“[T]he city as World icon is being destroyed, not by being secularized (it was always secular at base with some sacral potencies shooting through it from every angle) but by being radically profaned. The city has become the playground not of Wisdom but the battleground of savages, as in Belfast and Beirut. The city’s sacral potentialities have been removed and invested in the sovereign individual. Its central workshop, where radical transactions with reality used to summon a citizenry to meet in peace, was given notice that its lease was up. The center gave way to parking lots and bus stops; discourse fractured, politics increasingly issued from the mouths of ideological gurus, and the sovereign individual was relegated to suburban sprawls focused on the centers of consumption called shopping malls. Here anxiety and frustration mounted as identity waned.”

— Aidan Kavanagh, o.s.b., On Liturgical Theology, New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1984, p. 26.

The church and the city

The Benedictine monk Aidan Kavanagh, who straddled two worlds as both a monk and a Yale divinity professor, proposes that we understand the Church as originally and centrally an urban phenomenon. He translates civitas as “workshop” and “playground,” the space in which social, philosophical, and even scientific questions are worked out by humans in contact with their God, “the locale of human endeavor par excellence.”

By the fifth century A.D., Christian worship in the great cities of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople had become not just one service, but an “interlocking series of services” that began at daybreak with laudes and ended at dusk with lamp-lighting and vespers. Only the most pious participated in all the services, but everyone participated in some. The rites “gave form not only to the day itself but to the entire week, the year, and time itself,” says Kavanagh.

Perhaps just as important as the transformation of time was the transformation of space, for the mid-morning assemblages and processions appropriated the entire neighborhood as space for worship. Participants met in a designated place in some neighborhood or open space, and proceeded to the church designated for the day, picking up more participants as they went, and “pausing here and there for rest, prayer, and more readings from the Bible.” The Eucharist itself was a “rather rowdy affair of considerable proportions,” kinetic and free of stationary pews.

Kavanagh contrasts this with modern worship, which he characterizes as “a pastel endeavor shrunk to only forty-five minutes and consisting of some organ music, a choral offering, a few lines of scripture, a short talk on religion, a collection, and perhaps a quick consumption of disks or pellets and a beverage.”

The American urban design pattern

Kavanagh identifies several influences weakening the urban Church as civitas. The many churches developed many different liturgies, resulting in what he calls “liturgical hypertrophy.” These were flattened and standardized, shrunk to centrally-manageable size and legible doctrinal authority, by the English Act of Uniformity of 1549 and the Council of Trent by 1614. At the same time, printed books ushered in the new literary consciousness, eroding the power of community ritual consciousness for European Christians.

But ancient religious practices (and their modern elaborations) are still performed in Europe; processions may still be seen winding through the streets of cities and small towns. Except for the occasional Palm Sunday procession, they are all but absent in the United States. The American urban design pattern — increasingly spreading even to small towns — is forbidding to the kind of religious practice that transforms space and time.

The American urban design pattern is characterized by, first, an orientation toward the automobile above all else; second, toward consumption as the main activity besides work; and third, toward efficient human storage. Human activities other than consumption and “being stored” – as in day cares, schools, prisons, offices, nursing homes, and “housing units” themselves – are made difficult and uncomfortable by the physical built environment itself. Religious activity and social activity, two main components of human flourishing that transform local environments, are increasingly rare and emptied of transformative power.

A Pattern Language (Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein, New York: Oxford University Press, 1977) is a humane vision of urban and architectural design, focused on the activities of human flourishing. The authors present 253 interlocking patterns, from macro (Pattern 8, Mosaic of Subcultures) to micro (Pattern 251, Different Chairs — because people come in different sizes!), demonstrating how physical space constrains or facilitates the activities of peopling.

A secular book, it does not offer any patterns for churches, though it offers Sacred Space and Holy Ground. Alexander et al. hope that merely offering conducive space will allow proper ritual to spontaneously develop. Certainly, the absence of such space precludes such rituals.

