It has been about 200 years since the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris created an academic discipline—and thus the profession—of architecture. The central role of the architect as the defining agent of creation transcended the Master Builder, a role that defined those who designed buildings not as experts or celebrities but as stewards of building traditions.
Aesthetic oracles become cultural icons, with a perceived capacity to create beauty that is virtually mystic. Religion is also created by humans to understand what we cannot know, not just the mysteries of life and death, but the fundamental power of beauty. The shamans of beauty could be seen to channel a divine gift from an inscrutable God. This reaction to unknowable beauty is often cited in religion—including the ascription of God the Architect, a weaver of all matter, a Demiurge.
In the Hindu mythology, Lord Vishvakarman is regarded as the “God of Architecture.” According to the Bible’s Book of Hebrews, “Abraham … was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” In 1844, transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “beauty is the handwriting of God.” The Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution relentlessly drove perception from understanding the universe via divine revelations to belief in our human capacity to define what we could not understand. Architecture is a primary way humanity expresses cultural change. When we redefine the way we create buildings, we help create our own environment, and the role of the architect is heightened.
In his piece “Considering the God Complex in Architecture,” Sean Joyner cites the architect in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead as the model of the designer’s almost divine hubris: “Rand makes Howard Roark into a god-man. In the novel, when he finds that his design for a housing project has been altered during construction, Roark decides that the only way to maintain his creative integrity is to blow the building to smithereens. No one, Roark posits, shall transgress the aesthetic boundaries he has placed on his creation.”
Joyner also cites Frank Lloyd Wright, who famously said, “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.” Additionally, B.V. Doshi, who worked with Le Corbusier, describes the legendary architect’s belief in a God as simply, “No human being was ordinary for him, he saw God and man as one.”
But most architects let their buildings do their talking when it comes to their relationship with God, as per World Heritage’s description of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel as “iconic of Christianity’s sacred architecture.” Similarly, professor Nasser Rabbat describes Zaha Hadad’s 2009 design for Avenues Mall Mosque, in Kuwait as a manifestation of Islamic faith that “endows them with a deep symbolism that translates Islamic sonic rituals into undulating shapes based on the visualization of the actual sound waves of the voice of the mu’adhin chanting the call to prayer.”
The conflation of the divinity of beauty and inspired divinity of its designers is a natural byproduct of our common grappling with why architecture matters, unique among human-made creations. Nikos Salingaros and James Kalb write, “Architects tend to follow a cult of images that arose in the early twentieth century from the desire to break with all elements of the past, especially inherited human culture. Contemporary architects professing to be atheistic champions are in fact promoting an ideology with religious overtones.”
Salingaros and Kalb’s take is validated by the words of Frank Gehry on creating sacred architecture: “Forget the religion aspect. How do you make a space feel transcendent? How do you create a sense of ease with the universe, the rain, the stars and the people around you? It’s comforting to sit in a big room and listen to the rain.”
Buildings are not perceived as ideology by those who encounter them—and yet, there is something uniquely powerful about them. Religion is also a human creation, intentionally manifesting what we sense in the faith of meanings that defy proof beyond our own experience. The gap between what we know for ourselves and what is possible to prove is at the essence of all experience.
If the world was a machine, we would have no fear and little joy. If we knew of the factual normalcy of death, no one would be devastated by the ending of life of those we do not know. But religion, philosophy, art, and, yes, architecture all try to embody what humanity believes and knows. We associate life with value, and similarly we find beauty in the everyday: the ocean, sunsets, a baby’s laugh. And for some of us, we want to reveal the beauty possible in what we make.
Unlike most of his peers, the architect Christopher Alexander revealed his deep religious insights before his death last year. A practicing Roman Catholic, Alexander was also a devout academic. At the end of his professional life, Alexander wrote an essay titled “The Long Path That Leads From the Making of Our World to God.” For Alexander, the world is “the garden in which we live,” and we are its gardeners, tending to and expressing what we have already been given. Consequently, “the sacredness of the physical world—and the potential of the physical world for sacredness…is a powerful, surprising, and sure path to recognizing, and providing small steps towards understanding the existence of God, whatever God may be, as a necessary part of the reality of the universe.”
For Alexander, “There are two approaches to the reality of God: one is faith, the other is reason. Faith works easily, when it is present, but it is luck, or one’s early history in family life, or a blinding insight of some kind that determines whether one has faith. Reason is much harder. One cannot easily approach the reality of God, by means of reason. … In conventional philosophy, there is nothing which allows one to test the reality of God, or of visions inspired by God. But when a person is asked to compare two buildings, or two doorways, and to decide which one is closer to God, this question will be answered in the same way by different people, and with a remarkably high reliability.”
Alexander found that design is “an action in which we give ourselves up, and lay what we have in our hearts, at the door of that fiery furnace within all things, which we may call God.” For me, the tangible, pedestrian need to make buildings conveys the spark of joy found in beauty that is not controlled by the designer, but by our inexplicable connection to what we do not and can not design.
Walt Disney tried, successfully, to create a “Magic Kingdom” of sentimental allusion that conspired to simulate beauty. But no one believes that Disneyland embodies anything but a pleasure dome, a safe place of human control. Mickey Mouse never dies, and beyond shelter and comfort, the buildings we encounter have one primal function: to delight us.
But the world is not a Magic Kingdom, because we did not make this world, and thus it is scary, thrilling, and inscrutable. If architects ignore the tangible joy of our walk in the world that we did not make, then we ignore the reality Michelangelo saw five centuries ago. In a personal letter, the artist wrote, “The sculptor arrives at his end by taking away what is superfluous.” The celestial paraphrase of this quote is often expressed as “I carved and carved until I set the angel free.” Since there was no mediator, no judge, no canon between Michelangelo and the block of marble that he carved, he simply encountered the beauty God gave him to see beneath the superfluous.
This is what architects do, whether we know it or not.
Featured image: photo by Jon Schroth, courtesy of the Ekklesia Contemporary Ballet; Paiter van Yperen, dancer.