Magazine article The American Conservative

New Urbanism of the Soul

Magazine article The American Conservative

New Urbanism of the Soul

Article excerpt

Architect Philip Bess on faith, reason, and urban design

We bought a house this past summer-a redbrick, cookie-cutter, ticky-tacky exurban Louisiana house of the sort that would make the combustible urbanist James Howard Künstlers hair catch on fire, if he still had hair.

It has been a good move. The neighbors are wonderful, the house is comfortable, and kids, they are everywhere. A Spielbergian Valhalla this is, and I'm glad we came. But as satisfying as our subdivision is, I can't help thinking of how far my wife and I have come from the best neighborhood we ever lived in: Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, a 19th-century brownstone townhouse quarter, where we rented an apartment in the late 1990s.

Almost everything we wanted was a 10-minute walk from our front door. There was the greengrocer, the baker, the meat market, coffee shops, mom-andpop restaurants, newsstands, churches, wine shops, movie theaters, bookstores, pocket parks, and playgrounds. Going out to do errands was an opportunity to see our neighbors and find out what was going on in the community, which at every level was built to human scale. And nobody needed a car.

Back then, in thinking about why Cobble Hill worked so well as a built environment, I realized how intrinsically conservative neighborhoods like it are. Though my wife and I might well have been the only Republicans in the entire 22-block neighborhood, the underlying structure of Cobble Hill, both physical and social, is profoundly traditionalist-and not because it is old.

Traditional conservatives, as distinct from our more libertarian brethren, believe that there is a sacred order to which individuals and communities must conform to flourish, and we have an obligation to protect, nurture, and develop that order as it comes to us through tradition. Many believe this refers only to morality, but others have a more holistic view: for them, the built environment must also in some sense embody that transcendent order and make it accessible.

When I first discovered the New Urbanism design movement as a resident of my old urbanist Brooklyn village, it made intuitive sense to me as a traditional conservative. At the time, I followed closely the often vicious intra-Catholic arguments over the liturgy and church architecture centered on whether the sacred order was properly expressed in post-conciliar practice. If the symbolic grammar of architecture mattered so much in church, might it also matter a great deal in the public square?

Reading the New Urbanists, the philosophical connection between traditionalism in politics and culture on the one hand and traditionalism in the built environment on the other came into sharp focus. The New Urbanist whose work perhaps makes the picture clearest is Philip Bess, author of Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred.

You can't be a conservative or a Christian interested in architecture for long without running into Bess, the prominent Notre Dame architecture professor who advocates New Urbanism from within the Catholic intellectual tradition. Bess, 62, earned a master's degree in theology from the Harvard Divinity School in 1976 before continuing on to get his master's in architecture at the University of Virginia in 1981. Along the way, he converted to Catholicism.

"I had an intuition," he says, "that I couldn't articulate clearly-perhaps still can't-about the spiritual significance of both persons and material things. I began to find a language for those intuitions in Catholic Christianity, and a discipline for pursuing them in architecture." When New Urbanism emerged in the early 1990s, it made perfect sense to a Catholic humanist like Bess, a Thomist who believes that the purpose of the city is to provide an environment in which people can live virtuously-that is, achieve excellence in their vocations-in community. New Urbanism is not expressly theological; indeed, Bess concedes that most New Urbanists are secular progressives. …

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