Reading the New Urbanists, the philosophical connection between traditionalism in politics and culture on the one hand and traditionalism in the built environment on the other came into sharp focus. The New Urbanist whose work perhaps makes the picture clearest is Philip Bess, author of Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred.
You can’t be a conservative or a Christian interested in architecture for long without running into Bess, the prominent Notre Dame architecture professor who advocates New Urbanism from within the Catholic intellectual tradition. Bess, 62, earned a master’s degree in theology from the Harvard Divinity School in 1976 before continuing on to get his master’s in architecture at the University of Virginia in 1981. Along the way, he converted to Catholicism.
“I had an intuition,” he says, “that I couldn’t articulate clearly—perhaps still can’t—about the spiritual significance of both persons and material things. I began to find a language for those intuitions in Catholic Christianity, and a discipline for pursuing them in architecture.” When New Urbanism emerged in the early 1990s, it made perfect sense to a Catholic humanist like Bess, a Thomist who believes that the purpose of the city is to provide an environment in which people can live virtuously—that is, achieve excellence in their vocations—in community. New Urbanism is not expressly theological; indeed, Bess concedes that most New Urbanists are secular progressives. But they are “implicitly Aristotelian,” he contends, because they affirm that there are certain design forms consonant with human nature.