Why architecture matters

Churchill was right: we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us. And many of us, disinterested in architectural style wars as we may be, may soon fully understand the consequences of being raised in neighbourhoods without character, without particularity, without the sacred quality of place. The same philosophies that shape our literature, music, and the rest of our contemporary culture also underpin our architecture. And like the rest of culture, the stewardship of excellent architecture must be reclaimed for Christ.

Appears in Winter 2006 Issue: Building business
December 1 st 2006

Blair Kamin, architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, has written a very good book with the same title as this article. Unfortunately, Kamin's book, an anthology of his newspaper reviews, fails to address, let alone answer, the important question raised in its title.

Recently, I was privileged to gaze upon some of the great achievements of Western culture at the Louvre. I confess to being more impressed with the sprawling Parisian museum itself, a former palace, than with any particular piece of art it contained—including the Mona Lisa. But then I am an architect, so that is to be expected.

Whatever one may think of the last few kings of France, they certainly knew how to build well. The legacy they left us at the Louvre, Versailles, and Paris's Pantheon, to name but a few, continues to draw millions of gawkers from around the world. Clearly, this sort of grandiose, world-class architecture is significant. But what about the architecture of our everyday lives in North America—the supermarkets, the gas stations, our homes and offices? Is there any significance to these works, some of which seem hardly to have been designed at all?

The design of the built environment should matter to thoughtful Christians. There are a number of reasons for this, but in this essay I elaborate on three. First, architecture grows directly from our understanding (or misunderstanding) of the creation mandate. Secondly, creative design of buildings honours God in a multitude of ways. And finally, architecture plays a significant role in the ongoing battle over culture.

Spiritual gifts in decorative arts

Our understanding of the significance of architecture must begin with the Bible's book of Genesis—with the creation mandate to "cultivate and subdue" the earth. While "cultivate" might seem to point only to agriculture, this term certainly carries other meanings as well. Our cultivation of the earth includes not just planting, tending, and harvesting crops, but also the creation of our shelter, our garments, and our various arts and sciences. In this sense, every legitimate human activity, from dance to DNA research, is part of the creation mandate to cultivate and subdue the earth. This mandate was altered (made more difficult) by humanity's Fall into sin, but was not eliminated by it. So architecture, the design of space for human habitation, certainly fits within this broad range of activities mandated by God from the beginning. As such, it follows that we should do architecture, as any legitimate pursuit, the best we possibly can, looking to Jesus as our example in all things.

In respect of architecture, this is a short step, because Jesus was a tekton, a builder, often translated "carpenter." It is not a theological nor a linguistic leap to say that he was a master builder, since Jesus obviously excelled at whatever he put His hand to. And the Greek term for master builder is archi-tekton. So in a sense we can say that Jesus was an architect.

But how does architecture fulfill the creation mandate? Major clues are found in the book of Exodus, where God instructs Moses about His plans for the first tabernacle, which the writer of the letter to the Hebrews calls "a copy and shadow of the heavenly things." God's plan for the tabernacle is recorded in the Bible (as is, later, His plan for Solomon's temple). This suggests that planning and design are divinely ordained, as in fact one may see as early as chapter one of the book of Genesis. Second, God's plans for the tabernacle are specific and detailed, not general and vague, and include specifications for decorative as well as functional elements. Third, and perhaps most significant, according to the book of Exodus, God identifies two workers, Bezalel and his assistant Oholiab, as being filled with "the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft."

God is not only concerned with our structures, and with their specific details, but he has given the Holy Spirit to men to work in artistic designs. Interestingly, this first instance of God's specifically filling someone with His Spirit, the gift of design, is often overlooked in inventories of spiritual gifts that draw from the first letter to the Corinthians. This glaring omission highlights how the Protestant church has run away from the decorative arts as inspired and sacred since the Reformation. Cultivation of the decorative arts does not necessarily lead down the path to idolatry, although it can.

Compliments to humanity . . . and its Author

Secondly, creatively designing and constructing the buildings in which we live honours God in a number of ways. The first of these is that it honours God's role in creation. God is, after all, the First Designer. When God was designing the cosmos, he did so in a way that brought order out of chaos. In the same way, designers seek to bring order to the design of a building or interior are honouring God through imitation.

(This observation could give rise to an extended discussion of whether "organic" architecture as advocated by people like John Ruskin and Louis Sullivan is really the One True Architecture, in that it pays the most direct tribute to the beauty of creation. While that might be an interesting discussion, and points could be made for both sides, it is not directly related to the point of this essay).

Immersed in the evangelical mindset of personal conversion and personal piety, North American Christians often miss the important spiritual quality of creative acts, when they are done with proper reverence for the Creator. We honour the First Designer when we design, working as His image bearers in creative acts that are within our scope to realize.

