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City of God and city of man, take II

In comments on a recent entry, David Sucher was quite skeptical that either modernist urban design or its contrary has anything to do with religion or general political divides like liberalism and conservatism. He also wanted to know just what I meant by “modernist urban design.” Since the issues are interesting, my views need developing, and this is my blog I’ll go into the matter a little more:

  • By “urban design” I mean the practices etc. that determine how cities are built, and by “modernist” I mean a basically technological approach to things—one that defines separate functions and tries to carry out each as efficiently as possible. Put the two together and you get what I call “modernist urban design”—rows of large glass boxes in the middle of plazas, belt parkways, bedroom communities, big shopping malls in the middle of big parking lots, and so on. I hate all those things because they’re alienating. They’re deadening. They make it impossible to feel that one is in a world that in its arrangements and rhythms connects to any pleasing or comfortable or natural way of living. Since they put one in a physically alienating world they also alienate one from one’s neighbors, the people with whom one connects by sharing a physical environment.
  • Using “modernity” or “modernism” as synonyms for “technological rationalism” may be confusing, some would say incorrect. I won’t argue the point here, but I hope it’s clear I’m not talking about architectural or artistic modernism, which I understand as an attempt to achieve some sort of artistic integrity in a world generally dominated by a technocratic outlook.
  • The traditional town is the opposite of the modernist or technocratic town in all respects. The objects are more my size. To the extent some of them are (obviously!) much bigger than I am hierarchical detailing and variations of design (e.g., streets, squares, boulevards and whatnot) bridge by stages the gap between my scale and the scale of a large building or the town as a whole. Since decoration is integrated with the detailing I feel further at home and in a world that reflects human concerns such as beauty, comfort, dignity, continuity with the past and whatnot. A tendency to mix uses further helps the sense that the environment fits together with the whole of human life.
  • Traditional towns also give much more of a sense of particularity of place and connection to a definite past. That also helps one connect to one’s surroundings. Modern design and architecture give the impression that you could be anywhere at all, which is disorienting. Also, it promotes vitality of community life to give up the attempt to serve particular uses extremely efficiently and to favor settings like town squares and mixed-use neighborhoods that permit people to initiate and pursue, without going out of their way, a variety of connections and purposes of their own choosing.
  • The association with “liberalism” is a matter of general philosophy rather than practical partisan politics. In America almost all politics, certainly at the national level, is philosophically liberal—that is to say, it has to do with helping people get whatever they happen to want as efficiently as possible. Thought today tends strongly to treat means/end rationality as the only rationality, and to treat final ends as arbitrary choices. That trend is reflected in philosophical and ultimately political liberalism. It is also reflected in hyperrationalized (and unliveable) modern cityscapes that train us in the forms of thought behind them.
  • The main thing opposing that tendency is a residual religious understanding that there are “higher goods”—final ends that can not be manipulated, reduced to the goals we happen to choose, or even formulated with total clarity. Modern conditions have generally favored technocratic ways of thought and suppressed what opposes them. Social life is somewhat of a piece, though, so if the limitations of hyperrationalized ways of doing things is recognized in the built environment, and changes are made, then the changes will spill over to other aspects of life and resistance will become easier. The physical setting of people’s lives will begin to train them out of technological rationalism. The friendliness of the built environment to evolved small-scale social arrangements will make it easier for people to grow into the ways of feeling and understanding that naturally characterize human beings, which have a much greater religious and communal component than we see around us today.
  • All of which may seem somewhat speculative and high-flown. The basic idea is simple, that man is naturally social and religious, and a setting that facilitates natural human forms of connectedness will favor productive expression of other aspects of human nature as well. Nonetheless, it may be easier to approach the matter from the standpoint of the antireligious effects of the technocratic cityscape. Certainly that was the focus of the pieces I cited in my original entry. Modern cityscapes separate people from each other and so make religious community, among other forms of community, that much more difficult.
  • For a lengthy look at related issues, here’s another piece, that Mr. Sucher kindly forwarded.
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