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In this paper, Jacques Ellul’s theory of “technique” and his theology of the city are framed into a critique of New Urbanism. Against Modernism’s view of the city as a “machine for living in,” New Urbanism harks back to the ambiance of old New England towns. But far from assuring the sense of community it promotes, Ellul’s thought reveals this new paradigm to be as mechanistic as the one it replaces. The paper concludes by highlighting three Ellulian suggestions towards more authentic expressions of sense of community. Dr. David Wang is professor of architecture at Washington State University Spokane.

New Urbanism is by far the most significant theory of town planning since Modernist visions of urban form in the early 20th century. Here, I assess New Urbanism through the lens of Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society1 and The Meaning of the City.2 This approach is relevant in two ways. First, Ellul’s work from outside the disciplines of architecture and urban planning offers material for a cross-disciplinary critique of New Urbanism that, at least to my awareness after three decades of teaching in these disciplines, is rare in the literature. Second, precisely because of this richness of thought, looking at New Urbanism through an Ellulian lens reveals that any vision of city planning amounts to more than just a theory, but a worldview. Now, the legitimacy of all design theories draws from the affirmation of audiences with simpatico worldviews. But Ellul’s analysis is unique in that it amounts to a critique of (what can be called) a secular worldview of the city from the standpoint of Christian theology. To say no more, this also is a rarity in the current academic literature.

In what follows, I define New Urbanism and set it against the background of its foil, Modernist town planning. One of New Urbanism’s key tenets is “sense of community,” something it claims explicitly that its design formulas can revive in cities that have been robbed of this same sense by Modernist prescriptions of city planning.3 Then I situate Ellul’s thought into this analysis. Ellul’s life (1912-1994) largely spanned the period of Modernist hegemony in architecture and planning. Therefore, he passed just prior to New Urbanism becoming a popular phenomenon. During his career, Ellul critiqued the Modernist machinations of town planning;4 my task is to show that his critique is apropos for New Urbanism as well. In brief, I argue that both Modernist town plans and New Urbanist ones are results of technique, a key Ellulian concept to be defined below. But following Ellul’s critique of New Urbanism on the grounds of technology, I show how his work also critiques New Urbanism on the grounds of theology. Ellul holds that, on biblical grounds, the city built by man is inherently a dark reality – something that is quite unpopular to say in today’s academic climate. But neglect of this truth not only limits the intellectual scope of academic analyses of the city; I suggest that recognition of it can lead to true recovery of community. And so, in conclusion, I derive three Ellulian moral prescriptions for creating sense of community within the New Urbanist agenda, since it exerts such a discernible influence on neighborhood planning and design today.

New Urbanism and its Positivist Problem What is New Urbanism?

In the 1920s, the Swiss-French modernist architect LeCorbusier famously defined houses and cities as “machines for living in.”5 Machines are functional and devoid of frivolous ornament; machines are efficient assemblages of working parts, and this was held to be the new embodiment of beauty.6 Cities should operate with the same efficiency, and be designed to look that way. As a matter of fact, Le Corbusier proposed razing large sections of Paris so that more efficient residential towers could be erected – the occupants slotted into their flats like so many pieces of folded undergarments in stacked dresser drawers. Thankfully, this violation of Paris was not implemented. But in cities all over the world, the sight of concrete and steel towers linked by super highways, theorized as the bloodstreams of the mechanical organism, testify to how influential this machine-centric view of urban design has been.

New Urbanism is a pendulum swing the other way. Rather than the machine aesthetic, New Urbanists hark back to the human scale of small towns – preferably of the New England variety of yesteryear, with its Main Streets, front porches and community greens. Rather than zoning, which segregated business districts from residential ones, New Urbanists emphasize mixed-use, so that barbershop, bakery, school and theater are all within walking distance of one’s home. Thus, rather than the automobile, New Urbanists promote sidewalks and bicycle trails enthusiastically. In 1981 Seaside, Florida, was an early New Urbanist effort (1981). The Kentlands in Maryland followed suit in 1994, the year of Ellul’s death. Today, do a Google search of “New Urbanist communities” and the hits seem endless.