A typical pattern is Pattern 88, the Street Café: “The street café provides a unique setting, special to cities: a place where people can sit lazily, legitimately, be on view, and watch the world go by.” These occur all over Europe, but are rare in the United States. In my old neighborhood in Hollywood, California, there were sidewalk cafés, but people drove from distant neighborhoods, parked their cars, and sat mostly watching automobile traffic. An analogy can be drawn to the city church with a parking lot: its ability to transform space, to claim the city as its own for its own activities, is limited. This kind of café becomes more a place of human storage than for the positive activity of being on view and watching the world go by. Churches, and the religious activity centered on them, may face the same constraint.

Praying in the streets

One of Alexander et al.’s patterns is Pattern 63: Dancing in the Street, a poignant pattern given center stage in Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. When the physical pathways of connection are reserved for driving, they are closed off from normal, healthy human activities. Much fearful (and regulatory) attention has been paid in recent years to the Muslim practice of praying in the streets in European cities such as Paris and Nice; we can respectfully observe, at least, that faith allows them to transform profane space into space for ritual observance. Still, this practice has not been translatable into the United States; it occurs in New York City, only once a year, with proper permits acquired beforehand.

American streets are not places where ritual, either religious or secular, is easily performed. Only in cloistered communities, set apart from the flows of American life, is this possible, as in the Orthodox Jewish communities of New York and Los Angeles. There, people (importantly) walk to temple, and participate in an “interlocking series” of rituals throughout the Sabbath. During the numerous Great Awakenings in the United States, open space was transformed into religious space through its key ritual, the revival; but this was a temporary transformation, and has not survived in contemporary ritual.

The reinvigoration of religious and social ritual — allowing people to flourish, rather than merely consume and be stored — is as much an urban design problem as a social problem. But there is another characteristic of American civic life, other than its distinctive urban design pattern, that makes praying in the streets so rare: our studied indifference and polite disattention, our lack of perceptible solidarity, summarized by Randall Collins thus:

“Public interaction is an equality without much solidarity, an enactment of personal distance mitigated by a tinge of mutual politeness and shared casualness. Goffman calls it the order of civil disattention. As Goffman notes, this is not merely a matter of sheer indifference, since one needs to monitor others at a distance to avoid contact with them when they are close, ranging from little maneuverings of sidewalk traffic to avoid physical collision, to averting eyes and controlling micro-gestures in order not to intrude into the privacy of their personal space.”

— Randall Collins, Interaction Ritual Chains, Princeton University Press, 2005, at p. 280. Citation removed, emphasis mine.

Waiting for builders and designers to provide good spaces for social and religious ritual is unlikely to be an effective strategy. What would it take for Americans to simply, impolitely use what space there is for these purposes? Americans flood the streets over sports team victories; I saw a crowd of young people pour into a busy street in Hollywood on the night the Obama victory was announced in 2008, out of pure tribal joy. The sustained occupations of public space in recent years (e.g. Occupy Wall Street) have been ugly and unsustainable, but demonstrate a willingness to break through politeness to use public space in new ways. Rather than permanent squatting, imagine a beautiful, rhythmic occupation, one of weekly repetition, of mass praying in the streets with no political goals at all.

Sarah Perry is a housewife in San Antonio, Texas. She studied urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her book Every Cradle is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide was released by Nine Banded Books in December 2014. She blogs at Carcinisation, Ribbonfarm, and The View from Hell.

(Image source)

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  1. Thanks for this. I was on the fence about whether to read A Pattern Language, but no more.

    How many times at a restaurant have I thought, “Oh look, a patio. Let’s sit there,” only to be disappointed by the automobile traffic and noise, which excludes both conversation and people watching. Oddly enough, the ‘cafe’ experience can be had in the States – but mostly only at mall food courts.

    To the extent that churches are still located in neighborhoods with relatively slow streets, there remains the possibility for processions, but I think on a cultural level, such a thing would be difficult to comprehend and explain. So much of American Christianity has been stripped of its visual symbolism, that a procession might not even be recognizable as such.

  2. Sarah, thanks for your clear and thoughtful prose.

    I’m from Vancouver and our mayor has, somewhat controversially, changed the face of our downtown core with bike paths. Not just painted lines. Physical tangible things got moved or installed, traffic lights changed, the built environment shifted.

    The built environment upholds tacit narratives about how the world works, who and what is important. Our bike paths aren’t intentions on paper but are embodied, they are part of the built environment and as such re-narrate our city.

