Old European cities are often built in a spoke-and-wheel layout. A cathedral will sit at the hub of the wheel with markets and roads radiating out from it. It’s not always the easiest to navigate a car through, but it made loads of sense when the market and church were the most important parts of public life.
Before the cathedral, the Greeks and Romans built giant temples to celebrate their deities. Indeed, one thing that defines western civilization is the monumental architecture that was the centerpiece of those cities. It can even be argued that these monuments don’t just honor gods, but instead, they glorify the people who built them.
Societies have built monumental architecture across the world and throughout the ages. Always, these structures tell us something about the societies that build them. Even in the last century, monumental architecture continued with the building of suspension bridges and glass skyscrapers. So, where are they now, these testaments to human development?
A rather typical Gothic church
in Barcelona, Spain
Trade and economy have always contributed to monuments. The church was not only a spiritual monument to glorify God, but also a giant signpost, seen by a traveler at a great distance rising above the horizon, that there were people and markets ahead for trade. Savvy merchants invested in building ever greater churches, not only to ensure their spot in heaven, but also because it was good business to attract people to their proud town. Today’s skyscrapers and bridges are equally a critical part of commerce.
Today, however, wealth has spread out to a greater range of people. Where, only a hundred years ago, families lived in tiny miner shacks, barely big enough for their growing families. These folks gathered in town centers and taverns and returned to their homes only to sleep. Today even modest, middle-income, families have a single family home with a manicured garden and enough rooms to entertain both themselves and a tavern full of friends. Look at these little suburban castles. Some of them even have the Doric columns of Greek temples or the exaggerated tall doors of renaissance churches. With automobiles and televisions people have more opportunity and reason to get home and stay home. Naturally then, their home has truly become a castle, complete with all the hallmarks of monumental architecture.
Meanwhile, churches and city buildings suffer. Today, both are often housed in strip-malls. Still, in spite of the time people now spend in their own personal fortresses, there is still opportunity to gather and there is still monumental architecture to attract them. The most prominent location for the same monumental designs and grand architectural statements today are, well, shopping malls. One of my local malls has a food court with 50 foot high vaulted ceilings held up by giant, decorative wooden beams. Another notable structure is above the town of Telluride. The resort and shopping mall above the village below has its own sky lift to carry worshipers, er, visitors, up the mountain to this temple of shopping and skiing. Every region in the United States and beyond seems to have diverse examples of glorious shopping malls each trying to one up the previous just as medieval European towns did five centuries ago.
Perhaps it’s disheartening that modern monumental architecture amounts to suburban houses and shopping malls, but just as it always has, this construction says something about the people who build it. We haven’t changed so much after all. Market squares were important a millennium ago and they are still today. Perhaps our houses and shopping malls say that we’ve finally recognized that architecture can directly honor humankind instead of an anthropomorphized god. Or maybe it just says we’re all terribly egotistical individuals who worship shopping. Tough to say.