Churchill was right: we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us. And many of us, disinterested in architectural style wars as we may be, may soon fully understand the consequences of being raised in neighbourhoods without character, without particularity, without the sacred quality of place. The same philosophies that shape our literature, music, and the rest of our contemporary culture also underpin our architecture. And like the rest of culture, the stewardship of excellent architecture must be reclaimed for Christ.
Blair Kamin, the architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, has written a very good book with the same title as this article. Unfortunately, Kamin’s book, an anthology of his newspaper reviews, fails to address, let alone answer, the important question raised in its title.
Recently, I was privileged to gaze upon some of the great achievements of Western culture at the Louvre. I confess to being more impressed with the sprawling Parisian museum itself, a former palace, than with any particular piece of art it contained—including the Mona Lisa. But then I am an architect, so that is to be expected.
Whatever one may think of the last few kings of France, they certainly knew how to build well. The legacy they left us at the Louvre, Versailles, and Paris’s Pantheon, to name but a few, continues to draw millions of gawkers from around the world. Clearly, this sort of grandiose, world-class architecture is significant. But what about the architecture of our everyday lives in North America—the supermarkets, the gas stations, our homes and offices? Is there any significance to these works, some of which seem hardly to have been designed at all?
The design of the built environment should matter to thoughtful Christians. There are a number of reasons for this, but in this essay I elaborate on three. First, architecture grows directly from our understanding (or misunderstanding) of the creation mandate. Secondly, creative design of buildings honours God in a multitude of ways. And finally, architecture plays a significant role in the ongoing battle over culture.
Spiritual gifts in decorative arts
Our understanding of the significance of architecture must begin with the Bible’s book of Genesis—with the creation mandate to “cultivate and subdue” the earth. While “cultivate” might seem to point only to agriculture, this term certainly carries other meanings as well. 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. In this sense, every legitimate human activity, from dance to DNA research, is part of the creation mandate to cultivate and subdue the earth. This mandate was altered (made more difficult) by humanity’s Fall into sin, but was not eliminated by it. So architecture, the design of space for human habitation, certainly fits within this broad range of activities mandated by God from the beginning. As such, it follows that we should do architecture, as any legitimate pursuit, the best we possibly can, looking to Jesus as our example in all things.
In respect of architecture, this is a short step, because Jesus was a tekton, a builder, often translated “carpenter.” It is not a theological nor a linguistic leap to say that he was a master builder, since Jesus obviously excelled at whatever he put His hand to. And the Greek term for master builder is archi-tekton. So in a sense we can say that Jesus was an architect.
But how does architecture fulfil 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 the letter to the Hebrews calls “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things.” God’s plan for the tabernacle is recorded in the Bible (as is, later, His plan for Solomon’s temple). This suggests that planning and design are divinely ordained, as in fact one may see as early as chapter one of the book of Genesis. Second, God’s plans for the tabernacle are specific and detailed, not general and vague, and include specifications for decorative as well as functional elements. Third, and perhaps most significant, according to the book of Exodus, God identifies two workers, Bezalel and his assistant Oholiab, as being filled with “the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.”
God is not only concerned with our structures, and with their specific details, but he has given the Holy Spirit to men to work in artistic designs. Interestingly, this first instance of God’s specifically filling someone with His Spirit, the gift of design, is often overlooked in inventories of spiritual gifts that draw from the first letter to the Corinthians. This glaring omission highlights how the Protestant church has run away from the decorative arts as inspired and sacred since the Reformation. Cultivation of the decorative arts does not necessarily lead down the path to idolatry, although it can.
This article first appeared in Comment magazine.
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This post was published March 13, 2015
David Greusel, FAIA is the Founding Principal of Convergence Design based in Kansas City. David has over 30 years of professional experience in architecture. He has worked as a principal and shareholder in large and medium-sized architectural firms across the Midwest. His responsibilities have included every aspect of architectural project delivery including design, programming, planning, and project management. For most of his career, David has specialized in public assembly architecture, including stadiums and arenas; civic, convention and conference centers; and athletic and recreation centers.David has a reputation as a skilled communicator and a consensus-builder. He has taught communication skills to architects and allied professionals nationwide. He authored Architect’s Essentials of Presentation Skills, part of the Architect’s Essentials series published by Wiley. For his contributions to the profession of architecture, David was elevated to Fellow in the American Institute of Architects in 2009.