Tuesday 3 February 2009

City living, architecture and the gospel

When police broke into an apartment in Sydney in January 2008 and found the decomposed body of 61 year-old Jorge Coloma (here), there was much community discussion of how his absence could have gone unnoticed for over a year. He had died from natural causes in his bedroom. No one noticed that he'd disappeared. Even a pile of twelve months worth of mail and unpaid bills did not lead anyone check to his apartment or call the police. It took a year before neighbours felt that something was wrong. People asked why authorities had not done something. Others wondered about his family; wasn't there one family member that had missed him? Neighbours also began to ask themselves questions, why hadn't they spoken up much sooner? Jorge's story and many others like it are the dark side of city life, but there is another side. The Bible depicts the new restored and redeemed world as a city. Jesus revealed to John what God had in store for his people, he saw '...the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband' (Revelation 21:2). The city is not an evil aberration that is a consequence of the fall, but rather it is a form of human settlement. Jeremiah (29:5-5) commended the survivors of Israel after the destruction of Jerusalem and their exile to Babylon with the words of God that they were to:

"Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper."

Understanding the importance and role of the city

Cities can be lonely places, where it is easy to be anonymous or to lead an isolated life. They can be places where people like Jorge can die alone, and where others can suffer physically and emotionally alone and without support. Cities are places where homelessness is common and abuse of one kind or another a daily part of life. But they are also places of rich culture and learning, places where ideas are exchanged and people's lives can be enriched. They are places where Christians can preach and share the word, serve the sick and needy, train and equip others for ministry and life, raise a family, be part of the delivery of God’s grace to lost people. Tim Keller has pointed out that the human desire to congregate inevitably leads to the formation of cities as people congregate together for security, to share resources, for commerce, to learn from one another an so on. Keller suggests that if you capture the city with the gospel you capture the nation (here). The city he points out can be a wonderful place to live and raise a family (listen to his talk here). It is a strategic place to build gospel ministry.

As Christians it would be easy to assume that the city is a sinful wasteland and retreat to the peace and tranquillity of a remote farm to live a life of isolation, but that is not what we are generally called to do. Cities are places over which God is sovereign where he is at work, and as always they are strategic, because it is in cities that many people come together to work, trade, learn, play, create, perform and so on. There is much talk about the impact of technology on human activity - new ways to travel, instant forms of mass global communication, new ways to connect or ‘wire’ communities (see previous posts here and here) - but while technology is changing the way we spend our time, where we spend it, and how we communicate with one another, the need for human contact remains and community remains. As such, the buildings and physical buildings and spaces we create should reflect our desire to be with other people, to share our lives and the gospel others.

Understanding space and architecture and how they can support community

Related to having a better theology of the city is the need for a better understanding of space and how we use it. Like Tim Chester, I have a particular interest in how space both influences community and in turn, how the type of community shapes space. Tim Chester wrote about this in a blog post last year (here) which I linked to from this site at the time. He has also expressed similar thoughts in his book The Trinity and Humanity (you can read an extract of it here) that:

'Architecture and town planning cannot of themselves create community. But they can facilitate the flourishing of community or they can impede community. This then is one criteria by which we assess architecture and town planning from a Christian perspective.'

I have had an interest in space and how it shapes and in turn is shaped by human activity for over 30 years. My first degree included a major in urban geography/planning so I have had an ongoing interest in the shape of cities, how they spread and the diffusion of ideas within them for a long time. My life experiences growing up in a 1950s urban fringe community, living in an apartment as a young married in Sydney’s sprawling western suburbs, a house in a culdesac in regional NSW as a young father, life as a family in a commuter city to Sydney and now the cafĂ© society of the Inner West of Sydney as an older man (kills me to say that!), have all shaped my views of the city. So too did my work as a researcher focusing on families and early learning in some of Sydney’s poorest and most difficult suburbs.

My lived experience, my interest stimulated by study, and my work as a researcher focussing on families, communities and children's early learning, have taught me that use of space, patterns of human habitation and ideas are closely related.

One example of how a theology of the city and architecture can shape what we do with space

It was this understanding of the relationship between space and community that influenced the architecture of a residential building that I initiated in 2004 and which opened at the University of New South Wales Sydney in January. The New College Village is now our home too, along with 316 postgraduate students. New College has been providing ministry to young undergraduates (mainly from regional Australia) for 40 years and has been a central part of gospel ministry on campus at the University of New South Wales. New College Village was conceived to try to provide a building that seeks to meet the perceived needs of today’s students for quality space, convenience and service while not retreating from our mission to the people on this campus. The challenge has been how to meet such needs while facilitating community? The design brief was also informed by our New College experience, experience and knowledge of some of the best postgraduate communities on campus around the world. It led to a brief that had a number of basic principles that shaped the architects’ (Allen Jack Cottier) wonderful design:

  • While all bedrooms were to allow complete privacy if required and ensuite facilities, these rooms were not meant to encourage totally independent living by being too large and self sufficient.
  • There were to be common spaces off clusters of rooms (one on each floor to have TV and cable facilities to discourage people getting their own).
  • Access to and egress from the building was to be via communal areas where residents could see others gathered there.
  • Elevators were to open onto common rooms.
  • Common areas and activity zones were to be created that would allow lines of sight so that people could see other people doing things in different parts of the building.
  • There were to be varied communal space that would encourage different sized events (whether formal or informal) and meet varied interests.
  • Good central access to administration and a convenience store in the building.
  • There would be many gathering points in the building.
The outcome is a beautiful building that we opened in January which already is showing signs that it will help to facilitate community. It won't make a community, a rich, caring and open community, this will depend on the commitment of those in the building to build relationships with each other, to spend time together, to share in word and deed their lives.

