City, Society and Culture

Sydney, 2010

Sydney, 2010

Cities in New Zealand are constantly being changed, transformed or transmogrified—as, of course, they always have been. The pace is more rapid, the scale of change bigger. Localism is largely displaced by internationalism. Auckland citizens (even those living in Kaipara Flats and Awhitu) are told we live in a super-city, which is part of the global village, and we have to live accordingly. If cities reflect our culture, do we understand what they show? Do we like what we see? Do the great majority of citizens live in places that are really good?

The physical shape of the city is somehow connected to the social fabric—whether influencing it, or shaped by it, seems a matter of such complexity we think we can only leave it to planners, sociologists, politicians, and developers, and perhaps visionary architects. A concept of a city (as of any place where humans dwell together) is that it is an environment ordered to the good of its inhabitants’ life as a society—a life of participation, exchange, and fellowship.

Real life shows us that a city is not without a morality. Its citizens accept that the behaviour of all has to be ordered by laws and codes. Life in the ideal city would be perfect, physically, socially, morally. Who can make decisions that would make it so?

This FORUM can bring neglected aspects to the fore; it may identify gaps in our historical and current understanding—but may find intractable issues for which there are no pragmatic or political answers, perhaps no answers.


The Heavenly City
‘The Heavenly City’, Beatus of Saint-Sever, Gascogne (c.1050–75)
Lincoln Cathedral
Lincoln cathedral, England (c.1150 & c.1225)

There are ancient literary images which are instructive; and beautiful graphic images from the Middle Ages. They show the foundations of order, goodness, and morality; they show the elements of participation, beauty, and spiritual life. The Hebrew scriptures tell of Zion, the City of David, the Holy City. The New Testament tells of the Heavenly City. Plato set forth the politics of the City state. St Augustine wrote a theology of the City of God, positing two cities meshed. Dante was a poet passionate about his native city, Florence. In the Divine Comedy he pictures the infernal city of Dis, the philosophers’ Limbo, and the Celestial City: ‘Look on our city, see its circuit full-spread.’

In medieval architecture the great abbeys and the cathedral churches were models of the city, all-embracing, the focus and locus of society.

In the twentieth century G. K. Chesterton (see POETRY & LITERATURE), and Charles Williams (see CHARLES WILLIAMS) evoked innate powers of cities, material and spiritual.

Is this mere philosophical and political idealism, and theological and historical imagination incapable of relevant application to a twenty-first-century city? If it is relevant then there is a huge gap that warrants attention. Present planning and architectural philosophy understandably does not engage with those images and insights.

Pertinent connections between modern material and social cities, and cities of the Renaissance are in their exhibiting what may be seen as their moral character, and our understanding of this can be sharpened by readings of contemporary texts as commentaries. This is the theme of the August, 2014 GAPS ARTS lecture (see CALENDAR).

GAPS ARTS Lectures


John Lewis  •  7.00 pm, Sunday, 18 September, 2011

A early account of a city is of Babel, with its unfinished tower, first of the ziggurats which were built in the cities of Babylon and Sumer; there men and gods met. A different order of perfection was sensed in the Hebrew model of Zion.

The cultures of Athens and Rome are epitomised in their architecture. When Rome was sacked in 410 by Alaric and Goths from the north the material damage to the city was not huge, but it signalled the decline of the empire. More sudden was the collapse of Rome’s gods; they did not save the city. Augustine wrote The City of God Against the Pagans shortly afterwards in his city of Hippo (near Carthage) and died when it was overrun by the Vandals. The City of God ennunciated a non-materialistic, constructive world view. It defined in fact two cities. Later Constantine’s great Byzantine capital was not spared conquest.

The city and its culture

The city’s third dimension

In the Middle Ages the visionary City became institutionalised on earth; this appeared to be the fulfilment of its design, a theocentric culture. It expressed itself in great abbeys, new universities, astonishing other-worldly architecture.

We habitually think of architecture in terms of three dimensional space, plus time. This talk will draw mainly on early and medieval writings which conceive the architecture—of cathedrals and cities—on another level, striving for meaning, and perfection. This may show where, in relation to the human city, there is a big gap in our modern mentality.

Babylonian and Hebrew constructs, Augustine’s City of God, and writings of the Middle Ages, including Dante's Divine Comedy, will be discussed. Concepts of the City will be illustrated by ancient, classical, and medieval architecture and art, and some more modern pictorial images.


Stephanie Hollis & Michael Wright  •  7.00 pm, Friday, 14 October, 2011

All Hallows� Eve
London, a city to love

In the first half of the twentieth century the idea of the City was treated by writers such as G. K. Chesterton, Charles Williams, and C. S. Lewis. Williams published a set of essays under the title, The Image of the City, and one of his novels, All Hallows' Eve, especially evokes the nature and power of the city—the setting being London.

