The Bell Tower Problem

12/2013

My friend’s dad develops large-scale housing communities in California. He recently proposed an addition to a giant development (a small town, really) that suggests a difficult design question.

The way Carl tells it, he waltzed into a meeting one day and whimsically mused, “You know what would be great in this community? A bell tower.”

Despite the sentimentality and anachronism of the image, particularly in a state with no shortage of historical referents, the man is a wacky thinker combining Bluth-level tract development with a rigorous interest in New Urbanism, so I listened. Apparently, so did his colleagues: they decided the idea suited the goals of the community (one intended to support street life and walking culture unheard of in suburban California) enough to push the idea through a research phase.

Ostensibly by unifying homeowners through the sonic construct of a bell toll, the developers could generate a more communal experience of space and of time—maybe the two most disparate experiences neighbors usually have, but disparities usually minimized by city life.

Later, Carl and one of his partners took a trip together investigating major Californian developments, as well as some of the more historical gems proffered throughout the state, as research for the project. California, with rich histories in mission-building and contemporary ex novo experiments in home and town structures, could easily overwhelm even a seasoned surveyor of planning.

But when the two descended on the bizarre paralysis of Merced—a small city that could not be more medial in California’s geographic, political, or historical spectrums—they encountered a portent of what could be in their community. Not so much an average as an assemblage of historical outcomes in California, Merced boasts a majority Latino population, architecture that samples Mission Revival style as freely as it does Deco, and a UC school less than ten years old. People and projects have glommed onto Merced looking for newness in ways that are highly reminiscent of California frontiersmanship past.

Actually buying a bell turned out to be pretty damned expensive. There’s the bell (a good one, one that would sound over a mixed-use development as large as the proposed, would cost a ton), the locus (a tower, sure, but where?), the maintenance (who takes care of bells?), and the operation (who would actually ring it, and when?) to worry about.

The colleague proposed an ideal solution: bell towers, he said, had begun to use electronic bells: a speaker or system of speakers that simulated bells tolling or played an excellent recording of them, installable anywhere, and could be automated to the second, daily. But Carl objected.

“Listen to that,” he begged, pointing at a tower in Merced, either a church or civic building pealing out the afternoon hour. “That is a bell. Loud, proud, resonating, full. You cannot simulate that. Young people, smart people will know, and they’ll get totally turned off. There’s no history in a speaker, no authenticity.”

“Carl,” his partner rejoined, “That’s a fake.”

Though the dupe worked, Carl’s concern stands, and on two registers:

There is most definitely an “icky” feeling to a fake bell in a bell tower. But what is the impulse that generates that feeling? Is it a capitalistic impulse to posses the pedigree of history intoned by a bell, or is it something more: the “saran wrap city” that Toyo Ito saw in Tokyo, where the city as infrastructure cleanly breaks from the city as lifestyle? To have a bell, a real, visible bell, might demand that lifestyle comes first.