Thursday, June 20th, 2013

Suburbs and Sacred Space

The Indiana World War Memorial

My latest post is up over at New Geography. It’s called “Suburbs and Sacred Space” and looks at the deficiencies of suburbs in creating sacred space in the most broad sense of the word. When a region looks for the truly special locations for civic celebrations or cultural markers, it’s still very likely they look to their major urban downtown, not a suburban locale. This was adapted from remarks I gave at a conference on the future of the suburb. Here’s an excerpt:

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.
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.

Also note the use of neoclassicism. The use of neoclassical architecture anchors Indianapolis and Indiana firmly within the 2,500 year history of Western Civilization, as a link in a chain of peoples connected by shared, timeless values and extending backwards and forward throughout time, thus achieving a sort of immortality. This building is a statement of the permanence of this community, its people, and their values.
When I was in high school, everybody liked to go to a place called Down Home Pizza in Corydon on the weekends. And that was something kids from every high school in the area did, not just those from mine. Today that place is long gone. And the kids are doing something else, whatever that may be. In fact, it’s amazing how many of the places and traditions from my high school days are already gone after only 25 years because of physical and economic changes in the community such as restaurants and stores going out of business.

This happens in the city too, like when the department stores went under, taking their white-gloved tea rituals and the like with them. But to a much greater extent than the city, suburbs rely on commercial establishments as focal points of shared experience, and by their very nature those tend to come and go. And suburbs have not to nearly as a great a degree established truly trans-generation rituals and spaces.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Urban Culture

33 Responses to “Suburbs and Sacred Space”

  1. John Morris says:

    Not just Cities but small towns were also much better at creating “sacred space”. Look at the older towns of New England, Ohio or West Virginia. I’m sure Indiana has or had it’s great ones too. Amazingly small places can have a lasting pull and social strength.

  2. Chris Barnett says:

    Consider also the awfulness of the former American States/Safeco Insurance building (just to the left of the War Memorial) and the suburban-office-park addition to the Neoclassical Cret-designed Central Library (upper right).

    The Minton-Capehart Federal building (directly east, at the right edge of the photo) is of similar 70’s Brutalist era vintage to the AmStates, and is of similar height. Yet it manages to evoke the neoclassical structures with visible structural columns and strong vertical elements in the façade. The American States building is horizontal and doesn’t project the mass or height of the other buildings on the Mall. Likewise the Central Library addition.

    Suburbs are full of those structures’ horizontal siblings and cousins; even in the public and semi-public spaces, suburbs fail at creating respectful, dignified, uplifting civic spaces like the Legion Mall in Indianapolis or the National Mall in DC.

    Don’t even get me started on modern suburban mega-churches.

    For good modern churches that are nonetheless wonderful sacred spaces, visit Columbus, Indiana. Especially First Baptist (Harry Weese) and North Christian (Eero Saarinen).

  3. EJ says:

    Following on John Morris’ comment, I think the lack of sacred/public space in Post-WWII suburbia has a great deal to do with changes in our cultural norms and attitudes about public space in general, corresponding with the dramatic rise and triumph of private individualism throughout the US. Arguably, this shift is at the base of what gave rise to modern suburbia in the first place. As such, I’m not at all certain that it is even possible to separate the two and still maintain an approach to socioeconomic development that inherently constitutes a reaction to older norms and attitudes about space held in common.

    Suburban design and architecture appears bland and uninspired and functions the way that it does because it isn’t meant to be a representation of a commons, so much as it is about fulfilling the needs of the individual, transient as they may be. This would also explain the temporal nature of Post-WWII suburbia in general and its disconnect from neoclassical tradition. In short, most modern suburbs are/were being built as places that work for the here and now, and little else. To challenge and change this would be to reconnect them with the very cities and continuity of time and history from which they have opted to stand apart.

  4. wkg in bham says:

    I agree with everything you have to say about the suburbs. But I think a lot of the same criticism can be made of urban areas. Any sacredness in urban areas is the result of spaces conceived before 1955. The idea of the sacred is something that has been lost to our elites. In the words of someone who uses words much better than I:

    “Traditional beliefs, however, are not replaced by a different set of values resting on different traditions. Instead, I find a kind of cultural void, an ignorance of the past, a sense of rootlessness and aimlessness, as though not only the students but also the world was born yesterday, a feeling that they are attached to the society in which they live only incidentally and accidentally. Having little or no sense of the human experience through the ages, of what has been tried, of what has succeeded and what has failed, of what is the price of cherishing some values as opposed to others, or of how values relate to one another, they leap from acting as though anything is possible, without cost, to despairing that nothing is possible.”

