Saturday, May 29, 2010

Urbanism as Icon

Conor Friedersdorf has written of the tyranny of New York, leading to E.D. Kain's defense of the same where he suggests cultural influence is not a zero-sum game.  As a localist (why not?) I am tempted to give the last word on living in Manhattan to Adam Sternbergh's article on the subject, where he quotes an ex-New Yorker living large in Buffalo:  “I don’t miss my old life in New York. I only miss the life in New York I know I never would have had.”

As responses were invited, I'm chiming in from one of the more idyllic urban retreats within striking distance of Manhattan.  Is Princeton actually a city?  According to its chief architect, yes.  Ralph Adams Cram called this town "a walled city against materialism and all its works."  Granted, one might have to concede something to materialism if one hopes to afford living here as a non-student (or even as one).  And this weekend, thanks to reunions, Princeton, according to GQ, is a less a walled city against materialism than a Bacchanalian Hellscape.  But when the hangover fades, one can makes one's way to the University Museum, and get a sense of what Cram was after.

You have until June 6 to see Architecture as Icon (which that link does almost nothing to illuminate). The significance of this exhibition, which I've discussed before, is not easily understood, and even after being understood, is easily underestimated.  The art historian Slobodan Curcic, first trained as an architect, has spent his career studying Byzantine art with an eye for architecture (in addition to advising students like me).  What he began to notice, is that buildings themselves could serve the same metaphysical function as the gold background of an icon - that is, buildings symbolize transcendence, a.k.a. the aboriginal peace of the Godhead.  It's a genuinely new art historical insight that will (we can hope) begin to work its way, via the catalog, into the discipline of art and architectural history at large.  The transcendence of architecture as established by the Byzantine tradition provided (and provides) a warrant for the proximate transcendence of all beautiful architecture.  

The more time one spends with these artifacts, the more one begins to see that not only architecture functions iconically, but the cumulative effect of multiple buildings does as well: The city.  The city and its architecture, the book of Revelation tells us, is a permanent feature of redeemed spiritual life.  Architecture as Icon shows that the Heavenly City is not just an eschatological hope, but the looming backdrop of every new church construction project, and of any manifestation of urban life at its best.

Urbanism, this exhibition suggests, has iconic dimensions.  M. Francis Mannion's article The Church and the City, effectively manages both the idealism and realism latent in this compelling idea:
Babel, Rameses, and Philisita.  Two are cities; the third a pseudo-city.  These three places represent, in different ways, human deprivation in civic configuration: Babel, the city of confusion; Rameses, the city of sin and oppression; Philistia, the pseudo-city of ugliness.  Taken together, they correspond negatively to the theological transcendentals: truth, goodness, and beauty...   Over these three symbolic cities reigns the city that is their radical opposite in all respects: the new and eternal Jerusalem, the city of goodness, truth, and beauty.
To speak with a degree of transcendental bravado that might understandably exclude me from polite discussion, no city should measure itself by the Manhattan or D.C. standard - but all cities, including Manhattan, D.C. and Princeton, should measure themselves by the impossible-to-achieve, downright Blakean, New Jerusalem standard.  Whether or not its residents realize it, the fact that Cram upheld just such a standard for Princeton is a chief (and highly transferable) reason why it is now a desirable place to live.