If the New England town is the role model of New Urbanist neighborhoods, Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City is New Urbanism’s idealized precedent, and Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, is something like its holy writ. Howard’s Garden City concept of 1898 was a reaction to the urban grime and unhealthy living conditions brought about by the Industrial Revolution. He envisioned an idyllic town that amounted to a “triad” of city, country, and city-country, surrounded by a green belt of farmland.7 The towns of Letchworth and Welwyn in England are planned around Howard’s concepts. It is not surprising that today’s New Urbanists, in reacting this time against the impersonality of the Modernist city, would look again to Howard’s model. As for Jacobs, many ofthe formulations she published in her 1961 book have become chapter-and-verse guidelines for the New Urbanist movement: healthy neighborhoods are mixed-use neighborhoods;8 “eyes on the street” for prevention of crime;9 old buildings should be preserved rather than replaced,10 and so on. Jacobs’ guidelines came out of her first-person experiences of living in New York, and this added a vernacular dimension to her theorizing – I would call it an ethnographic authenticity – that academic Modernist theories tend not to have.

But that her discernments came out of her own authentic experiences is precisely the point of departure for a critique of New Urbanism. It is an open question whether authentic community can be achieved by New Urbanist neighborhoods built to look historical, and engineered for mixed-use. To this end, this statementby Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, designer of both the Kentlands as well as Seaside, represents a fundamental New Urbanist assumption:

By providing a full range of housing types and workplaces … the bonds of an authentic community are formed … By promoting suitable civic buildings, democratic initiatives are encouraged and the organic evolution of society is secured.11

This claim amounts to a positivist prediction that the right kind of stage set will conduce the right kind of human subjective response – in this case, authentic sense of community. At least it can be said that, in cultural times when positivist assumptions of determinate (or determinable) truth have been jettisoned by humanities departments across the board in academia, it is curious that Plater-Zyberk’s boldly positivist stance not only goes unchallenged, it is actually embraced by New Urbanist theorists as axiomatic. Why? Ellul’s answer is clear: it is because of technique. Rather than begin with an abstract definition of what Ellul means by this term, the following contrast might be more helpful. In writing about actual New England towns of long ago, the architectural historian Lewis Mumford – whom Ellul cites often in The Technological Society – puts it this way:

We lose our perspective altogether if we think that the charm of an old New England house can be recaptured by designing overhanging second stories or paneled interiors. The just design, the careful execution, the fine style that brings all the houses into harmony no matter how diverse the purposes they served … (were) the outcome of a common spirit, nourished by men who had divided the land fairly and who shared adversity and good fortune together (italics added).12

Mumford’s point is that the common spirit of those bygone communities emerged from the common effort in building the houses of those communities. Neighbors worked together to dig the foundations, erect the frame, and hammer on the roof and walls. Come meal time, they ate together while their children frolicked on the grass. In all of this a sense of community was birthed unreflectively, not manufactured mechanically. Ellul would call such a house-raising a technical operation.13 It takes place amidst a natural setting, with human-scale tools wielded in accord with human-scale limitations in a way that, in Ellul’s words, was “unconscious and spontaneous.”14

In contrast, Ellul would call a New Urbanist effort like the Kentlands in Maryland a technical phenomenon.15 All 352 acres of the Kentlands is dressed to look like an old New England town. But it was erected in a very short time; the critic Daralice Boles has described it as “a town in seven days.”16 This was accomplished by an army of bulldozers, and more importantly, by the technological consciousness that coordinates their deployment like a force of nature.17

When the bulldozers leave, we have a stage-set of a New England town: there is the town green; there are the diverse shops; there are the front porches. And all of it, as it were, in seven days. This is spontaneity of a different kind, of a mechanical kind that erases individual identity even as it tries to fabricate “sense of community” for those individuals.18 We turn now to a closer consideration of Ellul’s notion of technique as it applies to New Urbanism.

