Volume 11, Issue 3: Thema
John Ruskin recognized that "there are but two strong conquerors of the forgetfulness of men: Poetry and Architecture."1Both of these offer a peculiar concreteness, a living directness, not matched by other arts. One can read plenty about ancient Greece or medieval England, but to touch the Parthenon in the sunshine or walk the cool of a Gothic hall forces a peculiar reality upon one's belief in history. It puts flesh and blood into our past. It puts handles on the reality of blessings and curses. Architecture entices humility.
We have a better grasp of how poetry can do this. It is language, and it connects thought to world by common agreements. But such a process of expression is more mysterious with architecture. Architecture doesn't have a strict, grammatical means of expressing values, yet it communicates. In this, it's closer to music than to the graphic arts-or to use Goethe's odd phrase: architecture is "frozen music."
If Christianity says anything at all about truth and beauty, then it has to speak to architecture as well. I've never been able to grasp that strain in some pockets of Reformed thinking which hastes to assure us that there is no distinctively Christian view of anything-architecture is neutral rock. Non-Christians aren't so squeamish about expressing worldviews in their architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright claimed "the house is an idea" and sought through his architectural style to express democratic liberalism-"I wish to build a city for democracy: the Usonian city that is nowhere yet everywhere."2
Similarly, those tall, mirror buildings that fill modern cities reveal much about the modern mind. Their architects sometimes tell us that they use mirror windows to blend the building in with the world around it, even to reflect nature. But the result is that these buildings just reflect other mirror buildings. More interestingly, these buildings nicely express that modern obsession with the present tense. Mirrors can only show what is before them at the moment. When present moves, the mirror takes on the latest object, always changing, always new. Moderns hates history, and they successfully express this in their architecture.
Every historical architecture wants to express something about what it values most. Architecture can't help express values. To refuse to bring Christian imagination to bear on these questions is just to move aside and let some other view express itself. And that is what has happened to most Christian buildings today. We allow our buildings to proclaim alien gospels.
Now the point is not to turn architecture into another bit of propaganda. In every art, subtlety is the key. Whether in literature or painting or music or film, the best work always carefully "hides the art" (Ovid's Ars est celare artem). Propaganda always waves gawdy symbols. A message is inescapable, but it should be clear air, filling but unseen. Good architecture would "hide" its values too, leaving leaden propaganda to the postmodernists.
But before we commoners can encourage architects to hide the expression skillfully, we need to be clear on what values a Christian architecture might want to express. Even if we do not have an interest in any upcoming building project or lack technical knowledge, we can at the very least try to become self-conscious about architectural expressions (1 Cor. 10:31). It dominates so much of our lives, and it affects the way we live and move. People act very differently in a cathedral than at Wal-Mart. We could begin to meditate on such questions as, what does any given building in fact express? What values does it want us to appreciate? What should a Christian architecture aim to express? Our greatest failing is our simple lack of reflection. It's not that we don't exercise our imagination correctly; we rarely even try.
Imagination is more central to architecture than we tend to admit. When we start thinking architecturally, we often immediately jump to questions about function and then turn to form. But as Roger Scruton observes, function already assumes some imaginative decisions: "what would it be like for that function to be fulfilled in the suggested manner"?3 Without first answering the imaginative questions, "there is no way an architect can seriously know what he is doing when he begins to build."4
Sed Nove Architecture
Architecture is unique among the arts for its public nature. It can't so easily play to the tastes of obscure artistic elites in the way literature and painting have.5 The public nature of architecture forces it to be accountable to a more general public. This interesting fact of architecture plays nicely into the medieval Christian principle which ought to dominate all of Christian living-non nova sed nove, not new but with newness.
Scripture directs us to respect the wisdom of the faithful who have gone before, even aesthetic wisdom; yet still we are moving forward in our sanctification. We don't need any new doctrines, but each generation ought to express the same ancient faith with newness, with freshness, with creativity. Modernity rejects the past, and legalism rejects creativity. A Christian architecture should not pretend that it could do anything truly new. It should not be ashamed to work within ancient Christian forms. Yet it shouldn't just duplicate them. It should aim to express them with creativity. And that is no simple task in any art.
Within this sed nove context, we can begin to think about what paths a Christian architecture might avoid and what paths it ought to pursue. I'll start with the negative and then move into the positive.
