not only in the nuclear family, since extended family and neighbours have unique and irreplaceable roles in forming the child’s character. Here he was in accord with Jane Jacobs, whose recommendations for city planning were meant to put children in the company of non-familial adults from whom they would learn the norms of the community, and so be prepared to become fruitful members of it.

For such a community to be possible, Charles Taylor argued, there must be a place made in the city for “play,” that is, for communal leisure: the activity of culture. This kind of activity gives the community a sense of engagement in a common project and helps that community to understand its own identity. The various works of culture are the sort of common goods that can only be engaged in communally, and which themselves bind the community together.

In functionalist urban settings, however, the life and work of local culture tends to be displaced by the consumption of mass culture, because the centres of the community are replaced by centres of either labour or consumption. It is for this reason that Taylor wrote that “the most urgent job is to rescue the old communities, to prevent their sinking into the amorphous mass of the surrounding conurbations, to open them out by rescuing the local theatres, art galleries and museums.” From the perspective of planning, this requires urban forms that make the centres of culture and community prominent and accessible. A city inevitably has crescendos, centres to which its roads lead and around which its other structures congregate. So often today these are shopping centres or the megaliths of corporate offices. The commercial interests that inhabit these spaces rise and fall with the ebb and flow of economic fortune, and the surrounding community eventually falls with them. This can be seen in any number of abandoned American Rust Belt towns. In cities that have stood the test of time, the avenues and means of transport converge on what is timeless and most commonly held by the community: the town hall, the public square, and the temple. These sorts of spaces, because they are both common and permanent, have an adhesive and sustaining affect on the populations that live around them.

In addition to more straightforwardly logistical considerations, there is also an iconographical element to the organization of the city. The shape and focal points of a town are a way in which the community tells itself its own story. It is important that the story is told well, and about the right things, because it is a story about who the community takes itself to be and what it values. To this end, the elements of the architectural story ought to come, at least in part, from within the community itself and at its behest, lest they become less about a given set of neighbours and more about ideology, profit, or the power of the standing governmental regime.

It is prerequisite to the social group’s establishment of these narratives and to the telling of its own history that that group has shared life together, and for this to be possible the activities and functions of the city must be spatially integrated. Community cannot be engineered and measured by planners as but another element in a technocratic formula for making towns, because genuine communal relationships arise organically from the associations of daily life. Mixed development, then, is key to this sort of community. The human being is an organic whole, and the habitat suitable for her will be one which accounts for that integral nature. That is to say: when she is working, the resident of the city is never just a worker, but also a friend, a mother, a neighbour, a painter, a congregant, and many other things besides. The architect Leon Krier compared the functionalist city to a body whose parts have not been left in their natural, integrated functioning, but dissected into merely adjacent piles of lungs, hearts, livers, and stomachs.

That the city today is typically dissected according to function, and that its buildings are often subject to a set of regulations that perpetuate sprawl, means that there is no serendipitous passing on the street, no stopping to chat with neighbours. As has been noted often by the advocates of the new urbanism, our neighbourhoods are deserted during the day as neighbours disperse to disparate and distant parts of the city to conduct their business, and at night, the districts of business are equally hollowed out, as people move elsewhere to enjoy themselves or to retire at home. This means that the ground for the organic development of community is fractured. People still find ways to meaningfully associate in their various activities, perhaps in places of worship, but as Robert Putnam has pointed out, the dispersed and disjointed nature of our cities makes it harder for these organs of civil association to begin and to thrive too.

When she is working, the resident of the city is never just a worker, but also a friend, a mother, a neighbour, a painter, a congregant, and many other things besides.

Similarly, those other standbys of the new urbanists, walkability and orientation toward the common space, are of great importance for the sort of anthropology gestured at above, because it is on foot that meetings between neighbours become possible, and it is only in such closeness that children can remain under the watchful eye and tutelage of neighbours. The goal is to create the conditions for what Jane Jacobs described as the “intricate sidewalk ballet” she had seen in Greenwich Village and so to make possible the pursuit of human life’s highest goods by the community that dances within it.

The Sabbath City

The answer to the twin problems sketched above must begin with an anthropology that conceives of human well-being as consisting in more than material prosperity, but rather in the “use-less” activities for the sake of which we engage in the business of our daily lives. According to an ancient way of thinking, these kind of “final ends” are to be considered Sabbath things, things outside of the normal workaday flow of time, things in which we rest, and which make life worth its while. Since the human being is a Sabbath-ward animal, the city only becomes a true settlement when it is built first for Sabbath things, and then for the instrumental things that make the Sabbath possible. This lends the city that resiliency and permanence that comes when citizens can, in the words of Roger Scruton, attach to their town as home, and not merely as a place to pass through.

None of this is to say that the humane interests of the city need be at war with its economic needs. Scruton, James Howard Kunstler, and others have laid out cases for how dense, mixed, human-scale development can be economically viable, even a necessary corrective to unsustainable models of growth.

Again, Le Corbusier targeted his efforts precisely against the Sabbath city, which he saw as the disordered product of a benighted age. For him, the city was a first and foremost a tool like any other, and the chief task of the designer was to make use of the data in order to engineer that instrument for speed and efficiency. While he was right to see that an industrial economy and new modes of travel called for new solutions in urban planning, the philosophy that lay behind this insight went too far in its reaction against what formed the heart of older cities.

It is this mindset, the regulations that promote and enable it, the companies who lobby for it, and the inertia of rapid and impermanent development that have left us with the isolating cities we know today. These massive forces are embodied in the physical structures that so often surround us. This is not entirely an inevitability of the market economy; it is a state of affairs helped along by regulations and tax plans that favour precisely the kind of development that, I have suggested, makes organic community harder to develop. If mixed, dense, walkable development were encouraged, even permitted, by policy makers, and the city codes ceased to tip their hands chiefly in the direction of large corporate efforts, a different set of businesses, or businesses differently adapted, would succeed according to those changing parameters.

A great deal has been written on the particularities of tax regimes, on the shape of street corners, bike lanes, sidewalks, and so on. All of this is very worthwhile work, but responding adequately to these issues of isolation and alienation requires a re-examination of the philosophical roots of design. Such an “archaeology” of thought would help to move us beyond abstract and reductive visions of city life and toward structures that put us more easily into that consistent congress with neighbours that makes the organic development of substantive community possible. Solutions in this regard will be as particular as each locale, but a few general themes can be identified: Integrated development that (1) attends to the particularities of place, (2) is built on a human scale using natural materials, and (3) provides a conduit to shared public spaces. To engage in this project will not end the vastly complex problems of urban social isolation, but it may at least prepare the seedbed for the real work of culture and community to begin.


 

Nathan Beacom writes on architecture and the environment from Des Moines, Iowa.

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