Ellul and Technique

In Ellul’s definition, technique denotes a state of affairs when methods are no longer means to ends but become ends themselves. One way to think of this admittedly difficult concept is to imagine ourselves not so much as users of machines, but rather as a vastly extended machine. As users of machines, we have ends in mind for their operation: for example, we wield a hammer to build a house. But from the internal perspective of the machine (that is, in thinking of ourselves as a machine), the only horizon is the operation itself. Even the concept of house-as-an-end is no more – because it cannot be more – than an abstract operation. It is in this sense that Ellul says, “technique transforms everything it touches into a machine.”19When this happens, the merely technological metastasizes into a technological consciousness which permeates all thinking even while it enables thinking itself.20 This, says Ellul, is the challenge faced by contemporary culture. What began in history as the use of tools (and later machines) to negotiate man’s relationship to nature has evolved into a reality in which mechanization becomes nature – albeit a substitute nature antithetical to the original. And so in Ellul’s discernment, modern culture exists as a totalized assemblage of technological means, and nothing more. Technique regulates everything now:

It ranges from the act of shaving to the act of organizing the landing at Normandy … today no human activity escapes this technical imperative. There is a technique of organization …just as there is a technique of friendship and a technique of swimming…21

Such a cultural consciousness focuses exclusively on evolving new methods, from making friends to making war. In this respect, for example, the dating service shares common ground with organizing the Iraq Surge; all we need are the right techniques. These goals may be driven by vestigial memories of idealized ends – friendship, marriage, democracy – or how about “sense of community?” But in all of these, the technological consciousness assumes unreflectively that deploying the right means equals achieving those ends. But what are achieved, at best, are mechanized mirages of those ends.

That Plater-Zyberk’s claim has never been challenged directly is testament to the validity of Ellul’s theory. Today’s technical consciousness simply cannot see the logical contradiction that, while its own zeitgeist rejects positivism, nevertheless it embraces Plater-Zyberk’s cause-and-effect formulation. It does not see that its mechanical recipe for producing human sense of community requires that those same human individuals be taken as impersonalized means to an abstract end. Now, because his work pre-dated hers, Ellul could never respond to Plater-Zyberk’s positivist formulation. But in addressing what he calls human techniques in general, which in his view transforms the messy art of living into rational techniques for living, Ellul makes a statement that might as well be a response to Plater-Zyberk: “The argument that moral development will follow material development can only be characterized as hypocrisy.”22

This sounds severe, but it is because Ellul sees beyond single cases (such as Plater-Zyberk’s formula) to the general condition enabling such cases. He calls that condition “after humanism”:

[After] humanism … involves contempt for man’s inner life to the advantage of his sociological life, contempt for his moral and intellectual life to the advantage of his material life …We hear over and over again that there is “something out of line” in the technical system, an unsupportable state of affairs for the technician. A remedy must be found. What is out of line? According to the usual superficial analysis, it is man that is a miss. The technician tackles the problem as he would any other… But he considers man only as an object of technique and only to the degree that man interferes with the proper function of technique. Technique reveals its essential efficiency in discerning that man has a sentimental and moral life which can have great influence on his material behavior and in proposing to do something about such factors on the basis of its own ends. These factors are, for technique, human and subjective; but if means can be found to act upon them, to rationalize them and bring them into line, they need not be a technical drawback. Of course, man as such does not count.23

Under this scrutiny, Plater-Zyberk is unmasked as a technician, the missing factors she discerns are moral ones (factors related to sense of community), and her technical remedy entails “housing types and workplaces… suitable civic buildings.” But missing from her solution are people, and the human relationships that by definition must evolve over time as human beings who, in Mumford’s words, “share adversity and good fortune together.” In Ellul’s words: man as such does not count. This is because, to the technological consciousness, the individual dissolves into a larger mechanized system of means even as, in this case, the stage-set New Urbanist townscapes produced by its exertions are viewed mistakenly as ends. It is the belief that sense of community can be grown via cool rationality, expressed in objectified arrangements of buildings and sidewalks, rather than by warm and messy human relationships lived out in unreflective spontaneity.

