10 September 2007

Why Architecture Matters

Chapel at Ronchamp, France
I borrowed this title from a couple of articles that I found at the Clapham Institute website, which you can find here and here.

I think the articles are worth a read for several reasons, since architecture reflects the same philosophical and intellectual processes that produce the literature, music, cinema, and the rest of our contemporary culture.

There is also the persistence of modernism with its philosophical underpinnings in architecture, which result in buildings that exhibit an extreme abstraction, that pander to the fetish of technology, marking humanity as alienated, and portray a utopian view of society that sees prior wisdom and tradition as something to be discarded or swept away.

A question posed in the articles is "how, specifically, does architecture fulfill the creation mandate?" The author, David Greusel, states that Genesis gives us the mandate to cultivate and subdue the earth. He says that...
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. So architecture, the design of space for human habitation, certainly fits this broad range of activities mandated by God.
Greusel says that God is a designer, and design is important to him. God placed Bezalel, a skilled craftsman in wood, metal and precious stones, in charge of the making of the tabernacle, and that he also taught other workers, and Oholiab to assist Bezalel in the design and construction of the tabernacle, its furniture and furnishings. This was after he filled them with his Spirit. To quote Greusel, "So God is not only concerned with our structures, and wit their specific details, but he has given the Holy Spirit to men to create artistic designs." As a result we need to pay attention to how architecture impacts and affects the way people live.

How do designers reflect God as a designer? "The work of the French architect Le Corbusier gives us a case in point. For example, the photo to the right is Le Corbusier's plan for Paris. The Île-de-la-Cité is in the lower right. Notice that the place where Nôtre-Dame sits is empty in his model. Le Corbusier wanted to demolish Nôtre-Dame.

In fact, Le Corbusier wanted to tear down all of Paris and replace it with his Bauhaus-School architecture. He was able to convince the French government to use his designs for public housing in Marseilles. This "stacked ice cube tray" design became the model France used for public housing in the suburbs. What was the impact of this architecture?
Along with torched cars and Molotov cocktails, France's grim housing projects have come to symbolize the discontent that erupted in recent riots across depressed, mostly immigrant neighborhoods (CBS News).
On a more spiritual note, Le Corbusier was asked to rebuild a chapel in the mountain village of Ronchamp, France (see photo above). Charles Downey writes that...
Le Corbusier, a staunch atheist, at first had refused to accept the commission to rebuild the chapel, destroyed during World War II. But a visit to the site and the promise of total artistic freedom in designing the building ultimately convinced him... It was controversial, since a petition against Le Corbusier's chapel went all the way to the Vatican. The work began four years later, with the architect hoping to calm the polemical battle.

In a region with a fairly traditional mindset, Le Corbusier's chapel was received rather poorly. But the residents of Ronchamp today understand that they have a treasure high up on their hill," says Stéphane Potelle, a historian specializing in Le Corbusier, whom he calls "an agnostic architect who was steeped in spirituality.
The key phrase here, of course, is that he was "steeped in spirituality." How does this relate to the issue of God as designer, or how one reflects the idea of God as designer in their work? Is the spirituality of the designer or architect the issue, or is the spirituality that the building design elicits from visitors the point of all this?

Does God give his spirit to men to create artistic designs? Is anything that is done as art have a spiritual quality? Is it assumed that they are done in God's name? Greusel also points out that architects honor God and imitate him by bringing order to their designs. Are we to assume that anything creative is spiritual, reflecting the glory of God? Or is it more that the creative process reflects the divine mandate to create, subdue, and cultivate the earth? Bezalel and Oholiab aside, I don't know too many architects who would own up to this, or theologians for that matter.

Greusel is right, most acts of architecture are substantial public acts, and they impact shared environments as well as the lives of thousands of people. We shape our buildings, but they shape us as well. How do we infuse a witness into our creativity without making it a Sunday morning worship service? There are many cathedrals and churches in Europe built with this thought in mind, and today most sit empty (including Sunday morning) except when the tours march by.

Read Greusel's articles and think about them. It's a good take on the role of architecture, but for me, how do we address this task? How does architecture have a biblical witness?

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