Another way that architectural design work honours God is by honouring His highest creative achievement, people. This is an often overlooked aspect in the glossy design journals that serve as ballast to coffee tables in architects' offices. But works of architecture, with occasional exceptions (the St. Louis, Missouri, arch and the Eiffel Tower), are to be inhabited and used by people. Architecture can embrace this fact or reject it, and much recent architecture cited by design juries and design journals seems to ignore the reality of human occupants far too often. But a building that rewards its occupants with beauty as well as comfort, shelter, and usability is a compliment paid to humanity. As such, it is also a tip of the hat to humanity's Author.

Still another way that architecture honours God is in its quest for excellence. Architects are forever giving each other awards for excellence in design, and while what passes for excellence goes through lean times as well as fat, the desire to excel honours Him who excels in all things. That may be hard to remember as you are driving down an ugly arterial roadway littered with pole signs and big box retailers, but there is a side of architecture that seeks to uplift, to surprise, and to exceed the ordinary expectations of the user beyond all expectation. It is in such flights of design excellence that architects seek to touch the divine. This inclination is good and should be encouraged.

Conversely, architecture grounded in pragmatism (seeking above all else to minimize cost per square foot, for example), that treats people as consumers and beauty as an unnecessary accessory to the function of commerce (or medicine, or journalism, or what have you) should be criticized and discouraged. Too often banal buildings are accepted by a community simply because they comply with zoning and building code regulations, without anyone asking whether they could—or should—be better.

In the United States, especially—the richest country in the world—the standards of acceptable design in the public realm are astonishingly low. Unfortunately, the church is as much to blame for this fact as anyone. Where the church used to be explicitly a center of community life and a benchmark of architectural beauty, North American Christians, especially Protestants, have bought into the spirit of pragmatism that values utility over beauty and economy over excellence. Many recent churches look as though if one dollar less had been spent on their construction, the buildings would not be able to stand up. Once again, this highlights the evangelical blind spot of viewing faith as exclusively personal and private, spiritual and not physical, in a way that devalues and degrades even the spaces we use for worship.

Ignored in the ongoing battle for culture?

The third way that architecture matters is that building design is a significant, if often overlooked, component of the ongoing cultural battle that is being waged every day in Western civilization. Architecture has always been an expression of the spirit of its age, never more so than today. While Christians worry correctly about the degeneration of movies, music, television and literature, little is said about the degeneration of the physical realm, the realm of architecture. Yet architecture is following the more popular arts down the same path of global nihilism and local despair that has given us hip-hop instead of music, graffiti instead of art, and Paris Hilton instead of Paris, France.

Worldview matters very much in the practice of architecture, and architecture, in turn, influences worldview. Winston Churchill famously observed that "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." Churchill was right, but what he failed to note is that the philosophies that shape our buildings come from the same intellectual fermentation tanks as those that shape literature, music, and all other components of contemporary culture. Architects, like other producers of culture, look to recognized thought leaders for inspiration. These thought leaders are found primarily in the better-known schools and editing large-circulation professional journals. For the past eighty years, architecture's thought leaders have been, for the most part, proponents of globalized modernism. Some say we live in a postmodern era, and doubtless this is true in some branches of the culture, but architecture's infatuation with modernism has yet to run its course.

Unlike the broader culture, which could be said to be entering, or to have already entered, a postmodern phase, architecture is still in thrall to the ideas that informed the Bauhaus in Weimar Germany between the world wars. The architectural world had a brief fling with postmodernism, understood narrowly within the profession as a reconnection with historical forms and symbols, albeit in an abstracted, ironic, almost cartoonish way. This dalliance lasted from 1979, when Michael Graves revealed his competition-winning design for the Portland Public Service Building in Portland, Oregon, to some time in the early 1990s. The strong resurgence of Bauhaus modernism in the late 1990s is a phenomenon that seems unique to architecture among the various cultural arts. Today even the erstwhile leaders of the postmodern movement in architecture disdain the term.

Superficially, this means that flat-roofed buildings clad with very large sheets of glass held together with very thin bands of metal are still de rigueur, nearly eighty years after Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe pioneered the style. I'm less concerned with the superficial aspects of modernism, however, than with its philosophical underpinnings: extreme abstraction, a fetishization of technology and industrial production, an alienated view of humanity, and, paradoxically, a utopian view of society that views all prior communal wisdom and tradition as something to be discarded. Early modernists viewed their designs not just as revolutionary (which they were), but as part of a revolution in which the old order (and with it, the old city) was to be swept away. The disastrously misnamed "urban renewal" programs of the 1960s are a good illustration of this idea in practice: huge swaths of supposedly blighted historic neighborhoods bulldozed by modernist planners, politicians, and architects en route to a utopian future that never arrived. In nearly every case, the resulting "renewal" is vastly inferior to the supposed blight it replaced.

Obviously, this revolutionary attitude should be of concern to people who consider the Bible, for example, to be a valuable cultural artifact. Like a communist library where there are no history books, the modernist program stands in undisguised opposition to history, tradition, and received wisdom. In other words, it stands in opposition to many characteristics of Christian faith.

This dramatic break with the past can easily be seen in any city more than a hundred years old, though it is more apparent, and the contrast much starker, in the cities of Europe. When laypeople look at old buildings, they see a continuous conversation stretching back to ancient Greece, where some of the classical orders (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian) were first developed. An untrained person might reasonably confuse truly ancient buildings with buildings built in the classical style in, say, the eighteenth or nineteenth century.