This dissolution of the individual into a mechanized system substitutes genuine morality with a fabricated morality. Says Ellul: “A principle characteristic of technique is its refusal to tolerate moral judgments … it tends, on the contrary, to create a completely independent technical morality.”24 Put another way, the technological consciousness assumes simply that moral constructs are one more category of thing that technique can re-create. Even as it touts moral dignity in the New Urbanist environments it fabricates, its fundamental machine nature, because machine, is blind to any genuine morality. This is the problematic root of Plater-Zyberk’s moral vision: the very bonds of authentic community – civility, democracy, the organic evolution of society – all of this, in her view, can be engineered if we can only get the buildings to have a certain old-town look to them.

And so the biggest irony of the New Urbanist enterprise is that it submits to the same spirit of mechanization as Le Corbusier’s vision of the city-as-machine. New Urbanist townscapes are just city-machines with quainter looks. Again, this common denominator of the machine is simply not something promoters of New Urbanism can see on account of the technological consciousness. More typical is the attitude of James Howard Kunstler, a fervent promoter of New Urbanism, who bemoans the fact that, even though Le Corbusier’s proposal to erect dresser-drawer skyscrapers for Paris never happened, his influence has resulted in many “instant wastelands” such as Chicago’s Cabrini Green or St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe housing projects.25 But what Kunstler cannot see because of his own commitment to New Urbanism is that, in both Modernism and New Urbanism, the individual human being is lost in a vast wasteland of technique, even though both visions tout their means as key towards the end of restoring human dignity. That end never arrives, on the logic of the machine-nature of technique.

If technique, then, is the problem, what in Ellul’s view is the solution? For this we need to transition from Ellulian sociology to Ellulian theology. And this transition might be facilitated by a brief look at Ellul’s background.

The Relevance of Ellul’s Background

Ellul and Jacobs share common ground in that both drew from the happenings and commitments of daily life for their theoretical derivations. Again, Jacobs’ discernments about the vitality of mixed used neighborhoods and the security of “eyes on the street” grew out of her own lived experiences. In Ellul’s case, a thematic thread emerges from considering his lifelong commitments to community action. It is this: throughout his life, any sense of community Ellul’s actions might have birthed – for instance, holding church meetings in his home – were thanks to moral convictions within him, not physical environments around him. This itself represents a critique of New Urbanist assumptions that material forms can conduce communal meaning.

As well, Ellul’s commitments to a wide variety of social needs-at-hand also amount to a critique against ideological rigidity: it is difficult to pigeon-hole him as either conservative or liberal (as understood in our current political climate). As a young man he agitated for revolution along the lines of Mounier’s personalist principles;26 during World War II he was active in the Resistance;27 later he started a church in his dining room. He ministered to lost youth on the streets while promoting a vision of a diploma-free university with no entrance requirements.28 Ellulwas also an environmentalist who worked tirelessly with his non-Christian friend Bernard Charbonneau to stop the “touristification” of France’s Acquitaine shoreline.29 This last involvement fits squarely with the sustainable design agenda that so motivates today’s architects and planners in general and New Urbanists in particular: tighter, denser towns to combat urban sprawl.

The term interdisciplinary is well favored – albeit perhaps ill defined – in today’s academic circles. Ellul’s range of interests makes a good case study of what this term can mean. Here we see someone who tried to balance Christianity with a preference for Marxism, particularly in his earlier years.30 Here we see a man of the mind who took pleasure in potato farming.31 Of his two lifelong friends, one was a Christian (Jean Bosc), the other a committed non-Christian (Charbonneau).32 Ellul was a Calvinist – but he held to universal salvation.33 (How this particular inter-disciplinary integration works escapes the ken of the present analyst). By training, Ellul was a legal scholar, but he was also a historian and a sociologist, a political scientist and a theologian. And when one is all of these things, by necessity one must be a philosopher as well, which is probably the best heading under which to catalogue all of his works. As his translator avers about The Technological Society, “Ellul’s book is philosophy.”34

