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. For the past eighty years, architecture’s thought leaders have been proponents of globalized modernism. In some areas our culture has entered a postmodern era, but architecture’s infatuation with Modernism has yet to run its course.1
You should be concerned about the persistence of Modernism in architecture because of 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. Literally. This revolutionary attitude should be alarming to people who consider the Bible a valuable cultural artifact.
Blogger Michael “Blowhard” sums this problem up nicely: “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.”2
Perhaps this last point seems intramural; that is, interesting (maybe) to architects, but of little value to citizens of the wider world. Let’s return to the original premise of this essay, which is that 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, 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.
Architecture provides a framework for meaningful community – or not. 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. Author James Howard Kunstler, 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 to do? First, recognize that Churchill was right: our buildings do shape us. Acknowledge the God-ordained importance of design in creation, and in our stewardship of creation. Become an advocate for better design, design that is both more beautiful and more humane, as opposed to merely trendy. And recognize that the built environment, like fallen humanity itself, is not what it ought to be, but still capable of inspiring wonder and amazement.
David Greusel is a lead architect with HOK in Kansas City and one who shares the aims and aspirations of The Clapham Institute.
1 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 a federal office 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.
2 “The Cultural Significance of Webcam Girls, Part One,” by Michael Blowhard (pseudonym), 2blowhards.com, August 14, 2006.