    The students in question are those of Yale University. The person making the observation is:

    …Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University and recipient of the National Humanities Medal (2002), retired in May. In forty-four years at the University, Professor Kagan has served in such varied capacities as Dean of Yale College, Master of Timothy Dwight College, and Director of Athletics. He has been a prolific author as well as a
    celebrated teacher; his four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War is widely considered to be among the twentieth century’s greatest works of classical scholarship. The following essay on liberal education is a revised version of the valedictory lecture he delivered on April 25 to a capacity audience in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, New Haven, Connecticut.

    The entire speech can be found at:

    and is highly recommended – if disheartening. The first half of the speech can be skipped with little loss.

  5. DFE says:

    My office window has an exquisite view of the World War Memorial. You are so correct about its sacredness. Both of my grandfathers’ names are displayed with many others on its internal walls.

  6. pete-rock says:

    If you shift the context slightly it’s easy to see why suburbs fail in this regard. Suburbs are, in essence, locally governed city neighborhoods within the larger metro area context. They were never meant to be the setting for sacred spaces, since the central city already had the top spot in the regional hierarchy. I agree with John Morris’s comment about small cities doing an excellent job of creating sacred spaces, because, within their context, they are the preeminent city. I don’t agree with them, but the Confederate monuments and squares in countless small Southern county seats serve the same purpose.

    I don’t think suburbs have effectively taken on the role of creating fascinating civic and sacred spaces because suburban leaders have long left role that to the central city. Where they have tried to do so, as you’ve alluded to, is in developing commercial centers (malls and office complexes with privately managed public spaces) that could rival similar spaces in cities, but they always come up short, lacking the trans-generational aspect of such spaces.

    Incidentally, I think this is also a failure of almost every Sun Belt boomtown.

  7. John Morris says:

    I agree with pete-rock’s reasoning. Suburbs as a whole have always been built on the idea of skimming particular areas like housing, offices or retail while relying on many existing towns or cities near them to create social space.

    My guess is a big part of this is based on brute economic forces. Many suburbs, in spite of socializing many infrastructure and often public safety costs onto the state, or county still have a big problem paying their bills while keeping reasonable tax rates. Look at the wars suburbs fight to grab tax paying retail or offices.

    A city or town, with a dense diverse, tax base can spare more land for non profits, parks, monuments and social gathering spaces. Not to say, that it always takes a lot of land to create “sacred places”, but this is often a factor.
    Remember that any gathering space in a car oriented community has to provide space for masses of parking.

  8. John Morris says:

    I agree strongly with the idea that “our cultural norms and attitudes about public space in general” have changed as EJ says.

    However, it’s very much a chicken and egg problem. Even if these attitudes had not changed, the economic and logistic problem of creating social/ sacred places in completly car oriented places might have lead to similar results. The architect and pastor might have wanted a sacred cathedral surrounded by trees and flowers, but reality dictates the need for a massive parking lot.

    We see the same forces eroding the remaining sacred spaces in many central cities and towns.

  9. Just to be a contrarian, I have to point out that this article (and most of the ensuing comments) carry a discernible whiff of nostalgia. I fully agree that many of the spaces recognized here are sacred and that the suburbs generally lack them, but does this have to do as much with a willful refusal to build/design them, or is more about age, patina, and shifting taste cultures? How much have any architects in America ever built with timelessness in mind? For that matter, we can condemn the majority of our suburbs for lacking sacred space, but something tells me we are less hasty to denigrate the streetcar suburbs–i.e., the old ones that might enjoy a similar degree of patina, as well as the older urban forms we nostalgically embrace.

    How do we know that, in 80 years, when most of them have been demolished (because they weren’t built to last), those few surviving vinyl villages of the 1990s and 2000s won’t evoke a sense of nostalgia for our grandchildren?

  10. Chris Barnett says:

    Eric, in Indianapolis at least, the streetcar suburbs were built in the “City Beautiful” era with some significant schools, park space and houses of worship included.