It is in Ellul’s life-engagements that one can detect an across-the-board reaction against technique. Whether it was the institutionalization of the Reformed Church in France,35 the deleterious influences of economic culture on youth,36 the propagandizing to turn Acquitaine into a tourist trap, or even the conventionalized template of what a university should be, Ellul saw the dehumanizing presence of technique in them all. Again, what is relevant for us is that in none of Ellul’s proposed solutions was there a theoretical assumption that the physical environments in which these issues played out had anything to do with the moral solutions needed. In short, an accounting of Ellul’s engagements suggests that it is a person’s moral commitments expressed in his or her actions, independent of physical context, that contribute to the “bonds of authentic community” and secures the “organic evolution of society.” Unlike Plater-Zyberk’s formulation, it has little to do with “promoting civic buildings.”

The Meaning of the City: The City as Substitute

The Technological Society (1964), then, is Ellul’s formal critique against the technological consciousness which he saw permeating the entire spectrum of modern life. The Meaning of the City (1970) is a further exploration of the technological consciousness, but applied specifically to man’s drive to make cities. But Ellul’s theological approach in this later work renders the outcome more than just an application of the earlier work; Meaning of the City reveals the essential spiritual nature of the technological consciousness.

Ellul views the city built by man as essentially a substitute for something, and the danger is to mistake the substitute for the original source – by way of technique. Ellul conceives this original source alternately as the Garden of Eden, described at the beginning of Genesis, and the New Jerusalem, described at the end of Revelation. On Ellul’s analysis, the totality of the history of city-making amounts to an attempt to realize the benefits of these two sources that bookend the Scriptures – but with man rather than God as final authority:

Falsehood is the foundation of both the technician who thinks to make a city the ideal place for man’s full development … and the politician who thinks to construct around giant cities the perfect society where men can get along without God. Man is trying to steal the totality of what God promised … Man is trying to construct what God wants to construct, and to put himself in the center in God’s place.37

There is thus a fundamental usurping spirit that imbues any attempt by man to build the city, in Ellul’s view. So it is meaningful for him that the builder of the first city was Cain, also the first murderer, and that Cain’s city was in the land of Nod, meaning ‘wandering.’ Discerning the essence of wandering, Ellul renders Nod as No Place: “What kind of land would it be, this Nowhere land, which is not a place but a lack of place, the opposite of Eden?”38 This opposition between Eden and No Place is where Ellul begins his analysis of the city:

In order to understand the history of the city and the situation as it now exists, we must take into account not only its beginning as a human enterprise, but also the curse placed on it from its creation, a curse which must be seen as a part of its make-up, influencing its sociology and the habitat it can provide.39

Is Ellul warranted in his methodology? At minimum, appealing to hoary beginnings lost in the mists of time is one of the oldest tactics of argumentation in the humanities. No one questions Martin Heidegger – who said much about sense of place – when he uses ancient Germanic words to found his rigorous (if tortuous) analyses of “dwelling.”40 And no one cries foul when Gaston Bachelard grounds his understanding of sense of place on the logic of “original warmth.”41 The argument from beginnings reflects an innate human sense that returning to primordial sources can provide insights into present conundrums. The New Urbanists’ reference to old New England towns is itself an argument from beginnings. Their problem, in an Ellulian analysis, is that they do not go back far enough.

For his part, Ellul goes way back. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth – but it was man, fallen man, who built the first city. He did it to recreate a sense of security original creation no longer afforded him. And that effort has always involved the proliferation of technique across the gamut of man’s disciplinary endeavors:

Dealing with the “urban problem” are sociologists and lawmakers, urban specialists and politicians, architects and economists, humanists and revolutionaries, and they are all looking for a moral solution, a legal solution to the multitude of inhuman problems brought up by the city.42