Antithesis: We commonly speak about a theology of antithesis-that stark scriptural division between belief and unbelief, light and darkness-when speaking of philosophy, theology, and culture. But we've not done much thinking about antithesis in architecture. The Apostle Paul even uses an architectural metaphor in one of his expressions of antithesis: "And what agreement has the temple of God with idols?" (2 Cor. 6:16). In Christian philosophy, we complain about syntheses with unbelieving systems and symbols. Certainly the same should appear in regard to architecture. If Hellenistic philosophy has compromised Christian thinking, then should we delight in distinctively Hellenistic forms in our architecture? It seems not. According to some observers, it was a concern for antithesis that motivated Gothic style, abandoning the centrality of columns for something symbolically different. Some nineteenth-century architectural thinkers, such as Augustu Pugin, went so far as to declare Gothic as the only faithful Christian architecture. Sed nove architecture need not go all that way to appreciate something of the holy irony in the comments of the Pugins of the world:
The finest temple of the Greeks is constructed on the same principle as a large wooden cabin. As illustrations of history they are extremely valuable; but as for their being held up as the standard of architectural excellence. . . it is a monstrous absurdity, which has originated in the blind admiration in modern times for everything Pagan, to the prejudice and overthrow of Christian art and propriety.6
If there is anything good in this sort of sentiment, wouldn't it also affect revivals of pagan architecture, such as found in much Renaissance architecture and much American colonialism? As genuinely beautiful as much of that style is, should a self-consciously Christian architecture be comfortable with it?
These sorts of antithetical questions would also come to play from the other direction. Hellenism isn't the only enemy of Christianity. We would also want to reflect in our architecture our distinctness from the Enlightenment, parts of the Industrial Revolution, and postmodernism. In a similar way, when thinking about ecclesiastical architecture, we should not just think antithetically about styles but also spheres. For example, we believe that the State is a distinct institution from the Church, and so it should be odd if we sought to have our churches imitate the expression of political power which dominate our capitals. Moreover, the Church is not just or even primarily American or Asian or African, and yet it's not opposed to these either. If we are thinking in terms of centuries, it would be preferable to have our churches express their nationality without being bound by it.
Prothesis: On the constructive side, we should want our architecture to express those values we hold most dear. Of course, the Trinity should be centrally and subtly reflected in our architectural forms. And the Trinity provides not only another reason to have our architecture express our love of history, but it also should express the mystery of Christianity. Whether in music or poetry or painting, the art that lasts is that which has enough depth and complexity to meditate on for centuries.
Gothic architecture achieved such rich complexity from a different motive. Gothic style at times sought to reflect that heavenly city of the future, and so they designed one building to depict the complexity of a host of buildings-a city on a hill. Whether we need to duplicate that is a separate question from the fascinating level of Christian imagination involved in such architecture. Perhaps we could extend that vision in a different manner. For example, the city depicted at the end of Revelation is lush with trees, a reminder of the garden of Eden. This sort of garden symbolism and actual living gardens could play a more important role in our ecclesiastical exteriors and interiors than they were able to do in Gothic times.
Garden themes introduce the important element of time, something that often gets lost in all eras of architecture. Goethe's "frozen music" is striking because it highlights the static nature of architecture (and painting). As much as architects want us to see the movement in their buildings, it cannot come close to the expression of time and movement found in music. Music not only expresses time, it depicts the life of faith. We don't live by sight as Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy suggest in their liturgies. We live now on the analogy of hearing, and a more scriptural ecclesiastical architecture could reflect that powerfully, as Reformation architecture started to do. Instead of just a concern for exteriors, we should design our churches around music and the spoken voice. We do that to an extent, but we don't consciously aim to design in such a way as to express the equal importance of time and eternity.
Our architecture should also reflect a Sabbath refuge of peace and warmth. This should be true not only of our churches but our homes as well. But churches, especially, should aim to express the peace of heaven, not the plasticity of a TV studio. Our seating should reflect our concern for community where we can speak and sing to one another. In short, our churches should have the feel of a royal feasting hall rather than a funeral home or a theatre.
History, antithesis, Trinity, faith, garden, and community-these are the sorts of values we should want our architecture to express non nova sed nove. Such an architecture wouldn't be cheap, but the Church could do it and not neglect her attention to mercy, if she spread out construction over several generations. As Ruskin noted, a Christian devotion to excellence should lead us in many parts of life to say, "better our work unfinished than all bad."7