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August 10, 1986|JONATHAN KIRSCH

"Human beings have always tried to center their lives and their world," observes Ira G. Zepp Jr., a theologian and "phenomenologist of religions" who has turned his attention to a wholly novel object of theological inquiry--the suburban shopping mall. "Returning to the center has been a universal tendency, whether that center be a family reunion, a hometown, a native land, or a religious center such as Rome or Jerusalem." As Zepp demonstrates in The New Religious Image of Urban America (Christian Classics, 73 West Main St., P.O. Box 30, Westminster, Md. 21157: $12.95), the key communal expression of the centering impulse in our times is not the church or synagogue but rather the shopping mall.

Indeed, Zepp perceives the mall--or "EMAC" (Enclosed Mall Air Conditioned), in the jargon of the developers--as the latter-day equivalent of the cathedral, and much more: "It is interchangeably and simultaneously a ceremonial center, an alternative community, a carnival and a secular cathedral," Zepp writes. "The shopping mall . . . is one way contemporary people are meeting their needs for renewal and reconnection, essential ingredients of religious and human life."

Zepp's fieldwork did not take him to California, which is to the shopping mall what medieval France was to the Gothic cathedral, but his thorough and thoughtful investigation of malls on the Eastern Seaboard--and his profile of mall developer James Rouse, "the Mahatma of malls and the guiding spirit of these commercial and cultural enterprises"--are persuasive enough. Drawing on the work of Mircea Eliade, the renowned historian of religions, and the urban geographer Paul Wheatley, Zepp reveals the deepest psychic and mythic resonances of the mall: "Quadrilineal architecture, calendrical rituals, replications of natural settings, and attempts to be people places and objects of pilgrimage," says Zepp, are the qualities that render the shopping mall a concrete manifestation of "homo religiosus."

"The malls' religious symbolism and the ritual life found in them imply that for many people they are 'real' places--places where there is a certain sense of reality about the sacred and the humanly meaningful experiences found there," he writes. "They will continue to fill the void created by our social institutions' failure in providing centers of ritual and meaning."

If there is something slightly pathetic and even horrifying about the notion of the shopping mall as the spiritual center of American life, Zepp is too reticent--or too compassionate--to say so. Still, his charming introductory chapter about the lost pleasures of a small-town Main Street on Saturday night seems to hint that Zepp may not be a true believer after all. In any case, "The New Religious Image" is a profound and refreshing work that allows us to see a common place of contemporary life in an utterly unexpected way.

Unsuspected richness of meaning in architecture is also the theme of Common Places, edited by Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach (University of Georgia Press: $24.95; also available in hardcover, $50), a fat anthology of scholarly essays on the so-called "vernacular" architecture of America. The term does not refer to eccentric or fanciful architecture such as Watts Towers or the Tail of the Pup; rather, vernacular architecture is defined as that 95% of the world's built environment that was not designed by architects or constructed by engineers. And the disciplines represented here are equally expansive: art history, anthropology, geography, archeology and folklore. "Knowing that there may be over a dozen legitimate ways to understand a house, a barn, or a town plan prevents the student from making the facile assumption that simple forms represent simple realities," the editors explain by way of introduction.

Thus we discover, for instance, the "social landscape of the Victorian hallway" and its utilitarian embodiment of "the intricate rituals of calling and being called on." And we see how the alley houses of Washington, D.C., which were an expression of communal vitality when occupied in the 1850s by black migrant families from the Deep South, have become a "privatized" refuge for upper-middle-class white families who have created for themselves an enclave of "isolation, protection and anonymity" within the city. Above all, "Common Places" explores the values and aspirations that are inscribed on the physical environment by the anonymous folk who build and use the ordinary structures of city and countryside.

"Vernacular architecture," the editors write, "shows us people in charge of their own lives, people engaged with their surroundings in a critical way, people making their own histories in the face of authorities trying to make it for them."

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