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Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism and the Sacred Review by Deborah BurtBy Philip Bess
3901 Centerville Road
PO Box 4431
Wilmington, DE 19807-0431
Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism and the Sacred is a collection of 20 years' worth of Philip Bess's essays. Philip Bess is a conservative Catholic who loves cities. Over the years he has given speeches and written articles regarding the growth of small cities and how traditional architecture and urbanism can help preserve Western civilization.
New Urbanism, a major focus of Philip Bess's thoughts in Till We Have Built Jerusalem, is a movement that arose in the early 1980s with the intent to reform urban planning. New Urbanist neighborhoods more closely resemble traditional small towns than contemporary suburban "sprawl." New Urbanist neighborhoods are meant to contain many different types of housing, job, and entertainment opportunities, all within walking distance of each other. New Urbanists support the building of neighborhoods that include open space, historic preservation, and "green" building. They believe their ideas will reduce traffic congestion and increase affordable housing.
Although many of us associate these sorts of ideas with liberal political thought, Philip Bess gives conservative and religious arguments for New Urbanism. In fact, he believes that the general condition of a culture is revealed through its built environment. He uses this book as a way to analyze and critique our culture's religious and philosophical beliefs within the context of architecture and city living.
The essays in Till We Have Built Jerusalem are arranged in four sections. The first includes essays from a naturalist point of view about how cities exist for human well-being. The second part argues that the essence of human culture is oriented toward the sacred. The third part goes into greater detail about the New Urbanism movement. The fourth part gives Bess's critique of architectural and urban books and thinkers.
Bess believes that a good city promotes the best life for its inhabitants and that it can be a "community of communities." He believes that the physical form of cities affects human well-being. He does not think that good design can "cause" community, but rather that good design can foster and be an expression of community. Bess says there are certain virtues people need in order to experience "the good life." Without these virtues, traditional or New Urbanist neighborhoods cannot be built and sustained.
Philip Bess thinks that Americans are too individualistic at the present time and that we ought to be more oriented toward the larger group. He says this highly focused individualism has led to suburban sprawl, where everyone wants his own particular little piece of the world instead of wanting to share collectively.
Many of us in the homeschooling community would tend to agree with William Penn's words in Reflections and Maxims: "The country life is to be preferred, for there we see the works of God, but in cities little else but the works of men." After sharing this quote from Penn, Bess points out the redemptive calling humans have to intervene in our sinful world. He says that cities are infused with as much divine presence as the natural world.
I found the basic ideas behind Till We Have Built Jerusalem to be fascinating, but I had trouble getting into the book. Bess writes in a very abstract, wordy manner. Many of his thoughts seem intangible rather than concrete. He uses a lot of "ten-dollar" words to dress up very simple ideas. Many times I struggled to get a clear idea of what Bess was attempting to express. The fact that this book is a collection of essays rather than a straightforward narrative makes it even harder to track Bess's communication.
Bess also presumes the reader has some background knowledge in philosophy, architecture, and Catholicism. If Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Alasdair MacIntyre, G.K. Chesterton, Friedrich Nietzche, Peter Berger, Ayn Rand, Leon Battista Alberti, Augustine, St. Benedict, and Le Corbusier are household names in your family, you might be able to jump right in and understand where Philip Bess is coming from.
I learned a lot from Till We Have Built Jerusalem. Although I do not agree with many of Bess's ideas, he has inspired me to ask why we live the way we do as a culture. I am pondering my reasons for wanting to move "out to the country." Are the individualism and cultural separation I desire are worthy pursuits. I think my feelings on country versus city living still line up more with William Penn, but Philip Bess has caused me to have a new love for small cities and a renewed hope for social change through good city planning.
If you are interested in architecture in general or New Urbanism specifically, Till We Have Built Jerusalem would be an excellent, advanced resource for you. Those who do not have any background in these topics will probably want to study up on a few general resources before attempting this book. Either way, this book has many ideas worth excavating. But you just may need a dictionary and an encyclopedia nearby as tools!