Urban Theology 5: City skylines, City meanings

This is the last chapter in Part 1 (The Urban World) in David Smith’s book, Seeking a City With Foundations: theology for an urban world.

The big theme here continues to be the meaning of the city. And in this chapter Smith traces the shifting patterns of meaning within modern Western cities and takes Glasgow as a case study.

Big points here:

The skyline of spires in Western cities from Medieval times on reflected sacred spaces and unified sense of meaning at the heart of the polis.

Contemporary postmodern city skylines now reflect a ‘forest of symbols’. The sacred places of the past are now monuments  [see this post on Christianity as a curious tourist relic of the past].

He tells the story of Glasgow city extremely well – with John Knox’s statue looking down over the city holding the Bible over it reflecting the Reformed vision of the ‘Holy Commonwealth’ – where the prosperity of the city would only come with the preaching of God’s word and the praising of his name.

And he unpacks the complex relationship of this vision with money – the growing power of industrialisation, capitalism and secularisation.

New symbols of power and meaning emerged: The giant cranes of the shipbuilding industry; Glasgow’s impressive City Chambers (Town Hall); and later modernist housing projects like the infamous Gorbals (demolished 30 years later). By 1982 Glasgow had 321 tower blocks – echoes of Le Corbusier’s ‘machines to live in’.

And since then, as a post-industrial city, Glasgow has set about finding new meaning in the city in the form of the regeneration of the centre into a ‘city with style’. Smith argues this reflects the new values of globalisation and consumerism.

Thus, the iconic buildings of the early twenty-first century can be viewed in the shopping malls that now encircle Glasgow, retaining in their design reminders of previous sacred buildings, and shamelessly plundering sacred language in promotional campaigns ..

And Smith contends, such ‘cultural renaissance’ leaves untouched the urban deprivation of working class estates in the city.

What then is the meaning of the post-industrial city?   

It is full of iconic and technologically impressive buildings.

He quotes Jencks saying that such secular ‘shrines’ are the inevitable result of a global culture driven by the ideology of consumerism and “without common religious beliefs of shared culture.” Such buildings have no meaning beyond themselves, apart from perhaps ‘inflating’ the ego of the city or even nation.

[My comment – think the Burj Kalifa in Dubai. Think the Millennium Spire in Dublin – technologically clever, signifying nothing very much?]

All this remind you of an OT story perhaps?

What iconic buildings characterise your city? What do they mean do you think?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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6 thoughts on “Urban Theology 5: City skylines, City meanings

  1. Since you put a photo of the Spire (I hope I spelled it right), I thought I shared what I was told it means. It represents a modern type of High Tower, tthe thought behind is that when one raises the eyes to the top we think of Somebody higher than ourselves, it helps us to lift our eyes to heaven.

  2. Thanks Patrick. I take issue with your view of the Spire though. It was originally called the Monument of Light. The architect wrote: At night, it was not only important to be aware of the skies luminance from the city beneath, but also to provide a hint of light from the Spire itself in the night sky. This conjures up the eternal idea that all the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the flame of a solitary candle. It seems to me that as a monument to mark two millennia of Christianity that’s not a bad effort.

  3. Dublin’s iconic building has to be Stephenson’s Central Bank- it was planned to be 20 feet taller but planning disputes forced changes during construction. The end result is a squat, obnoxious fortress, perfectly representing the anti-democratic impetus of Irish finance and the dreadful history of catastrophic urban planning that has marred our cities.

    I might be reading too much into this…

  4. As a Cork man, I’m not convinced of the Spire in Dublin :). In Maynooth (though not a city), the iconic building (there are many to choose from!) would have to be the Spire of the College chapel. Completed in 1902, it dominates the skyline for miles. I’m not sure what it means if I’m honest, but it reminds me of the Christian traditions of the past and the present in existence in Maynooth. And that I’m home when I spot it.

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