The qualities of London are still extraordinary, and elude description simply in physical terms. There seem to be philosophical, psychological, indeed spiritual, dimensions in which the citizens live, subconsciously. It is urbane; it shapes people; it nurtures them; they can despise it or love it, but can hardly diminish it.

These twentieth-century imaginative writers reflect images of the city which may sharpen our thinking about the changes and direction of culture in the twenty-first century.

The novel All Hallows' Eve will be the focus of the first part of this evening, and all who can read it, ideally beforehand, are encouraged to do so. The second part will look more widely at aspects of the City through the writings of Chesterton, Williams, and others.

  • Stephanie Hollis, B.A, PhD, is Emeritus Professor, and Michael Wright, M.A, PhD, is Honorary Research Fellow, in English, at the University of Auckland.

Copies of the novel are available on loan from John Lewis, and copies are also in Auckland City Library, Auckland University Library, John Kinder Library (St John's Theological College), and Laidlaw College Library.

A copy of the ‘Introduction to Charles Williams’ talk by John Lewis is available on request.


Tony Watkins  •  7.00 pm, Sunday, 13 November, 2011

Is there an objective reality, or is the city really in our mind?

In the last ten years neurological research has changed our understanding of the human brain. Options for growing and healing are far wider than anyone had previously thought. In practice this impacts on everything from stroke recovery to alzheimers. A part of the brain may die, but new pathways and new connections can be opened up to recover lost function. The way in which we use our brains throughout our lives also develops performance.

The City in our Minds

All this has profound significance for the built environment. The dull uniformity which results from the permitting process actually reduces our brain function. When people are no longer involved in the act of building their ability to see buildings is reduced.

The mediocrity of our cities has caused a loss of brain function.

The mediocrity of our cities which results from hierarchical authoritarian power causes a loss of brain function. We easily distinguish any one of the six billion faces in the world. We easily distinguish millions of different landscapes so that we know exactly where we are in the world. We can barely tell one mediocre building from the next one.

Architects tend to presume that design requires intellectual brain function. Most people perceive buildings in a sensory way measured against past experience. Vernacular building or owner-built houses offer one way of developing brain function to make it possible to think in a more integrated and comprehensive way about all other environmental issues. – Tony Watkins

  • Tony Watkins, M.Arch, Dip.TP, FNZIA, RIBA, former Senior Lecturer in Town Planning, School of Architecture, University of Auckland, is a well-known teacher and author. His website is


John Lewis  •  7.00 pm, Sunday, 4 December, 2011

First in this series focussing on the importance of the City, was a talk which distinguished two cities—one is earthly, two-dimensional; the other is three-dimensional, participating in deity. The two co-exist in this world, sharing both the good things and the griefs.

Second in the series was an exploration of the image of the City through literature and poetry of the early 20th century. Images involve the value and meaning of all things; the striving for reality; the implications of all choices; the mutual exchanges vital in community.

Third was the unique experience of every inhabitant of the City, the perception of the City, our environment, through the senses, and the powers of the mind. If we have a sharpened awareness and appreciation we will demand—and ourselves make—a better city.

The concluding talk focusses on the true felicity and wealth of the City—earthly and eternal.

Joy in the city
Altenberg-an-der-Lahn, Germany. Convent of St Mary. Chancel mural detail. c.1300.

Superfluity in the City

Is joy always a future promise? Does it depend on the objects it looks to? Charles Williams saw ways in which it is connected to the significant nature of ‘the City’. Thomas Traherne mapped joy and richness in society. Early Hebrews held their great joyous festivals and convocations on the eighth day, the day after the sabbath. And every fiftieth year (following seven times seven years) was the year of jubilee; restoration and freedom.

The best conclusion of this series is to touch and taste the joy of the Perfect City, the coinherence of community, the exchange between humanity and deity, redemption of the earthly city, citizenship of the heavenly. Such a city enjoys non-material abundance. Beyond sustainability we might also enjoy the notion of ‘superfluity’.


John Lewis  •  7.00pm, Sunday, 17 February, 2013 *

This is the fourth year of the GAPS ARTS forum. Diverse often neglected topics have been addressed, the focus being on what is good.

Things that are good and worthwhile always seem to have their negations and harmful opposites. How to distinguish and evaluate is the work of judgement—in all spheres of life, work, and thought. Sharpening our skills of judging what is good, true, and beautiful is likely to be a prominent theme in this year’s talks and discussions.

Entering and exting Egypt: Election and expectation

Going into and coming out of Egypt became a narrative of Israel’s identity as a nation with an alternative calling and destiny which rejected all world-centred systems. They hoped for a purified society and ultimately perfection in paradise on earth.

This allegory—and history—has been depicted in art notably in the ‘flight into Egypt’, and less commonly in the return from Egypt of the Holy Family. Egypt is important. The antetype was Israel’s origin in the Nile delta, the appearing of Moses, the great exodus, and the expectations of the theocracy.

