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Why Cities Feel Glorious
Image: Tom Purves / Flickr.com

Why Cities Feel Glorious

And why, in comparison, the suburbs so often feel flat.

Suburbs are often unfairly maligned as lacking the qualities that make cities great. But one place that criticism can be fair is in the area of sacred space. There most certainly is sacred space in the suburbs, but usually less of it than in the city both quantitatively and qualitatively. In fact, the comparative lack of sacred space is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the suburb that makes it "sub" urban, that is, in a sense lesser than the city.

Lewis Mumford, a historian and sociologist, put it this way:

Behind the wall of the city life rested on a common foundation, set as deep as the universe itself: the city was nothing less than the home of a powerful god. The architectural and sculptural symbols that made this fact visible lifted the city far above the village or country town. . . . To be a resident of the city was to have a place in man's true home, the great cosmos itself.

Mumford was onto something here in positing how great temples and such distinguished the city as unique.

What Is Sacred Space?

Mumford also hints at what makes something truly sacred space. We should clearly distinguish between what is merely public space and truly sacred space. The key to sacred space is the linkage to the transcendent. That is, sacred space connects us to something beyond or bigger than our surroundings, our present existence, and even ourselves.

Here are three ways sacred space can do that. It can:

  1. Connect us to a larger spiritual or religious reality, as in our Mumford example. This is the most obvious case.
  2. Serve as a locus or repository of the culture and traditions of a people.
  3. Be a temporal connection between the present and the past and/or the future.

As one example, consider the Indiana World War Memorial in downtown Indianapolis.

This building is of course a symbol of the bedrock American values of that community and the willingness of its people to die to defend them yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Thus it is both a cultural repository and a temporal linkage.


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Displaying 1–3 of 3 comments

joni butler

July 05, 2013  3:34pm

I totally agree that the typical church built today is greatly lacking in the aesthetic sensibilities of earlier generations. No doubt. BUT the best of them are well suited for the purposes for which they were built: to be flexible so that the building can host a church service one day, a father-daughter dance the next, the youth play for Christmas, a fundraising banquet for a local charity and my church is even cable of recording live albums and videos. Traditional structures can't accommodate all that with good lighting and sound, to boot!

Douglas Flather

July 02, 2013  7:42pm

There is of course another equally valid view: "the Kingdom of God is within you." I wonder what St. Francis would have thought of all this. I recently visited St. Paul's in London. As an American, I was astounded both at the grandeur, and the fact that on Sunday morning, roughly 40 people were in attendance. The priest on duty was so dispassionate and disengaged, I almost wept. As I walked back to my hotel, I was reminded of the meme that pictures a starving African child with the caption "I guess it's awesome the Pope has his own helicopter." Many (other) Protestants spend less on architecture not because they are aesthetically illiterate, but because they believe money should be invested differently. The author is certainly entitled to his opinion that larger churches are architectural horrors, but I frankly would rather sit in a well-designed space where I can see and hear, than in a cavernous empty shell with pretty stained glass.

Roger McKinney

June 28, 2013  11:30am

No one wants to live in sacred places; they merely want to visit once in a while. Suburbs are close enough to visit such places when anyone wants to. People act like suburbs and cities are on different planets. The value of suburbs derives from being close enough to the city to take advantage of it while being far enough from cities to avoid their disadvantages, of which there are many. The real contrast would be between cities and small towns or rural areas. Of course, then you have to consider the sacred space of nature and the enormous value of it.


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