Ellul’s critique is that these interdisciplinary efforts to renovate the city by way of urban design(s) do little to renovate man’s moral condition, and that it is precisely this distinction that the technological consciousness is unable to discern. “Only mortal man could believe that life comes down to the world of death simply because he mixes it in with inanimate materials.”43 Technical solutions are always external and applied, expressed here in arrangements of inanimate urban forms. But the moral condition is internal and spiritual. As such, its healing has little to do with material modifications such as sidewalks or bicycle trails. No matter what the formal prescriptions are – whether Modernist or New Urbanist or some other machination – they amount to attempts to renovate man’s moral condition by external appliqués of technique. “No change in the walls, no purification of the air or improvement in lighting, no mixture of greenery and cement could transform the city’s spiritual being.”44

The Meaning of the City: From the New Urbanism to the New Jerusalem

But Ellul is not exhaustively pessimistic. This is because he does not situate the city exclusively in the fall from grace at the beginning of things, but in between the Fall and the hope of recovery at the end of things. That recovery – and here Ellul’s words betray his own wonderment – culminates not in a garden, but in a city. God’s plan for man was a city all along! It is just not the New Urbanism, but rather the New Jerusalem:

And this is where the strangest thing of all happens. Modern man is right! Spiritually right. Unconsciously, he is really right when he sees the future as belonging to the city. However, the city is not exactly as he sees it. Whereas he sees it from a technical and sociological viewpoint, the true future of this world’s history and its final goal is in fact a city other than the imagined metropolis. We might call it the exact opposite: the New Jerusalem. Thus manis confusedly announcing what in fact must come about, but he is obviously incapable of seeing its true form.45

On the strength of this, Ellul posits that man’s drive for city-making does not only have to be fueled by a spirit of rebellion against God, but also by a spirit of desire to return to Him. Thus city-making is not limited to creating substitutions; within those substitutions can exist real productions contributing ultimately to the New Jerusalem, even as those efforts enliven sense of community authentically in present-day urban settings.

To ground this logic in the Bible – that is, in history as revealed between the bookends of Genesis and Revelation – the activist Ellul formulates an activist Christology. Christ’s redemptive work liberates fallen man from the curse of the city-as-substitute by neutralizing it into a sphere “where man can be free again, a world where man finds possibilities for action.”46 Even as Jesus in his incarnation represents an enormous step towards the New Jerusalem, so “today’s incarnation must be that of an already victorious truth into the heart of the city.”47 This is Ellul’s ground for a tabula rasa of the heart upon which can be written a redemptive agenda for city-making: from the internal position of the human being in Christ can spring efforts of external participation now informed by an authentic moral compass. And this participation is not a return just to an originary Garden, but also includes the productions of man on the way towards realizing his true calling as a citizen of the New Jerusalem. Even as Christ makes all things new, in making those things new he turns the original Garden into the City to come.48 And this is accomplished in part by the participation of the redeemed in their present-day cities:

God’s plan also includes things invented by man, what he laboriously put together piece by piece…All this is recapitulated in Christ, summed up in him, taken over by him. In a brilliant transfiguration all of man’s work is gathered together in Christ.49

(As an aside: Ellul’s calculation of the redeemed in Christ was probably a very large group of people; again, this is a Calvinist who believed in universal salvation. So if Ellul was a naysayer against the city, it was not on account of his soteriology.)

And so participation in city-making is a key term for Ellul. It denotes something like the activist manifestation of the theological principle of incarnation. Ellul distinguishes participation in the city from building thecity, a word he equates with idol worship, expressed as a single-eyed commitment to make today’s cities substitutes for the New Jerusalem.50 Ellul, never losing his own sense of humor, likens the relationship between the redeemed participant and the city he participates in as the relationship between a prisoner and his jailor. The redeemed participant is here, and must make the best of it – but do not ever assume that it is truly home.51

What does this participation look like? Jeremiah’s words to the captives in Babylon are recalled:

Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper … [and] I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.52

All of the environments of the New Urbanism – houses, gardens, even the sustainable practice of living off the produce of one’s hands – come into play. The redeemed in the city are to increase and not decrease, to prosper and not languish. They are to seek peace and prosperity, to have offspring who would have sons and daughters of their own. In short, they are to birth a sense of community.