What are the implications of the above more broadly for Christian witness and ministry?

In summing up, I want to briefly have a stab at answering this basic question. How does the above inform the way we use the space that we live in at home, the way we think about the role of space and property in gospel ministry, the way we engage with and seek to build our local communities? A few quick thoughts on practical ways that we can think about these issues.

a) Our houses - if we need to choose a house or apartment to rent, or we're fortunate enough to be able buy one, we should look at the property with community eyes. How easy will this property make it to get to know my neighbours? Is it open in design or closed? How is the space within the property conducive to family life and offering hospitality to others? Can I see other people from my apartment balcony, the front veranda, the front or back yard? How long will it take me to get to work, church, the people I care for, and so on (loss of time due to travel is important)? Such thinking turns on its head the way we generally think about our real estate. As well, within the apartment or home, is there a good mix of individual and shared space? If raising a family we should avoid creating personal retreats equipped with all one needs for individual survival. Don’t locate televisions and computers in children’s bedrooms. If you are building a house, don’t cover the block with house at the expense of yard.

b) Church buildings – When designing, renovating, relocating or extending church buildings, we need to think about the type of spaces that we create in the church and how we use it. Rows of pews facing a high alter will have a different effect on communication and interaction than seats in the round or even at tables. Our traditional church buildings with stained glass windows and grand facades were designed like the temple to be seen from afar and to draw people to them. While accepting that heritage issues will prevent us making too many changes to such buildings, we can praise God that they are often in the best locations in town. We can also change how we use space inside them and how we use their location and their use to establish relationships with the people living near us. If locating a new church we need to consider all options for where we place it, what form the building should take and whether it will serve ministry to one another while ‘connecting’ with our communities. Of course the activities we develop in and from the building and the way we live our lives within the community will matter, but the buildings and their spaces do make a difference.

c) The city around us - As citizens within a city what are the things that we should join others in advocating? While Christians represent a small proportion of citizens how can we use our voices and sometimes public and professional positions to influence public decisions about our cities? And how can we use the spaces we have? In relation to planning we should be supportive of:
  • More and better public spaces (parks, playing fields, walking tracks, cycle ways etc).
  • Better public transport, pedestrian ways, cycle ways, spaces to encourage people to congregate (see Tim Chester’s thoughts on this).
  • Careful planning to integrate commercial, residential and recreational spaces in ways that make human movement easy, that increases visibility (for safety as well as community building), that reduce isolation and the need for long distance travel.
If this post has raised some issues for you keep a look out for the next edition of Case magazine with the theme 'City Life' in which we will explore a number of these and other issues as they relate to living and engaging in ministry in cities.

Related links and reading

An excellent book on this topic by Philip Bess, 'Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred (Religion and Contemporary Culture) (here) [I'll review this later]

Tim Keller's excellent summary of a biblical view of the city (here) and his talk on how the city can help us to raise a family (here).

You can see another expression of interest in this topic in a post I wrote on my 'Literacy, Families and Learning' blog last year on literature and 'Sense of place' (here).


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Trevor, for another great post.
Just one question of the many this topic raises concerns the effect our typical mode of living in a city like Sydney has on relationships between families living in an area, and between members of families. I am thinking especially of the plight of mothers with young children.
I tend to think the typical arrangement of “couples-living-with-their-two-point-five-children-in-separate-brick-boxes” is probably inherently inimical to the formation of community, and would even go so far as to say contrary to the way we humans were designed to live (how many of us have more than a (literally) nodding acquaintance with the people who live two doors down, for instance?).
God designed us for relationship, with him and with our fellow humans. There are many so-called traditional societies in which the latter point, at least, is practised in a way very different from the Western norm. I am thinking of some kind of clan/tribe/extended family/village arrangement, with different generations interacting, child care being seen as a job to be shared (mostly) among the women and even older children as a kind of group activity, as against our norm of one woman caring for her children, frequently isolated even from her own mother, let alone other family members and peers, and going slowly mad as she waits for her husband to get home from work to give her a break! This is turn provides many women with an urgent incentive to put their children into some kind of care as soon as possible so they can go back to work (and under the circumstances I find it hard to blame them, lamentable though the decision often is).
I find this kind of model decidedly unhealthy, and think there is the potential for enormous gains to be made in the quality of our relationships if our living spaces and arrangements started to be designed and formed with notions of supportive community in mind, instead of in response to career or financial advancement, and other imperatives that seem to place little importance on community and quality of relationships.

Greg T

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Greg, as usual you've added some interesting additional perspectives. You make several points interesting points, but one think that rings all my bells is the fac that like you I believe that the way we view family has become so narrow in western society. Families have become more and more fragmented and the importance of extended families has been lost. There is a relationship between our houses and the places we choose to live which says a lot about how we see family. Co-location of extended families is still common in some cultures but less so in Australia. Interestingly, we use more and more space for less and less people.