Whatever one may think of the last few Bourbon kings of France, they certainly knew how to build well. The legacy they left us at the Louvre and Versailles draws millions of gawkers from around the world. Clearly, tour book architecture is significant. But what about the architecture of our everyday lives? Is there any significance to these buildings, some of which seem hardly designed at all?
Our understanding of the significance of architecture has to begin with Genesis, with the creation mandate to “cultivate and subdue” the earth. 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.
How, specifically, 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 Hebrews calls a “copy and a shadow of what is in heaven.”1
Significantly, God identifies two workers, Bezalel and his assistant Oholiab, as being filled with “the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship.”2 So God is not only concerned with our structures, and with their specific details, but he has given the Holy Spirit to men to create artistic designs.
Secondly, creatively designing and constructing the buildings in which we live honors God in several ways. Architecture honors God’s role in creation: God is, after all, the First Designer, designing the cosmos to bring order out of chaos. In the same way, designers seeking to bring order to the design of a building are honoring God through imitation. With the evangelical mindset of personal piety, American Christians often miss the spiritual quality of creative acts, when they are done with proper reverence for the Creator.
Another way that architectural design work honors God is by honoring his highest creative achievement, people. Works of architecture are usually inhabited and used by people. Architecture can choose to embrace this fact or to reject it, and much recent architecture seems to ignore the reality of human occupants. But a building that rewards its occupants with beauty as well as comfort, shelter and usability is a compliment paid to humanity, and as such, is also a tip of the hat to humanity’s author.
Still another way that architecture honors God is through questing for excellence. The desire to excel honors 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.
The third way that architecture matters is that building design is a significant component of the cultural battle being waged every day in Western civilization. Architecture has always expressed the spirit of its age, never more so than today. While Christians worry (rightly) about the degeneration of movies, music, and television, little is said about the degeneration of the physical realm. Yet architecture is following the popular arts down the same path of global nihilism and local despair that has substituted hip-hop for music, graffiti for art, and Paris Hilton for Paris, France.
Winston Churchill famously observed that “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Churchill was right, but he failed to note that the philosophies shaping our buildings come from the same intellectual fermentation tanks that shape literature, music, and the rest of contemporary culture. We’ll consider that aspect of architecture next week.
David Greusel is a lead architect with HOK in Kansas City and one who shares the aims and aspirations of The Clapham Institute.
1 Hebrews 8:5
2 Exodus 31:3-5