Our Buildings Shape Us

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Winston Churchill was right. Our buildings even shape how we imagine poetry.

Last week I wrote about why poetry offers “the fairest hope” of recovering the enchanted background, the mystical universe that Enlightenment thinkers discarded. This week is about how the right architecture (i.e., the built environment) shapes our love of poetry.

We begin in 1941, the year Luftwaffe bombers destroyed the House of Commons. Two years later, Churchill urged the House of Lords to rebuild it exactly like the original. He recognized its architecture and art had for a century shaped what it meant to be British, reminding the Lords, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

This applies to loving poetry. For centuries, the Room of the Signature in the Vatican has shaped how many imagine poetry. In this room, the pope signed papal documents. But here he also received foreign dignitaries, which is why in 1508 the church commissioned the Italian artist Raphael to paint four frescoes to hang on the Room’s walls.

The reason was many foreign dignitaries were Greek-speaking, products of European universities that had embraced Greek philosophy which split faith and reason. The church didn’t, synthesizing Christian thought and Greek philosophy in the 200 books housed in Pope Julius II’s Library in the Room.

But visitors didn’t read the books. They instead saw the art, Raphael’s four frescoes depicting this synthesis. All four face each other in tondi, a Renaissance term to a circular work of art, derived from the Italian rotondo (our word rotunda). The overall effect for visitors (and foreign dignitaries) is that of being inside one large enveloping work of art.

Imagine sitting inside this circle. Click the links and follow along…

Raphael first painted La Disputa. It depicts how the church settled the dispute between faith and reason. There is no divide. They’re seamless, with faith preceding reason. Faith is receptive, centered on the Eucharist, which is centered on the altar. The altar is flanked by theologians debating transubstantiation. Proponents of this view include the original four Doctors of the Church, as well as Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, Sixtus IV, and others.

But directly behind Sixtus is Dante, author of Inferno, symbolizing his greatness as a poet. It’s designed to direct visitors’ attention to the second fresco Raphael painted: The Parnassus (Literature). It hangs on the wall to the right of La Disputa, depicting the dwelling place of Apollo and the Muses surrounded by poets from antiquity and Raphael’s own time.

Visitors’ attention would then be drawn to the opposite wall, Raphael’s third fresco, the Cardinal and Theological Virtues and the Law. It depicts the virtues of love, hope, and faith.

Finally, visitors’ attention would be drawn to the fourth fresco, The School of Athens. Here we see Socrates and Plato talking and walking… toward the fresco directly facing them, La Disputa, where the triune God made flesh in Christ faces them. Faith precedes reason.

But why does The Paranassus highlight poets? It has to do with Greek philosophy, which spoke of “the good, the true, and the beautiful.” The School of Athens highlights reason—the true—as the foundation for virtue. It’s not. The good and beautiful precede “the true.”

La Disputa depicts “the good” in Jesus who said: “No one is good but God.” Virtue begins with faith, opening ourselves and experiencing Jesus in creation and the Eucharist.

The Parnassus depicts “the beautiful.” We can talk about “the good” but if we don’t imagine it as beauty-full, it’ll be meaning-less. Architecture and the arts—poetry, music, painting—shape us, causing us to imagine “the good” as beautiful, enchanting, alluring, wondrous.

The School of Athens depicts how reason completes faith; it doesn’t compete with faith.

Which raises a question—so what? Consider what we experience in church. If we shape the sanctuary’s architecture; then it shapes us, how it is shaping how we imagine poetry? Does it cause us to imagine poetry as the fairest hope of recovering the enchanted background? Does the building’s art enchant us, allure us? Does its architecture fill us with wonder?

I recognize affordability is often an issue, but how many Christians take into account how our buildings shape our faith? For instance, in what ways are Christians shaped by worshipping in a building with minimalist architecture? Or a theater? Or a gym? If you’re curious to learn more about recent church architecture, I recommend Ugly as Sin.

I also recommend C. S. Lewis. He wrote that reason is the basis for truth, but imagination is the basis for imagining truth as meaningful. We live in a post-Christian world. Post-Christian folks are all too aware of what Christians claim to be true. They don’t find it to meaning-full.

They might if Christians recognize what Raphael’s frescoes depict—a meaning-full faith, with poetry making “the good” beautiful, enchanting, wondrous. Worth considering, as our church buildings shape us more profoundly than most Christians imagine.

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2 Comments

  1. Mike, very much enjoyed your essay. I’m very much moved by the site of the largest ornate ancient churches of Europe, reflecting on the sacrifice of resources used to inspire soaring visions of God’s omnipotence. Not wasted resources in my opinion. Equally inspired by a work of fiction I’m reading where a priest’s congregation are the homeless under the artificial lights of the city in The City of Lights as some call Montreal. Turned away by the church the priest’s congregation enjoys an even more cavernous glory.
    I’ve mentioned this to you. The Athens painting hangs in The Union Club on Park Street in Boston at the insistence of a member who funded its remodeling. I don’t know if for the glory of Athens or Christ but its beauty justifies its presence one way or the other. Our Christian business men’s Thursday morning meeting speakers teach and preach from The Word under its magnificence. In the end, The Word steals the show when preached by faith.

  2. Churchill’s quip is more true than we realize. Buildings do shape us. They certainly shape worship. I enjoyed “Ugly as Sin” a lot, but the book’s perspective is quite Roman Catholic, so some of the critique may strike Protestants as odd. Still worth a read, though. Great post!

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