ANGLIA POLYTECHNIC UNIVERSITY
(now
Anglia Ruskin University)

 BUILT ENVIRONMENT AND BIBLICAL THEOLOGY:
MAKING CONNECTIONS: DISCERNING RELATIONSHIPS

 

MICHAEL POWELL

 

 Doctor of Philosophy  February 2003

 

 

 

SYNOPSIS

 

I was a built environment professional. The road had started in the management of building organisations and projects, soon broadening out to posts with, a professional institution (The Chartered Institute of Building), a housing standards and warranty body (the National House-Building Council) and an industry research cooperative (the Construction Industry Information Association). Subsequently, one of the benefits of becoming a built environment lecturer at APU was that I could broaden out still further by teaching in the surveying, architecture and planning fields. All in all, I had come to know built environment well from a professional perspective. Like everyone else, I also knew it as an inhabitant of, in my case, the East Anglia/London area of England and as a visitor to various parts of the world, including Tasmania, the island state of Australia that had become my daughter's home.

Simultaneously I was a Minister of The United Reformed Church, involving myself in the university chaplaincy at APU, in local churches and in various areas of the church/society interface. In the Reformed Christianity, the Bible is seminal. Although it is not a treatise on built environment, when one delves into it, one realises that an astounding amount of it relates mythically, historically or metaphorically to, for example, lands, villages, towns, royal buildings, everyday homes, highways and city walls. Other parts relate to the natural world, in part un-built or undeveloped and in part the source of all building sites and all building materials.

Thus it is clear that there is a superficial, self-evident connectedness between the built environment world and the text of the Bible. However, theologians claim more for the Bible than that. They claim for it a value and authority about God's nature and God's relationship with everything knowable to, and doable by, human beings throughout all time and all space. Similarly, those who reflect on built environments realise that they are much more than the sum of what involved professions and industries do for their daily work and what all inhabitants of buildings and places experience with regard to them. What professionals and inhabitants choose to do by way of design, construction, change, occupation, conservation and demolition or destruction in relation to built environments is one of the most visible and tangible ways in which we express ourselves.

The compelling academic task for me was to engage with the question of how deep connections can be made and deep relationships discerned between these two facets of life and fields of study. The mechanism that was at hand for me was to register for, first, an MPhil and subsequently a PhD in the Department of Built Environment at APU and to draw upon the biblical expertise of the Cambridge Theological Federation (CTF). This was readily achievable as APU and CTF work closely together on a number of fronts. The remainder of this paper considers the PhD work in detail.

I chose to start with two specific built environments and some specific biblical texts. The Borough of Chelmsford dating from Roman and earlier times, where I live and work, was an obvious first built environment choice. To both complement and contrast with it, I chose part of north-west Tasmania, where I was able to spend six months and absorb much about the small City of Devonport and its adjoining areas, all of which had developed in a western sense since the middle of the nineteenth century following long Aborigine presence in the area. The biblical materials with which I chose to work were Genesis chapters 1-11, dealing in a mythological way with creation, the ark and tower of Babel; the book of Nehemiah, dealing quasi-historically with the re-construction of the city wall of Jerusalem; Psalms 8, 19 and 48, dealing poetically with creation and Jerusalem; John's Gospel chapters 1, 8 and 9 working with the concept of light and some aspects of relationships; short passages from the epistles dealing with the ultimate significance of 'all things'; and Revelation chapters 20-22, dealing apocalyptically with the renewed city embracing the whole earth.

While there was no shortage of good information and commentary on Chelmsford and Tasmania and on the biblical materials, the puzzle was to find a way of connecting them to each other and discerning the deep relationships one sensed were there if only they could be uncovered. Precedents were found for the use of disclosure models to relate different kinds of materials. I became interested in Sydney Opera House (SOH) and how, after five years of searching for a mathematically coherent design and a practical and economic construction method, the designers of the sail-like superstructures had decided to make them all parts of a single sphere. I argued that built environment and biblical theology could be treated as parts of a single sphere, not of solid concrete as with SOH, but of dynamic centrifugal and centripetal forces acting between biblical theology as a centre and built environment as a surface. Such a model was justified by the construction of a set of ten studies as indicated below:

CENTRIFUGAL TRAJECTORIES

CENTRIPETAL TRAJECTORIES

Biblical text

Built Environment theme

Built Environment theme

Biblical text

Psalms

Wonder and Beauty

Traversing Places and Times

Psalms

Genesis and John 1

Beginning

Resources

Genesis and John 1

Nehemiah

Significance

Types and Purposes

Nehemiah

John's Gospel

Identity

Cost and Worth

John's Gospel

Epistles and Revelation

Becoming

Home

Epistles and Revelation

 

These trajectories need brief explanation. Starting with the Bible and the centrifugal dynamic, the Psalms I was studying were pointing me to Wonder and Beauty; I could find that, albeit in a low key way, in Chelmsford and Tasmania and Built Environment discourse generally. Similarly, Genesis and John's Prologue were talking to me about 'beginning'; Nehemiah about the highly significant, meaningful wall around Jerusalem ; John about the identity of Jesus, the man born blind and the disciples; and Revelation about the 'becoming' of the world. I realised that Chelmsford and Tasmania have 'beginnings', their significant, characteristic structures such as bridges, key groups of people such as, in both cases, prisoners, and plans for their 'becoming', in Chelmsford's case plans for growth and in Tasmania's embryo plans for making sense of story and heritage.

On the centripetal side, some of the Built Environment texts traversed a territory, explaining the stories embodied in the buildings of a street or structures along a canal; the Psalms traversed Jerusalem. Other Built Environment stories were rich in detail about how resources of land, timber for construction and other materials had been acquired and deployed; Genesis speaks of these same resources. In order to understand an English town or a Tasmanian rural area, we create typologies of buildings which can liberate or enclose our thinking; Nehemiah gives similar details of Susa and Jerusalem. Built Environment stories often consider issues of cost and may end with destruction or high continuing worth; those same concepts are part of the underlying substance of John's Gospel. Homes range from isolated homesteads of the rural poor in Tasmania, through Devonport's rise to City status with homes for 25000 people, to Chelmsford's vigorous and contentious ongoing expansion to meet current targets for homes in south east England; in the closing chapters of Revelation, the home of God comes to be with human beings.

This, I believe, solves the intellectual puzzle I was facing. As a built environment academic and a theologian, it gives me the basis of a meaningful and reliable dialogue to which I can relate both my everyday work in the university and the church, and future studies.

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