    The re-narrating our downtown core was, on the surface, polarizing. But people seem to be settling into the day to day reality of our new narrative. I think in several years time our bike paths will be a source of civic pride and identity.

    I think this is happening because people are getting to a quiet, tacit narrative that slips under their political dispositions. “Bikes are as important as cars.” might still get hackles up. But underneath that is a deeper assertion“”the ecology is important, people’s health is important,” underneath that is yet a deeper assertion “people are important, flourishing is important.“

    Our bike paths have ever so slightly re-narrated our downtown core to say human flourishing is important.

    Our re-narration happened on an organized civic political level. But could it happen on an ad hoc citizen level? Could we intervene in our built environment in way that takes back our own narrative? Can we re-narrate our own cities?

    We urban denizens are, for the most part, under de Tochqueville’s “network of complicated rules” which tends to inhibiting action. It also tends to make re-narration “against the rules.” Re-narrating is then implicitly on some kind of rule breaking continuum. Somewhere between culturally-appropriated-counter-cultural-lifestyles™ to all out revolution in the streets.

    Can re-narration slip under the rule breaking narrative and subvert even that? Can re-narration be a offered and received as a gift?

    Graffiti is an example of re-narration that is often not received as gift. Can our impulse to intervene in a generative way be shaped so that it is received as gift and yet still manage to re-narrate?

    I don’t know. But this is my attempt: http://brokenwing.ca/what-is-citurgy-and-how-do-i-get-me-some/

    Thanks again for the great piece.

  3. Hello Sarah,

    Great article! Even though “A Pattern Language” is a thoroughly secular book, Alexander’s later work turned in a genuinely spiritual direction. I highly recommend Volume 4 of “The Nature of Order”, entitled “The Luminous Ground” (2004). There, he establishes a way of thinking of the structure of the built environment as being deeply connected with our inner selves. How we design either reinforces this connection, and nourishes us, or it damages the connection and consequently our body.

    I helped Alexander edit his four-volume book. I also live in San Antonio, so please contact me and we can meet and chat.

    Best wishes,
    Nikos Salingaros

  4. Great and thought provoking post, Sarah.

    What it provokes me to think about are primarily two things that inhibit or contra-ceive any possibility of ritual in the sense you are speaking of it emerging by being freely expressed in the common realm. Even highly secularized Europeans may honor and allow a Good Friday procession through the streets even if they haven’t darkened the door of a church community into which they were baptized for many a year.

    First our prevailing language. The language of our mass culture (I realize that term is oxymoronic) as it comes through in the common media– press, TV, cinema, popular music, most blogs,etc.– is so thoroughly desiccated, unimaginative, prosaic, secularistic and rationalistic that terms like the “Sacred Space” and “Holy Ground” in two of the patterns that you cite, are incomprehensible or at least non-functioning for the vast majority of the population, including some of the most educated. One doesn’t necessarily have to adhere to any particular religion for these terms to be meaningful on both the individual and communal levels. I am not even so sure that most people are inclined to connect as Nikos Salingaros suggests, the qualities of built environment with their “inner selves”, which they may or may not claim to have. Conversely many of those claiming to be religious, or even that most anodyne of memes “spiritual”, including those you might expect to understand and honor these concepts and bring them to life in communal practices really don’t, as evidenced by so much awful architecture of many of their ecclesial (I use the term loosely) buildings and similarly lifeless liturgical language and music that has prevailed in the last 50 years of so in the s0-called developed world.

    Second, in the US for sure, is what I would call the misappropriation of the principle of separation of church and state (in which I am a firm believer) from what I believe was the founder’s intent in including the non-establishment clause in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. That was to protect against government imposition of any particular sanctioned religious institution, not to create an environment hostile or even toxic to the expression of sacred sensibilities in the civic realm. It is like the seed that fell upon rocky ground.

    What do you or any of the commentators here recommend to overcome or at least to begin to chip away at these inert and inorganic monoliths?

  5. Joel Kotkin, known generally as a pro-suburban writer, defined in his book The City “sacred space” as one of three main purposes of a city. But in a secular society of many faiths (and secularism and atheism are faiths) you have to examine what the idols of the people are to find out what “sacred space” is to them. For some it might be open space and wilderness; for others gyms and health clubs; for others surfable waves; in addition to our conventional ideas of what “religion” is.

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