But this sense of community is birthed only by participants headed ultimately to another place: the New Jerusalem. So here is Ellul’s solution for the New Urbanist desire: sense of community can only be birthed as the unplanned fruit of the joy of those just passing through. That joy is a genuine joy only because it is a temporary one, because it is a joy experienced in context of a much grander mission, one that transcends the recovery of cities, to the recovery of creation itself. Only on this scale can it include the recovery of man’s internal moral compass, and by this prove that sense of community is never merely indexed to patterns of mixed-use forms, but rather to patterns of the heart.

Conclusion: Participation in the New Urbanism – Ellulian Style

But is this enough for a theology of participation? Ellul answers “yes” by elaborating on two unknowns. First, given that the city of man is under judgment, it is still unknown how God will enact it in any particular case. And so “we have no reason to presume on this judgment, putting ourselves on a level with God.”53 The responsibility of the redeemed is to be instruments of incarnation rather than of judgment. And this is done through the irony of building houses, planting gardens and working for the prosperity of cities. If done with hearts filled with the joy of just-passing-through, this incarnates “in some small way, the victory won in truth by Christ into concrete existence.”54

Second, God’s assessment of which productions of man’s hands are worthy of the New Jerusalem is mysterious. “What will he preserve? We have no way of telling. Perhaps the great summing up of all will include all that exists, as the ark sheltered both unclean animals and clean.”55 The reference to Noah adds a new dimension to Ellul’s analysis: although under curse, the city is nevertheless God’s vessel for man’s preservation. It carries both the clean and unclean to a distant shore the nature of which is unknown to its occupants. If messier, this idea is nevertheless more satisfying than a fundamentalist segregation of the holy from the profane, which may amount to a dismissal of places and individuals God has not dismissed.

If Ellul allows for a wide variety of participation in city-making on the part of the redeemed, he is more specific on how that participation must be characterized by authenticity – which is to say, a participation that transcends the clutches of technique. These entail factors the New Urbanists do not account for, because they are not physical but moral in nature. First, prayer for the good of the city should support all participation.56 Prayer protects the city from judgment now; it also preserves the freedom of those who pray – in other words, it preserves the joy of just-passing-through. By this, Ellul takes prayer out of the realm of abstract religious obligation and situates it squarely in context of life in the city. Gardens and homes become truly meaningful communally when that community is prayed for. Second, the redeemed must bear the Word of God in the city. This is not a call for evangelism per se; Ellul has in mind the protection of the city. Just as God spared Sodom because of the righteous living in her, so any city “can go on because it contains men who are bearers of God’s word.”57 So again, for Ellul, proclaiming the Christian message cannot be sans context; care for the Word must mean care for the city as well. Third, participation in city-making requires humor: “We must be able to interject humor into the situation … we absolutely must not take ouraction(s) seriously.”58 This is classic Ellul drawing from life as well as from scholarship (or perhaps drawing from life for scholarship). If one thing characterizes New Urbanist efforts, it is the humorlessness with which the agenda is promoted; building the city-as-substitute is a grave matter. But in the joy of just-passing-through, Ellul provides the key to sense of community that the New Urbanists try to squeeze out of sticks and stones.

Cite this article
David Wang, “Ellul on New Urbanism”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 38:4 , 457-470


