That may be hard to believe, but I think Stratford Caldecott, in his excellent book Beauty for Truth’s Sake, has convincingly made the case that architecture is undergirded by distinct understandings of the world. And in the modern world, due primarily to materialism and utilitarianism, beauty has been mostly lost in our buildings. And with this loss in beauty, “ugliness” has warped aspects of the human soul.
Again, that may seem extreme, but Caldecott is worth hearing on a few points. The first relationship that he explores is the vertical and the horizontal in architecture.
“One way of describing what happened to architecture is that the vertical dimension was devalued, or else that the link between the vertical and the horizontal had disintegrated…. These two dimensions are integrated in the human body, which, as the medievals rightly perceived forms a “microcosm,” a compact representation and sampler of the cosmos as a whole. We stand upright, and this very posture hints at our potential role as a mediator or high priest of creation.”
Human beings stand upright, and, unlike most animals that stand horizontal, the vertical dimension of humans makes us unique. Thus, because humans are taller than they are wide, tall buildings tend to strike us as beautiful. "Humane architecture" proportionally connects the vertical and the horizontal. Or as Caldecott puts it:
“In general, buildings that are flat tend to strike us as drab and ugly, awhile buildings with peaked roofs, with triangles and curves that connect the horizontal with the vertical, are felt to be more beautiful.”
This is fascinating to me. My first apartment was flat and had normal 8ft ceilings. In my last home, the ceilings are vaulted, and they came to a peak at more than 20ft in height. Immediately when people walked in, they commented that our home was “beautiful.” Caldecott argues that this is because it resembles a human body, the most beautiful of all created forms.
He goes on to describe which materials are perceived as the most beautiful:
“The materials of which we make our buildings are just as eloquent. Traditional materials such as wood, stone or clay speak an immediate connection with the earth. On the other hand, concrete and cement by their very nature represent the brutality of modernism—the reduction of the world to particles in order to force it into shapes of our own devising. The shaping of concrete is done from the outside, by the imposition of mechanical force, rather than from inside by growth or natural accretion.”
Again, I had never thought about this before. Materials that have a connection to the earth – stone, wood, clay – are always more “beautiful” than concrete and cement. They resemble the created order and not the harsh imposition of force by humanity on a building.
These changes in architecture have a deeply philosophical basis. At the Enlightenment, the influence of the divine on architecture (not only on churches, but on schools and public buildings as well) was diminished, and utilitarian and human ends became ultimate. Caldecott says:
“In modern times, with the rise of rationalism and materialism, the transcendent or vertical dimension was neglected as we concentrated on mastering the world around us…One these attitudes and assumptions had sufficiently penetrated the popular mentality, architects began to create buildings that reflected the modern understanding of man and the world; that is, machines for living in, spaces designed to facilitate efficient motion in a horizontal plane.”
“Spaces designed to facilitate efficient motion in a horizontal plane…” Does this not sound like nearly every school you’ve ever been in? Certainly all K-12 schools, and a good many colleges and graduate schools are seen as only spaced to put bodies for “getting things done.”
I think we’ve all had the experience of being in a majestic building and feeling in awe. Or we’ve been in a wood cabin and felt deeply “at home.” Whether consciously or unconsciously, we've all felt what it's like to be molded by our surroundings.
Schools, churches and businesses should prioritize beautiful buildings. “But they cost so much!” Yes, they do. So save up, and build them when you have the resources. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that space is neutral. It’s not. And neither are buildings.
The buildings we reside in form our souls.
Jeff Haanen is a writer and entrepreneur. He founded Denver Institute for Faith & Work, a community of conveners, teachers and learners offering experiences and educational resources on the gospel, work, and community renewal. He is the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life and an upcoming two-book series on spiritual formation, vocation, and the working class for Intervarsity Press. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver and attends Wellspring Church in Englewood, Colorado.