Machines for Living: Their Ongoing Impact

I recently watched Brick Lane, a film adaptation of the novel by Monica Ali.  Set in the East End of London, the film (and the book) engages with important political and cultural themes of arranged marriage, immigration, extremist religion, revenge, brotherhood, and the true nature of love.  And while any of those themes would be worthwhile to explore, another theme caught my eye that I did not notice when I read the book.

Nazneen is a Bangladeshi woman who has been sent over to marry an ‘educated’ man in London.  From the perspective of the film, the arrangement for her is a minor step above forced servitude and the film depicts her as trapped and longing for her home and childhood in Bangladesh. The film explores her attempts at freedom from her life.  When I read the book several years ago, I remember feeling angry at the injustice of her situation.  However, what I missed in the book but what struck me in the film was the setting in which she was trapped.  Her marriage moved her from the seeming freedom and open spaces of Bangladesh to a block of modernist council flats in East London.

As the film panned over these brick structures with their flat facades and uniformity, I couldn’t help but think about the agenda of modern architecture.  Le Corbusier and other proponents of 20th-century modernism saw architecture as creating a ‘mass-production’ spirit with the house in particular being a ‘machine for living’. The mantra was ‘form follows function’, meaning that the form of a house (the way it looked) was secondary to it fulfilling its function as a living space. In my opinion, this resulted in the loss of humanity in the structure and forced people to live in, dare I say, ugliness.  In Brick Lane, as one saw the de-humanising situation of Nazneen’s person, the structures that she lived in served as an aid to believe her plight, especially when the film contrasted the dark, dreary and angular structures with the vibrant, colourful and convivial life of her childhood.  To what extent are we now facing the consequences of this dehumanizing agenda of modernity?  In most cases, these modernist structures are found in deprived areas of a city, and if this film is accurate in its depiction, are inhabited by people who are trapped in their life.  Interestingly, when a degree of resolution comes at the end, the location is transformed by a snowfall that brings with it a hint of beauty.

Earlier in the week, Jim asked to what extent art can bring social transformation. My question is slightly different. Modernist architecture had a social agenda, believing certain things about humanity that impacted their art, beliefs that most would no longer hold to be true. Do these modernist structures now inhibit social transformation?  What happens when we consider our church buildings in the same light?  In his book, Christianity, Art and Transformation, John de Gruchy considers the role that art plays in a social context, drawing from his experience in post-apartheid South Africa.  In his final chapter on “Art in the Church”, he comments that those who live in ugly dwellings (referring to shanty towns) should not have to worship in ugly churches. However, the redemption by beauty is not dependent on the church building. Art plays a role in bringing beauty at little cost, for example, the inclusion of a candle in the prayer meeting in the shanty town church transforming the space with a numinous quality. ‘What is required is, in fact, the awakening of an aesthetic sensibility within congregations that is able to generate creativity and the imaginative use of available space… (217)’  In this situation, is art acting as an agent of social transformation? If so, does its capacity extend beyond the church walls?

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  • Sara Schumacher is the editor and a regular contributor to Transpositions. Prior to life in academia, Sara worked as a graphic designer in Oxford where her experience as an artist and a Christian raised many questions, ultimately leading her to pursue further study in theology and the arts at St Andrews. Sara holds a B.S. in Graphic Design and an A.A. in Cross-Cultural Services from John Brown University and has recently completed an M.Litt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Andrews. She is currently working on a PhD at St Andrews, focusing on church patronage of the arts.

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  1. says: tim

    hmmm. I find this a very interesting question. From the perspective of church history, a slightly different emphasis can be explored. How has the rage of the Reformation against iconography robbed non-Catholics this aesthetic sensibility? (How many good Protestant film directors are there? How many Catholic? see Greely’s The Catholic Imagination.) I think de Gruchy is exactly right, that the sensibility is missing. Artful forms within Protestant churches are ineffective/unappreciated. How does a large portion of the church regain that sensibility? I suggest immersion therapy.

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