Sunday, 8 July 2012

On Bilaam and The Shard


Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yacov, Mishcenotecha Yisrael


The most famous line in this week’s parasha suggests that tents can be good, morally refined even.

We have a sense that kedushah can be applied to town planning and architecture.

So that is what I wish to address this week.

Actually I have another Biblical narrative in mind, but I’ll come to that later.


Three teachings from this week’s parasha.

Rashi asks what Bilaam saw, to call it good, and suggests he sees each tent openning away from a central courtyard, respecting privacy, shelo yatzitz ohel chavero. A sense of privacy, modesty promoted by architecture and planning. That’s a good thing.


Bilaam lifts up his eyes and sees the nation of Israel shochen lishvatim – dwelling according to their tribes.

Each Israelite, the Medieval Midrash -  Bmidbar Rabba – states camps under their own bdiglo  - each claiming and supporting their own sense of tribal identityeach fitting into their neighbourhood, each having a sense of place and security.


And there is a textual problem with this verse

Mah Tovu Olahecha Yaacov– how goodly are your tents,

Mishconotecha Israel – your dwelling places, Israel.

Why do we need both. Appears redundant.

There is a Rabbinic dislike of redundancy so the apparent contradiction is solved – one mention refers to the tent of meeting, the central point where God meets the Children of Israel.

The other is the dwelling places of the people arranged around the outside.

What is good, on this reading, is the centralisation of a settlement around a focal point of holiness.


Three holy architectural ideas.

When a settlement is built around something decent, the decency seeps into the people who live in the settlement.

When a people have a sense of place and a security they can grow, develop and thrive.

When the arrangement of dwelling space fosters a sense of modesty, when we are weaned off a desire to peer prurient into the lives of our fellows we can thrive.


The power of planning, architecture and design is not only ancient.

Our member, Barbara Weiss, rebuilt the newly opened Weiner Library, a collection of Holocaust related material.

Designed to feel open, white, transparent space.

As if transparency is a prophylactic against fascism.

Architecture as a response to horror, dignified and invested in fostering the sort of study that might make Never Again indeed possible.

This week went to see exhibition of the Heatherwick studios at the V&A – I’ll explain why a little later.

Not a great exhibition, sad because much of the work is stunning

Thomas Heatherwick is a designer who has turned his hand to everything from 30 storey high art installations which could be taken into their building fitting through a letterbox, to a new design for a London bus.

My eye was taken with a design for toilets in a Chinese shopping centre.

Each cubicle was made of a single piece of curved veneer which flexed rather than hinged open. It was witty, beautiful, creative and small.

It would make its user smile.

Smiling is good too.


I went to the Heatherwick exhibition because I didn’t want my sense of design, this week, to be taken over by The Shard, the new 300+ metre addition to the London skyline which officially opened for – and the idiom is entirely deserved – business this week.

The Shard is tall. It’s also tall, tall and tall.

Its developer suggests the Shard’s height is its greatest asset. ‘This is London, this is the Shard. Now’ says Irvine Sellar, ‘we can kick sand in the face of the Eiffel Tower.’ Hmmm.

Putting aside the reality that the Tour Eiffel is actually taller than the Shard the whole idea of judging a city or a building by its height alone seems vapid.


Where when you look up at The Shard is the sense of place, security and comfort? Where is the drawing of the mind and heart of a people to a central point of decency and goodness? If not a Ohel Mohed as least something about creating community, civic amenity, something!

Rather, looming over everything, glorifying in its own sheer tallness, the Shard reminds us, unless we are one of the very privileged few who can afford umpteen millions to live in its upper floors, that there are richer people than you looking down on you.


I’ve noting against tall buildings.

Certainly not tall religious buildings. Indeed New London height is part of its own beauty.

Religious buildings should made us look up.

Alain de Botton, nice Jewish boy that he is, writes of the importance of lofty cathedrals drawing our attention up and beyond our own petty cares, making us realise that there are heights beyond our grasp, things we are not supposed to understand, and that’s all good and important.

But from a religious perspective the point of looking up is to witness the numinous, the transcendent and the good.

You don’t look up to be reminded of the wealth of others.

Placing The Shard in the midst of its environment turns us all into voyeurs, excluded and wilfully or otherwise forced to peering in. It is as if we are forced to become little match girls pushing our noses up against a life we will never have and never thought we wanted.


The Shard is notable only for being notable, it peers down at us and turns us willingly or otherwise into voyeurs of it.

Indeed the better Biblical narrative to speak about, in this week in which London’s skyline is punctured with such a bland phallic intent, is the tale of the Tower of Babel, built to make a name for its property developers just before they, and the people of Babel were scattered all over the face of the world.


We live in a great city.

We should be proud of it and protect its greatness.

We should also remind ourselves of what architecture and planning should do, even if that is not what planners and architects are doing.

We should build our lives modestly, avoiding prurience.

We should make our homes places that contribute to our sense of security and place.

We should build our lives around central points of decency, civility and holiness and in so doing we would deserve again the praise of Bilaam.

Mah Tovu Ohalecha – how great are your tents.


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