Seeing Things: The Old Urbanism

“First we shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us.” This little bit of Churchillian wit, which might seem merely clever at first sight, has in recent decades shown a deep and wide-ranging truth. When we used to shape our courts, banks, schools, and government buildings along classical lines, law, economics, education, and politics were classical. Since we have decided that those structures should not confront us with anything that would look out of place on a strip mall, our public life has been accordingly reshaped.

And the less said about most recent church architecture the better.

It would be wrong, though, to suppose that our public lives went awry because of an elite who gave us ugly buildings. It is truer to say that we have built ugly buildings because we started to have a different sense of ourselves and our public lives in Western society sometime in the 18th century. The monstrosities erected all around us—whether out of ideological lunacy, like the Bauhaus period, or out of a misguided search for cheaper and simpler public “services”—have left us with little sense that the affairs of church and state are much more than temporary improvisations, or that our cities could be vibrantly human places.

Happily, that situation has begun to change. Whether you call it post-modern, traditional, or something else, there has been a movement away from functionalism and ugliness toward a fuller humanity and beauty. Just think of the designs to replace the World Trade Towers. Neither was very good, in my view, but they were both a big improvement over the tall, unadorned cracker boxes that were destroyed. The winning design even took a page out of the old architectural books and positioned the new buildings with an eye to the heavens: the rays of the sun would fall on Ground Zero every September 11 at exactly the time the first plane struck. A simple gesture, perhaps, but part of no small shift from the kind of architecture that acknowledged nothing outside of the human will—especially in New York—to older notions that human structures arise within a structured world.

The greater problem today is not that people do not want and design more beautiful buildings; it’s that we get them only as isolated works. The kind of orchestration of cities and public spaces that had been a common cultural touchstone have disappeared, and any attempt by government to revive such notions would likely run afoul of some nasty currents in modern art. Some architects and city planners have begun developing what they call the New Urbanism, which typically seeks to recover lost human values in a modern idiom. But so far, it’s been a steep uphill battle.

The New Urbanism may actually amount to something someday; in the meantime we might reacquaint ourselves with the Old Urbanism, which produced some stunning models. One insightful and entertaining introduction to some of those achievements is David Mayernik’s new Timeless Cities: An Architect’s Reflections on Renaissance Italy (Westview Press). Mayernik brings several talents to this study. He has been named one of the top 40 practicing American architects and a fellow of the American Academy in Rome, and has taught at Notre Dame, the New York Academy of Art, and the Institute for the Study of Classical Architecture.

In addition to an evident love of beautiful buildings and cities, and a lightly-worn erudition, Mayernik is sensitive to the larger political and spiritual implications of public spaces.

Out of the wealth of Renaissance cities, he selects five that can teach us important lessons: Rome, Venice, Florence and its rival Siena, and Pienza. If you are not familiar with the last name, you are hardly alone. Few people know this small Tuscan town, where the great Renaissance humanist Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (later Pius II) was born, Pienza was called Corsignano at the future pope’s birth; he renamed it after himself when he took the name Pius and reshaped it as a model Christian humanist city.

Mayernik’s five towns have certain deep elements in common. None of them was a totally planned city built up from scratch but became what they are gradually by absorbing earlier structures, becoming cities of both memory and vision. For their inhabitants, the City was a kind of culmination of human existence, almost a reflection of Paradise. For us, given our very different, industrialized cities, human life seems more authentic in the countryside. This shift in attitude was already evident in a figure like Jefferson: His preference for gentleman farmers is more a reaction against the cities he knew than a criticism of cities at their best. The earlier city forms valued country life too, but not in the Rousseauian vein. The good cities of the Renaissance sought a harmony between achievements that only larger human groupings can aspire to, and the beauty and simplicity of nature.

And that city, as every Christian structure that honors the Incarnation must, was intended by its builders as a kind of three-dimensional reflection and home to the human body and mind. Or as Mayernik beautifully evokes the result: “For those of us lucky enough to visit Rome, Venice, Florence, Siena, or Pienza now, on one of those memorable days with an early autumn chill in the air, when the late afternoon light is fading toward dusk and we can smell logs of holm oak beginning to be burned in the fireplaces, when we hear bells ringing from campaniles close by and echoes from others far off, and we perhaps have a shapely carved stone bench to sit on, we would have to say that they weren’t far from wrong.”

Every page of this book offers a wealth of insights about the past and hope about the future of cities. One slight weakness is Mayernik’s relative optimism—a necessity in a practicing architect—that we can fix things. He rightly notes that American cities, with the partial exception of Washington, are not cities in the fullest sense; the National Mall bears the seeds of a rich urban setting but is divorced from the rest of Washington life, And he contends: “It has been a mistake for urban theorists in the last two centuries to have effectively substituted the mechanics of politics for the values of religion as the only elevated content cities can embody.”

But in contemporary America or Europe, common political, let alone religious values, are few and unlikely to inspire a great urban vision. We can be grateful that David Mayernik and others like him are working on the problem with grace and skill. But the solution will require a much larger cultural conversation than we are prepared to undertake for the moment.

Robert Royal

By

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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