Where do you dream of living? What kind of house, neighbourhood, or community does it look like? Community, writes Jean Vanier in Community and Growth, is a place of belonging, a place where people are earthed and find their identity. What we call home, where and how we find ourselves, “earthed” is about identity, story and worldview—our dreams—as a society and as individuals.
How we dream is important, argues Philip Bess, author, professor, and architect, because our dreams of place are intrinsically connected to visions of a life in which daily activities translate into full and meaningful lives. Moreover, these visions are deeply theological. In his recent book, Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred, Bess explores the connection between human flourishing, architecture, culture and theology within the context of the city. Quoting Aristotle’s Politics, Bess argues that the city comes into existence for the sake of the good life. If Aristotle’s conception of the city is correct, the city is created for human flourishing. It should exist as centres of civility and virtue. According to Bess, they should capture our imaginations, dreams, actions, and be deeply rooted in an understanding of the biblical story. Yet contemporary urban trends don’t give us beautiful pictures of the city. Instead, we often think about the stink of sprawl, the decline of neighbourhood, and the dissolution of community and belonging.
Philip Bess offers a counter narrative to prevailing urban theories and approaches to architecture and city-building. His narrative traverses the line between critique of contemporary architectural theory and appreciation of traditional and new approaches to city-building. In beginning to analyze the complex history of the western tradition’s idea of the city, Bess encourages his reader to think about what makes a city good. He digs beneath the general criticisms of suburbs to offer solutions and explanations concerning the sprawl that afflicts urban landscapes.
Bess’s gambit challenges us to reevaluate the current state of our cities, how we think about urbanism and the suburbs, and our visions of the good life. For him, a vision of the good life is paramount. It is not enough to merely have good design. Philip Bess argues that good city-building cannot be reduced to design. Good design aids flourishing and can reflect flourishing, but it cannot by itself create sense of community, a neighbourhood, or even a good city.
This book is particularly important for Christians, for two reasons. First, it offers practical solutions to the architects, city planners, and policy writers who create, dream, and build our cities. It offers advice to those outside of these professions about how to take active roles in city-building. Second, it presents an intellectual, but readable, appraisal of architecture and urbanism’s connection to faith from a distinctly Christian perspective. Bess invites us to again explore the rich and deep history of Christian thought about the city as he brings voices and ideas from the past into his argument.
As with Eric Jacobson’s Sidewalks in the Kingdom, Bess’s work calls us to restore Christian thought about the city in a time when Christians have appropriately fought for justice in cities but neglected to develop sophisticated frameworks about the specific structure, design, policy, and theology that constitutes a good city. Finally, we must recapture the old Christian idea that architecture shapes the fabric of a city—it is not inconsequential to faith or to building community and place—belonging and identity in a broken world. Community, belonging, and cities must aspire to reflect this vision of good city life. “Our greatest cities,” writes Bess, “are products of love. Cities should be shaped and driven by the dream of a world made new.”