Sunday, February 22, 2009

Cities - Holy and Otherwise

I needed to return the last volume of Macaulay's History of England to the library yesterday. As my local branch library just closed for remodeling, I had to plan out my usual Saturday walk to include a visit to another branch, about six miles away. Most of the walk was along a spacious paved trail, built with State lottery proceeds, running alongside the posh country-club district. As the photo above indicates, the residents wished their mansions to be admired from a distance but not visited by the trail peasants. At least the residents graciously flattered us trail peasants in assuming that we could comprehend such a big word as "prosecute." (A kind of thinly sliced Italian ham, right?) I crept close enough to snap the photo and then scurried back to the trail before I got myself sliced.

My sons have often heard me deride the super-sized domiciles of the rich. "If I should ever acquire substantial wealth," I would say, "I will spend my money on more interesting things than a mansion." My sons politely refrain from pointing out that this statement is no more likely to have consequence than the statement: "If I should ever acquire a spaceship, I will visit the moons of Jupiter." Nonetheless, my opposition to grandiose houses is on record. And what kinds of houses my sons will choose once their careers prosper, time will tell.

Paolo Soleri (see two blog entries ago) shares my disdain for country-club mansions, but his reasons are grounded in his philosophy of how the city should support human communication and participation. I suppose that he would view the mansions as a grotesque attempt to recreate life in a simple country village. But instead of cottages surrounded by gardens and nature, you have hotel-sized houses separated by acres of grass. Comfort and security are desired. Waste and sterility result.

As Soleri says, in his own rococo style (Arcology: The City in the Image of Man, p. 15):

"The mechanisms channeling life positively may consist of the replacement of comfort and security by joy. In joy, motivations are carried, uplifted, while in comfort and security they seem to be drugged, sinking into naught. Possibly then wealth would instrumentalize a joyful state instead of a security at any price, the negative side of conservatism. Joy comes from plenitude. Plenitude, though basically an inner condition, can be invited by an inspiring and stimulating environment and the feeling of working toward achievements that overreach one's own limitation and embrace not just openness by otherness as well: therefrom, the fruitions of creativity."

Soleri is an acute diagnostician of the ills of the modern city. Even if one isn't convinced that everything can be fixed by the creation of "an inspiring and stimulating environment" in the form of a Soleri city having the proportions of a colossal house, one can be struck by the aptness of Soleri's criticism of the waste, fragmentation, and cultural poverty of how we live. Isolated mansions are a retreat from these ills, not a solution.

My own aversion to mansions is not solely due to peevish class envy. When I was a boy, I was puzzled by the King James translation of the well-known verses of John 14:2 and 3, which record Christ's promise to return for his disciples:

"In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself, that where I am, there ye may be also."

The translator has the challenge of describing the dwelling place that is being prepared, without making the place seemed detached from Christ and His hospitality. The King James Version's use of the word "mansions" captured the splendor of the place to be prepared but, to my young mind, portrayed Heaven as a country-club district filled with many scattered mansions. I was relieved to find that later translations replaced the word "mansions" with "rooms." While the word "rooms" may be too limited and pallid a description of what is in store for the believer, it preserves the necessary sense of closeness and hospitality. And, for my part, it is a greater privilege to have a room in the palace than to have an isolated mansion of my own.

Another glimpse of the believer's future dwelling place is provided symbolically at the end of Revelation. John is shown a vision of the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of Heaven. An angel accompanying John had a rod that he used to measure the city. According to John's account in Rev 21:16:

"The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long."

I believe that the number 12,000 should be interpreted as representing a perfect length, rather than a literal length of roughly 1400 miles. But no matter what one makes of the measurements, the description of the Holy City as a perfect cube is a surprise. An individual house in the Middle East could be shaped like a cube. But what city has ever had those proportions?

The Holy City is described as a self-contained living environment (Rev 22:1-2):

"Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations."

Although this symbolic description of the future Holy City is not intended to be taken as the basis for an engineering analysis, it is interesting to me that Soleri arrived at a very similar description of his ideal city, although he started from strictly humanistic premises (Arcology, p. 16):

"The surface of the earth, for all practical purposes, is by definition a two-dimensional configuration. The natural landscape is thus not the apt frame for the complex life of society. Man must make the metropolitan landscape in his own image: a physically compact, dense, three-dimensional, energetic bundle, not a tenuous film of organic matter. The man-made landscape has to be a multilevel landscape, a solid of three congruous dimensions. The only realistic direction toward a physically free community of man is toward the construction of truly three-dimensional cities."

Well, so much for idle speculations. And I am not endorsing Paolo Soleri as a prophet.