Similar literary stories carry on this extensive allegory, the import of which will be explored. In Dante’s Purgatorio the shipload of souls arriving from the world sing, ‘When Israel went forth from Egypt…’ In Charles Williams’s Arthurian poems, the early history of Taliessin parallels that of Moses. In C.S. Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress is a similar allogory. What does it all mean?

Tony Watkins

Thinking it Through

At this meeting the new book by Tony Watkins, Thinking it Through, will have its GAPS ARTS launch and be on sale. It is the collected articles of his column in Home and Building from 1988 to 1996. Each thought-provoking article is accompanied by a special photograph by Haruhiko Sameshima.


Tony Watkins  •  Sunday, 16 June & Friday, 21 June 2013

Councils seek to control. People in contrast want to be free, realising their hopes and dreams as they search for meaning in life. Councils run on negative energy, limiting what is possible. People in contrast run on positive energy, discovering that nothing is impossible. Councils create placelessness, with plans which leave every town in New Zealand looking like every other town. People in contrast want to feel they belong, knowing both who they are and where they are. Councils look for the boring common ground. People in contrast love those quirky eccentricities that make other people so interesting. Councils never take risks. The rest of us live constantly with risk.

Auckland Disunitary Plan is a blueprint to encourage developers to rape one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. It gets worse. The built form proposed by the Plan will disempower people, turning them into slaves of an elusive economy. Along the way the Plan will move the planet beyond its ability to sustain life.

The Authentic City
If you want to build a cathedral begin by building a shed.

The good news is that developers don’t do cathedrals and sheds, because there is no profit in them. This lecture will consider how love rather than law could lead to an ethical, environmentally responsible and socially responsible way of building. For thousands of years before developers invented themselves, cathedrals and sheds were always built with love.

Tony Watkins

Tony Watkins, M.Arch, Dip.TP, FNZIA, RIBA, was Senior Lecturer in Town Planning, School of Architecture, University of Auckland. He is a well-known teacher, and author of The Human House, and Thinking it Through. The books will be on sale ($30 each). Also Piglet the Great of Karaka Bay ($20).

His website is


John Lewis  •  7.00 pm, Sunday, 22 June, 2014

Cities are potentially great and beautiful places. Exchange between people makes them dynamic, subject to experiment and change. Social contract aims at unity, peace, and the greater good. The reality of human experience is that such an absolute ideal has never prevailed, the perfect city has never been realised.

Ideals (such as the Super-City) are fraught with compromise. Conflicts of interest undermine the greater good. Tensions unsettle peace. Analysis that might be done of all cities would show that issues of morality underlie their radical imperfections.

Hieronymus Bosch.  Earthly Delights. (detail) c. 1510Hieronymus Bosch. Earthly Delights. (detail) c. 1510

The transition from the Middle Ages to Renaissance Europe produced a new mode of depicting cities in art, and there was a corresponding literary genre providing rationales for cities increasingly in the mode of secularism, materialism, and idealism.

This talk brings together paintings of cities in which some ethical, moral comment is evidently intended, and texts which provide just that. However difficult as comment-aries on entrenched moralities of modern cities, there must be a place for such reflections in urban and architectural criticism, and some influence in practice.

The paintings particularly studied are by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Hans Memling, Christoforo de Grassi, Hieronymus Bosch, and Pieter Bruegel.

The contemporary texts compared are by Dante Alighieri, Thomas More, Niccolo Machiaevelli, François Rabelais, and Pico della Mirandola.

  • John Lewis M.Arch (Auck.), PhD (Otago), ANZIA, is an architect (retired) and medievalist, specialising in theology, architecture, and art of the Middle Ages in Western Europe.



Prof. Murray Rae  •  Sunday, 7 June, 2015, 7.00 pm

GAPS ARTS is privileged to host a lecture by Professor Rae visiting from Otago University.

Medieval imagination
‘The Martyrdom of St Ursula at Cologne’, detail of panel depicting the city in 1411.

The image of the ideal city established by God has repeatedly inspired in Christian history efforts to replicate or foreshadow in our earthly cities the heavenly city of which the Bible speaks. This was especially the case during the Middle Ages and Renaissance when the church enjoyed sufficient influence and power to make a substantial impact upon the way the urban environment took shape. The cities of that time prove to be, therefore, a rich stimulus to the interpretation of those biblical visions in which the New Jerusalem is portrayed in architectural terms.

This lecture will offer a study of four characteristics in particular that Christians of the Medieval era supposed would be present in the city of God, and it will show how these characteristics were expressed in the architecture.

It is also suggested that attention to the medieval idea of the ideal city might yet prove to be instructive for our own efforts to build urban environments that contribute to the well-being of their inhabitants. — Murray Rae

Murray Rae Murray Rae, B.Arch (Auck) BD, BA (Otago) PhD (London) is Professor of Theology at Otago University. He trained first as an architect, and then studied theology and philosophy. He is the chair of an International Colloquium on Theology and the Built Environment, and is very interested in connections between the visual arts/architecture and theology.