Old Urbanism

H. L. Mencken was so much more than an iconclast:

The chief beauty of such a town as Paris lies in the harmony visible in its architecture, and particularly in the architecture of its private buildings. Look down any of the principal streets and you will note at once that most of the houses are of a height, and, what is more, that most of them are of the same general style. In the treatment of details there remains plenty of room for individual enterprise and skill. Some houses are quite commonplace. But taken together they produce an effect of order and dignity. There are no bloody wars between Doric and Gothic, Moorish and Tudor English, the pointed arch and the mansard roof, the Corinthian column and the Byzantine minaret. Huge towers do not leap indecently from squat Greek temples. The stories of one house are not twice as high as the stories of the house next door.

Even in London, a town generally hideous, an effort at harmony is still visible. True enough, you will find huge sarcophagi shouldering pretty little Georgian houses in Pall Mall, and a saturnalia of styles in Park lane, but in most other parts of the West End every separate street, beside its virtues in detail, has some virtue as a whole. It is, in fact, a street, and not a mere hodge-podge of houses. The roofline is broken, not by leaps, but by intelligible progressions. And if we cross the Channel and proceed to such streets as the Ludwigstrasse, in Munich, we find harmony become almost perfect.

Harmony, of course, does not mean sameness. Here in Baltimore, at least in our residence sections, we have plenty of sameness. One wanders for hours through endless rows of undifferentiated houses. Citizens in liquor are constantly pulling the wrong bells, swearing at the wrong keyholes. It is difficult, so I hear, even for a teetotaler to find his house on foggy nights; the wine-bibber, in despair, frankly gives it up and so stays down town. But that ugly and depressing monotony is not harmony–no more, indeed, than the beating of a tom-tom is music. Harmony means the agreeable co-ordination of distinct but related details. It is important that they have elements in common, but it is also important that they have elements not in common.

Such harmony is rare in Baltimore. South street, for example, which might well have had character and beauty, for its builders did not lack money, is unspeakably and amazingly ugly. It has beautiful details, true enough, but the general effect is cacophonous and repulsive. So with Baltimore street, Lexington street, Hopkins Place. Even Mount Vernon Place, for all its charm, is still chaotic and disturbing. The serene dignity of a London square is not in it: the war between its antagonistic details is too savage and too noisy.

8 thoughts on “Old Urbanism

  1. This is much different from Keller’s take which is really not about aesthetics and maybe not even about humanity broadly understood. His seems much more about numbers, population density, employment opportunities, services, critical mass, tipping points — ultimately utilitarian. Mencken evinces real understanding of history and Western civilization. Keller is evangelicalism come to the city, but maybe not for long.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Each sentence of Mencken’s observations and comments on these cities contain a great depth. Contrast his clipped style here with the verbose waffle of many present day authors, especially those writing for Christian publishers.
    I would value his thoughts on the disjointed nature of much of London’s buildings today. Gone are the back to back terraced houses, replaced in the 1960’s by concrete deck access flats. Security cameras are everywhere. The Square Mile boasts many fancy buildings which signal the hollow facade of the West’s financial intricate debt driven economy. London of old is now displaced by a bewildering mish mash of disparate cultures. Again, I wonder what Mencken would have to say of such a disjointed city in terms of buildings and people. Whatever London is today, it is a far cry from that vividly depicted by such artists like Vaughan Williams who composed the memorable London Symphony a century ago.


  3. A Detroit franchise of Redeemer is, uh, ambitious. All they need is Greg the Terrible to help them reach a tipping point…of sorts.

    Many people currently believe a true and lasting renaissance in Detroit is finally underway. We believe a true renaissance not only involves positive advancement in industry, education, real estate development and rail systems, but also a commitment of many believers, churches and organizations working together to make the Gospel accessible to all people, not just in word but also in deed. That is why we are here!

    In a day where many have given up on the “Institutional Church,” we are striving to rebuild trust in the Church by building an authentic community as diverse as those living in our city; a safe community where both BELIEVERS AND SKEPTICS can explore the faith together without feeling pressured or judged in any way; a transparent community where people from all walks of life can share their joys and sorrows of life; and an others-focused community where we serve the hurting and marginalized together.



  4. cw,
    The Luftwaffe did indeed hammer London with typical German methodical planning and many other cities beside. You are also right about the use of cameras to spot IRA bombers, though the vicious thugs were not always deterred in their bombing – Manchester city centre got hammered as the Provo rats moved out of the capital to bomb a less secure target.
    Thanks for the quote from the Detroit franchise of Redeemer. What would Paul the apostle make of such stuff? And as is increasingly common for Redeemer the WC, creeds and any hint of Reformed ecclesiology is blindingly absent.


  5. Proto—Sacralism has little interest in groups like the Waldensians and Lollards. They do not supplement their argument but stand in direct contrast to their narrative. The sectarians had a problem with Christian identity being confused and conflated with citizenship, …On the one hand, I too love the old buildings. That’s part of Europe’s charm and I’ve certainly worshiped in more than a few old Anglican Church buildings. I know the appeal and cannot help but feel the sentimentality when visiting the old village churches. I love the connections with the past

    I say ‘tear them down’. Remove the false witness so that the antithesis between the world and Biblical Christianity can be made more manifest. Or better yet… let them be used for something else to keep them standing. That way we can remember the history and yet reflect on it instead of celebrate it. And then, those who care can still learn something, whether it be the false theology at work in steeples and stained glass, or the lessons of institutions that succumbed to the spirit of Ichabod. ‘Make them into village museums’..

    The modern ‘Church Wedding’ is the child of medieval Roman sacralism It is not derived from New Testament exegesis and its retention by Protestants claiming Sola Scriptura is in fact a denial of any argument against other “catholic” innovations. https://proto-protestantism.blogspot.com/2015/11/mohlers-sacralist-commentaries.html


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