    I am thinking of Woodruff Place, Irvington and Meridian Kessler/Butler Tarkington in particular. Woodruff Place has its esplanades; Irvington its circles, parks, parkway, and curving walkable streets; and MK/BT their mansions, schools and grand churches (Butler U. and IPS Schools 70, 84, 86; St. Joan of Arc and Meridian Street Methodist).

    While none of those is the equal of the Legion Mall, Circle, or Soldiers and Sailors Monument, they are certainly special rather than nostalgic in their construction and appeal. That “upscale suburbs” (cough, Carmel, cough) feel the need to duplicate or create new versions of such features is testimony to their lasting value and appeal, IMO.

  11. John Morris says:

    Certainly many Streetcar suburbs have stood the test of time in terms of housing prices and demand.

    Nobody has addressed the logistical problems of creating significant public spaces in suburbs totally dependent on cars. Even if one cared and designed well one would face these issues.

  12. John Morris says:

    Columbus Indiana comes up as a place that seemed to to this right in an interesting, low key way. But Columbus seems to fall closer to small city/ town than suburb.

  13. John Morris says:

    By way of example- The Frank Gehry designed Disney Opera House in Los Angeles had to spend more on it’s underground parking than on the building itself just to end up with an OK streetscape around the building.

    Clearly this is not the kind of thing most suburbs could possibly do.

  14. John Morris says:

    Here’s an article about a Fort Worth, Texas mega church fighting with neighbors over parking.

    This has to be a pretty common problem. Google- Mega church parking lot and you can see aerial views. At some point, many architects throw in the towel and assume the building can’t look good from the outside and focus more on the interior design.

  15. I completely understand what you’re saying, Chris. But to continue the devil’s advocate role, couldn’t we argue that even the most conventional suburban subdivisions now have curvilinear streets, multi-use paths, duck ponds (i.e. retention ponds) with fountains and gazebos, custom street signs and streetlights, even some with pocket parks with playgrounds, etc? In many regards, the features of elite streetcar suburbs from 1920 have become the status quo in the middle-class subdivisions of 2000. The one advantage those aforementioned districts have is proven viability through age. They “look” better because of that patina of “character”, whatever that means.

  16. John Morris says:

    You are indeed playing the devils advocate. I think the key thing that makes many streetcar suburbs work is a core street grid and fairly high level of mixed use density.

    In many cases that’s more important than some of the building quality. Forest Hills in Queens is pretty great and mostly original, but it has a faux tudor style that isn’t that hard to replicate. Houses are torn down and replaced every once in a while with similar homes of the same type.

    The quality that cannot be so easily replaced is the core street grid, mixed density level and the way it fits into surrounding areas. This is what suburbs don’t do well- they don’t fit in with one another in a way that makes social space very easy to do.

  17. Paul Lindemeyer says:

    @wkg in bham, 6/20: “Any sacredness in urban areas is the result of spaces conceived before 1955.”

    In other words, spaces defined by explicit racial segregation, and de facto economic and sex segregation. (Those department store tea rooms were not the place for lunching business men.)

    This could be a problem in an age of at least would-be, lip-service diversity. Look at how hopeless it is today for tv, music, etc. to appeal to a broad public.

    Maybe we better save the sacred spaces for sports.

  18. @Paul Lindemeyer, yes, but even most of the sports stadiums and such are in the city.

  19. @Eric M, you write, “How much have any architects in America ever built with timelessness in mind?”

    Actually, anyone who uses neoclassical (or gothic for a church) pretty much did. The Indiana World War Memorial is explicitly a statement of permanence.

  20. Matthew Hall says:

    “white-gloved tea rituals”? This is a bit of history I’ve never heard of.

  21. John Morris says:

    @ Paul Lindemeyer

    Honestly that comment is bizarre. The is nothing inherently discriminatory in the basic design of most loved urban churches, department stores or monuments, which is why many are still so loved today.

    The Lower Hill was within easy walking distance of Pittsburgh’s downtown department stores like Kaufmann’s

    Suburbia, however clearly poses huge barriers for anyone without a car.

    The ease with which people from all classes and races were mixing in vibrant places like Harlem & The Lower Hill was big reason why the establishment disliked them.