Substantial public acts

But there is no mistaking the break with tradition that began in the 1920s and continues to the present day. Following Adolph Loos's famous dictum "Ornament is crime" to the letter, classical details and symbolic ornamentation are completely gone from buildings built in the past sixty to eighty years. Not only ornament, but such seemingly normal things as doors, windows and roofs have been radically rethought as "entrances," "curtain walls," and roofs, well, have been outlawed. One of the most grating things a client can do to a contemporary architect is to insist on a visible, sloping, symmetrical roof. Ironically, despite the modernist belief that technology has made the sloped roof obsolete, flat or low-slope roofs are notoriously leaky, while sloped roofs continue to perform well in the real world.

The pseudonymous blogger Michael Blowhard sums this problem up nicely in "The Cultural Significance of Webcam Girls, Part One":

Architecture is perennially important because, unlike poems and songs, most acts of architecture are substantial public acts. What damage is done if a poet writes another bad modernist poem? Yet bad (often modernist and/or modernist-derived) buildings and developments don't just come and go. They can degrade shared environments, and damage the lives of thousands of people in practical and immediate ways.

There is in the architectural world a tiny minority of classicists, considered by the architectural press and the academy to be hopelessly retrograde and beyond redemption. This tiny group attempts to keep the conversation alive, fanning the dying ember of classical architecture to keep it from expiring altogether. But this group is so out of the mainstream as to be an almost freakish curiosity from the point of view of most of the architectural world. The only people who actually like classical architecture are, well, ordinary people who lack the refined sensibilities of the profession's thought leaders.

This may seem a digression, but it is not. Classical architecture occupies the same tenuous toehold on existence that say, evangelical Christianity does in Europe. Both are in danger of becoming insignificant when their adherents no longer register as measurable numbers in polls and surveys. That is not to say that evangelical Christianity is or should be identified with classical architecture. But there are interesting parallels, chief among which is the tendency, in Europe at least, for both to be considered irrelevant. As many evangelicals would like to see large-scale revival in Europe, some architects would like to revive the conversation about graceful architecture that has progressed fitfully but steadily for more than two thousand years. At the present moment, that conversation is not on the table in either the university or the design press.

Perhaps this discussion seems intramural; that is, interesting (maybe) to architects, but of little value to citizens of the wider world. Let me return to the original premise of this essay, which is why architecture matters. It matters to God, as we have seen, in His creative acts as First Designer, in His appointment of Bezalel and Oholiab as the first named recipients of His Spirit, in His detailed plans for the tabernacle and the temple, and in His general concern for the welfare of His people everywhere. Certainly what matters to God should matter no less to us. And while architectural style wars may seem arcane and remote to many, the outcome of these skirmishes will affect—indeed, already do affect—the way people live. I need only mention the disastrous public housing projects built on the model of Le Corbusier's "Radiant City" as one example of how the style wars affect real people in real life.

A framework for meaningful community—or not

Apart from the nihilism of elitist architecture, another way that design can undermine culture is by commoditizing it. We have all complained at one time or another of faceless suburbs where the major intersections are populated by the same big chain stores that vary little—if at all—from Bangor to Biloxi. This common complaint points to a larger spiritual issue: the sacredness of place, and of particular places in particular. Whether you grew up in an urban apartment or a rural farmstead or a neighborhood in between, your environment had particular qualities: trees, roads, paths, buildings, each particular to your environment. The particularity makes the place special. When particular buildings are replaced with standard-issue prototypes, the sacredness of place is marred. We do not fully understand, and may not for a generation or so, what it means to be raised in a neighborhood without character, without particularity, without the sacred quality of place. But I'm betting that the spiritual consequences will not be good.

Architecture provides a framework for meaningful community—or not. As we have seen, architecture is besieged by two opposing trends: the nihilism of the avant-garde on the one hand, and the banality of the strip mall on the other. Both these trends augur toward alienation, despair, loneliness, isolation, and antisocial behavior. That these consequences are mainly temporal does not mean that they are not also spiritual. Even James Howard Kunstler, an author who is outspokenly non-religious, has commented repeatedly on the soul-killing qualities of bad architecture and suburban sprawl. If a committed secularist like Kunstler can see it, why can't we?

What can you do? First, recognize that Churchill was right: our buildings do shape us, to a degree. Acknowledge the God-ordained importance of design in creation, and in our stewardship of creation. Become an advocate for better design, understood as design that is both more beautiful and more humane, as opposed to merely trendy or fashionable. And recognize the built environment as an entity that, like fallen humanity itself, is not what it ought to be, but which is still capable of inspiring wonder and amazement.

Topics: Cities

David Greusel has worked as an architect for more than thirty years with several Midwestern firms of varying sizes. He is founding principal of Convergence Design, a Kansas City-based practice specializing in places where people gather. While with another firm, he was lead designer for two major league ballparks: Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, and PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 2009, David was named a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects.