The modernist architecture of the first half of the 20th century rejected ornamentation, tradition, and history itself. In the age of reason, science, and progress, “form follows function.” Buildings were bare structures of concrete, glass, and steel. If they were beautiful–and some were–that is a byproduct of their pragmatic purpose. Today, though, modernist architecture–like modernist art, literature, philosophy,and theology–has become dated, culturally-irrelevant, and old-fashioned. But now the historic preservation movement is adding relics of modernist architecture to the buildings it is trying to save. [Read more…]
World Magazine has a profile of architect David Greusel, who specializes in designing baseball stadiums. In addition to a fascinating discussion of ball parks, focusing on the one hailed as the best in baseball–Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, which Greusel designed–the article by Janie Cheaney highlights the architect’s Christian faith and his sense of vocation. This excerpt has wide-ranging implications:
Integrating work with family and faith shouldn’t be controversial, but over the years Greusel has found himself running counter not only to the architectural establishment, but also to certain strains of Christian fundamentalism. In an online essay called “God’s Trailer,” Greusel boldly states that “bad church architecture is as much the result of bad theology as it is of bad design”—meaning that an overemphasis on saving souls has blinded some congregations to the value of nurturing souls. Too many Christians buy into a perversion of the old architectural saw that “form follows function,” seeing their buildings as so many square feet of function with a cross stuck on, instead of a place to direct our attention to God’s glory.
Greusel likes to quote Winston Churchill: “First, we shape our buildings, then they shape us.” He believes the need for Christian architects who bring their worldview to their work has never been greater, for at least three reasons. One, the “creation mandate” (Genesis 1:28) implies that we can continue God’s work on earth by designing spaces that are both useful and beautiful. Also, as creatures made in His image, we honor God by following in His creative footsteps and striving for excellence. And finally, designing (and insisting on) beautiful buildings puts us on the front lines of the culture war: Against the dreary functionalism, commodification, and standardization of concrete boxes, our buildings can reflect both the glory of God and the humanity of man—whether their primary function is to encourage worship or to showcase a perfect double play.
Read Greusel’s entire essay God’s Trailer. The contradiction he cites–“fundamentalists” buying into the dogmas of the “modernists”– is very telling. By the same token, some of the biggest critics of pop culture are insisting on pop music in their worship. And theological “conservatives” are arguing that the church must conform to the culture, the textbook definition of theological liberalism.
Yes, the shopping malls are packed this time of year. But hardly any are being built any more. And many of the existing malls are being demolished. The concept of the vast enclosed shopping space surrounded by a vast parking lot seems to be fading. In its place is the “town center,” the shopping area that is pedestrian friendly, open to the sky, and that combines shops, restaurants, movie theaters, and places to live. Architect Roger K. Lewis gives a good account of what happened:
After World War II, the enclosed regional shopping mall emerged because of two interdependent American phenomena: construction of the interstate highway system and rapid growth of low-density metropolitan suburbs.
Starting in the early 1950s, residents and many businesses fled cities, populating the expanding outer suburbs. Downtown department stores and smaller shops had ever fewer customers, but suburbanites still needed a place to shop, and the regional shopping center satisfied that need perfectly.
With affordable cars, cheap gas, a growing network of arterial roads and a seemingly endless supply of inexpensive land, the regional shopping mall was a logical invention. Equally logical was the real estate and mall design formula: acquire land with access to a major highway; assemble enough acreage to build a very large, weatherproof structure surrounded by parking lots; construct long concourses (often two levels high) lined on each side by scores of shops; and plug the ends of concourses with anchor department stores. To complete and enhance the formulaic picture, provide a food court, pump up concourse light levels, design enticing storefronts, pipe in music and pleasant scents, and install seasonal decorations, including Santa Claus.This formula proved extremely successful throughout America.
Today, however, middle-class flight from cities has ebbed. Adult children of the generations that inhabited post-war suburbia often choose not to stay in the the suburban settings where they grew up. Even their parents, tired of maintaining a house bigger than they now need, are heading back toward or into cities. Others (the young, middle-aged or elderly) are choosing to live in denser, walkable communities, where there is more to do and where shopping does not require driving several miles. This is one reason why town centers are being built, even in suburban locations, and why huge shopping malls are not.Traditional nuclear families (mother, father, two kids) are now less than half of all American households. Coupled with falling home values, mortgage foreclosures and unemployment, demographic reality is contributing to the depopulation of many suburban and exurban communities. A shopping mall cannot survive without population growth and customers who can afford to shop.
Also, for essentially aesthetic reasons, more people prefer not to shop in fading, older retail facilities that may be poorly maintained and perhaps half-empty. This suggests that Americans’ taste and appreciation of good architecture is improving.
What a concept. Diverse businesses arranged off sidewalks with people living upstairs. Sounds like downtowns.
But I do like the new town centers. There are some good ones around where we live. I’m curious how prevalent these are. Do you have some where you live? Are they an improvement over malls? Or are they basically the same things only without roofs?