  22. John Morris says:

    @ Paul Lindemeyer

    Modern stadiums are also loaded with special sections and luxury boxes.

  23. John Morris says:

    Nobody has answered the deeper question I asked. Is it logistically possible to create a heavily visited public monument in car oriented suburbia and retain a high level of quality?

    The Indiana War Memorial seems degraded by the poor quality buildings and parking around it.

    Many suburbs are upgrading their public spaces, but most successful attempts seem move towards an urban/town model.

    High quality college campuses do that too– but also, only by removing cars from core areas.

    Other solutions like underground parking are insanely expensive and still require wide streets and feeder highways nearby.

  24. Chris Barnett says:

    The only “heavily visited public monument in car oriented suburbia” I can think of is Valley Forge NHP.

    I think it retains its historic quality while accommodating its role as a large regional park. It is not overwhelmed with parking lots or roads.

    It was rural 250 years ago; it’s totally surrounded by car-oriented suburban development (and the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Route 422 expressways) today.

  25. John Morris says:

    Yes, but the actual historic site is pedestrian oriented, same with Gettysburg which limits car access. (was last there 20 years ago)

    The Taj Mahal also is surrounded by sprawl I think, but the actual design involves a large pedestrian garden.

    National Parks, usually remove parking in some way, deal with shuttle buses, pedestrian paths etc.

    This is not an easy logistical problem and usually involves a very large footprint.

  26. John Morris says:

    After looking at the satellite map, it looks like the current setting of the Taj Mahal is pretty urban setting. (which further supports my point) Still, the overall design would retain some of its character because the large garden.

    Monuments of this type demand to be appreciated on a certain personal, meditative level which in some ways restricts access to those who want to make that effort.

    Would the Taj Mahal with the gardens and reflecting pool replaced by parking lots still be The Taj Mahal?

    This is the core problem suburbs have with large public attractions of any kind.

  27. MSam says:

    @jm i doubt the average person look at the buildings along meridian and penn. The three main focal points are central library, the mall the other monument (name escapes me right now) and the war memorial. It draws your eye towatds it and away from everything else.

  28. John Morris says:

    Even so, there is a clear degradation of the space although the standard has fallen so far in America this counts as good.

    Not to say that there are not conflicts with other urban settings- tall buildings etc… We all may have different tastes about that. My point is that It’s very hard to even keep a setting like this majestic as the needs of cars increase.

  29. Chris Barnett says:

    JM, Valley Forge park is 3,500 acres and the historically-significant areas are widely spread. Cars are required; SEPTA long ago ended suburban rail service to VF station.

    Unusual among NPS properties, local roads (including one 2-lane state highway) cross the park. There are numerous parking areas, and I’m not aware of a shuttle-bus tour. The park has long functioned as a regional park for walking/hiking, suburban reunions and cookouts, frisbee, and touch football (though the NPS has returned some formerly-mowed areas to tall grass to passively displace some impromptu uses).

    My answer is that it performs just fine surrounded by highways and suburban development.

    Admittedly, this is informal sacred space. But with Gettysburg and Independence Mall, it is among the most-important secular American “sacred” sites outside DC.

  30. John Morris says:

    Yes, I have been there as a little kid, I forgot that we drove around.

    As you say, It’s a spread out site like Gettysburg is- so it doesn’t have some of the same logistic problems. Can we come up with a single large sacred building or small complex that attracts masses of visitors in the car oriented suburbs that seems to work well both inside and outside?

  31. John Morris says:

    I’m not saying this can’t be done, but takes great design, lots of money or geographic luck, like a valley to hide the parking. No wonder that few things fascinated Frank Lloyd Wright like parking garage design.

  32. Chris Barnett says:

    Aaron’s full post on NG highlighted Crystal Cathedral (next week becomes the Roman Catholic Christ Cathedral) in Garden Grove.

    The parking lot is heavily planted with palms and columnar evergreens. From the Chapman Ave. main entrance, the vertical green motif draws the eyes upward along with the spire. (Go to Google street view.)

    I keep coming back to the vertical: columnar forms draw the eyes upward and reinforce the nature of “sacred space”. Especially in the suburbs, the vertical is an obvious way of setting this space off from the overwhelming horizontal-ness of sprawl.

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