"Buildings have pedagogical power"

Have you ever thought of architecture as educational, a source of information and insight in society? Or of a building as teacher?

I've been reading Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement by Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian J. Walsh. This insightful and thorough work examines the changing dynamics of home and culture, engaging the various factors related to how we understand the concept of "home" in a world full of homelessness in many forms. One key factor, the authors suggest, are buildings - "The built environment is one of the most enduring ways in which we put our worldviews into action." Buildings say something about culture and are integral in creating, sustaining, and at times removing, a sense of home.

Having just moved back to my hometown of Abbotsford, a suburb of Vancouver, I've been reflecting on this concept on several levels. Personally, we are establishing our family home in a new house. It's helpful to consider how our physical house relates to our settling into a feeling of home. Our physical house reflects what we value in establishing our home. As a broader community, Abbotsford continues to grow, both in population and architecture. Home to  nearly 140,000 people - very diverse people! - Abbotsford's continuing development of houses and buildings invariably says something about the community. Recent debate around a supportive housing project illustrates the connection between buildings and values.

Quoting environmentalist David Orr, this comment from Beyond Homelessness should challenge us all to a greater awareness of buildings and culture:

We "must begin to see our houses, buildings, farms, businesses, energy technologies, transportation, landscapes, and communities in much the same way that we regard classrooms. In fact, they instruct us in more fundamental ways because they structure what we see, how we move, what we eat, our sense of time and space, how we relate to each other, our sense of security, and how we experience the particular places in which we live." Buildings have pedagogical power. Whether one lives in a traditional longhouse, a split-level rancher in a North American suburb, a public-housing apartment in Toronto, an old-order Mennonite community, or a clan compound in Nigeria, it will profoundly shape how one experiences the world. But each of these dwellings, each of these built environments, is itself an expression of the vision of life, the overarching narrative, the guiding symbols, and the cultural practices of those who had the power to construct these sites of habitation.

What are you learning from the buildings in your community?

4 comments:

kar0ling said...

The messages that (particularly) suburban architecture sends are more noticeable when one commutes day-to-day by foot or bicycle, having unmediated interaction with the environment. I'm not fond of massive houses dominated by a huge double or triple garage out front. I don't appreciate awnings that are decorative, not providing any shelter from the elements. I hate sprawling parking lots that separate the sidewalks from the buildings one wants to access. Parts of my urban environment feel antihuman.

David Warkentin said...

Yes, there definitely are aspects of suburban architecture that promote isolation - the sidewalks are one of my pet peeves too! To your last point, urban or suburban, how do we construct communities humanely? Without abandoning cities for the wilderness, can we construct humanely? Got me thinkin...

kar0ling said...

Absolutely, cities can be human friendly. And creation friendly. High density urban environments can actually far more humane than the supposedly idyllic sprawling suburbs. Urban theorists like the late Jane Jacobs have lots to say about planning urban environments that encourage human interaction. Actually getting us to interact with each other on sidewalks and bike paths and in public loitering places (rather than sequestered alone in cars where we can treat each other as faceless antagonists) is a start. Ever noticed how old city centres in European cities are so pleasant for loitering, and full of people? It's not just because you're on holidays -- the pedagogy of these buildings, to use Bouma-Prediger's language, teaches a slower pace of life on a human scale. Judicial use of green space is also a helpful strategy.
There's something unhealthy about the way we idolize wilderness, especially as Christians. Wild spaces have their place...and so does the city. God's creation comprises not merely the natural world but people. The built environment of cities is prolific evidence of God's creative impulse in humans his creatures formed in the Creator's likeness. It's time we start loving the city and bending our efforts and passions to making them places of beauty and hospitality.
I'll get off my soapbox now. :) For a farm girl, I'm very passionate about cities. Thanks for bringing up the topic.

David Warkentin said...

Kar0ling - soapbox away! Your passion for cities is inspiring! I don't think suburbs are beyond hope, but great intentionality is needed (and often absent). I'm processing how to adopt an urban mindset in the suburbs...

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