  1. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson (New York: Vintage Books,1964).
  2. Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of the City, trans. Dennis Pardee (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans,1970).
  3. For example, here is the architectural historian Vincent Scully on this topic: “There is hardlyan architect or critic living today who has not been drawn to Modern architecture during hislife and does not love thousands of Modern works of art. But the urban issue has to be faced.The International Style built many beautiful buildings, but its urbanistic theory and practicedestroyed the city. It wrote bad law.” Vincent Scully, “The Architecture of Community” inThe New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community by Peter Katz (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), 223.
  4. Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of the City, 158.
  5. Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, trans. Frederick Etchells (New York: Dover Publi-cations, Inc., 1986), 4, 95, 107. See also Rachel Kennedy, Le Corbusier and the Radiant CityContra True Urbanity and the Earth, (accessed April 21, 2008).
  6. “If we eliminate from our hearts and minds all dead concepts in regard to the houses andlook at the question from a critical and objective point of view, we shall arrive at the `House-Machine,’ the mass-production house, healthy (and morally so too) and beautiful in the sameway that the working tools and instruments which accompany our existence are beautiful.”Ibid., 227.
  7. Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities of Tomorrow (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1965).
  8. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), 152-177.
  9. Ibid.,29-54.
  10. bid.,187-199
  11. Quoted in Daralice Boles, “Reordering the Suburbs,” Progressive Architecture 5 (1989): 78-91.
  12. Lewis Mumford, Sticks and Stones: A Study of American Architecture and Civilization (NewYork: Dover Publications, 1955), 6.
  13. Ellul, The Technological Society, 20.
  14. Ibid., 20.
  15. Ibid., 20.
  16. Daralice Boles, “A New Town in Seven Days,” Progressive Architecture 8 (1988): 26
  17. Ellul on bulldozers: “An invasion of the soul, hand in hand with the material invasion, thefirst wave preparing the mass arrival of the tractors, bulldozers, cement mixers, and air-compressors, announcing the heavy clouds of factory smoke .” Although writing about theerection of the modernist city, this passage underlines the indebtedness both Modernist andNew Urbanist agendas have to the machine. Meaning of the City, 152.
  18. Ellul addresses the loss of individuality specifically in relation to increased mechanizationin town planning: “A large city supposes a concentration of the means of transport, air con-trol, traffic organization, and so on. Each of these permits the city to grow even larger andpromotes new technical advances … the individual’s role is less and less important in techni-cal evolution…” Technological Society, 92.
  19. Ibid., 4.
  20. “All embracing technique is in fact that consciousness of the mechanized world,” Ibid.,6.
  21. Ibid., 21-22.
  22. Ibid., 338.
  23. Ibid., 338-339.
  24. Ibid., 97.
  25. James Howard Kunstler, Geography of Nowhere (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 73, 77-80.
  26. 26Jacques Ellul, In Season Out of Season: An Introduction to the Thought of Jacques Ellul, trans.Lani K. Niles (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1982), 36-41.
  27. Ibid., 42-56.
  28. Ibid., 158-171.
  29. Bernard Charbonneau, “Ordinary Destruction of the Littorals in Times of Peace: On the‘Touristification’ of the Coasts of Languedocian and Aquitaine.” (Accessed April 21, 2008).
  30. Ellul, In Season out of Season, 1-22.
  31. Patrick Chastenet, A Short Biography of Jacques Ellul trans Lesley Graham (1912-1994), (Accessed April 21, 2008)
  32. Ellul, In Season out of Season, 23-32.
  33. Ibid., 69-83
  34. John Wilkinson, “Introduction,” The Technological Society, xii.
  35. Ibid., 84-97.
  36. Ibid., 117-138.
  37. Ellul, Meaning of the City, 130-131.
  38. Ibid., 1.
  39. Ibid., 48.
  40. Martin Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking,” in Basic Writings, ed. D. F. Krell (SanFrancisco: Harper Collins, 1992), 344-363.41.
  41. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. John R. Stilgoe (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994),48
  42. Ellul, Meaning of the City, 46-47.

  43. Ibid., 158.
  44. 4Ibid., 158.
  45. Ibid., 158.
  46. Ibid., 170.
  47. Ibid., 170.
  48. Ibid., 173.
  49. Ibid., 176.
  50. Ibid., 74, 77.
  51. Ibid., 74
  52. Jeremiah 29:5-10.
  53. Ellul, Meaning of the City, 73.
  54. Ibid., 170.
  55. Ibid., 176.
  56. Ibid., 75.
  57. Ibid., 76.
  58. Ibid., 181

David Wang

Dr. David Wang is professor of architecture at Washington State University Spokane.