What Architecture Has in Common with Organized Religion

The 21st century has not been kind to either architecture or organized religion. In architecture, digital technology has rewritten virtually every job description, making many skills obsolete and downsizing the human input that was once required to build. Amid this technological explosion there has been a dramatic shift away from traditional expressions of faith.


All professions are reeling from the cyber revolution. But to me architects and clerics have more in common than other professions. Organized religion and aesthetics are belief systems. Without relevance to their believers, belief systems are unsustainable. The internet has laid bare every belief system to unlimited scrutiny—irrelevance and pretense is obvious when instantly exposed for universal judgment. Any pandering, posturing, or hypocrisy is immediately flamed on the web.


Top-down declarations from elites do not cut it any more. The cyber century has poisoned the well of support for the status quo. (Need further proof? Donald Trump may be our next president.) For centuries, organized religion has been the ultimate exercise in top-down authority. The architecture intelligentsia— which promotes the “correct” style in professional organizations, awards, magazines, exhibitions, schools, and competitions—also gains credibility from an assumed authority. But belief systems need relevance to maintain credibility. The authority of organized religion was unravelling long before the advent of the world wide web. But the internet flames all pretense and affect with a vengeance, including the aesthetic hypocrisies of the high priests of design.


When organized religion projected a moral universe that was dissociated from life on earth, most people felt left behind. The internet created a world wide community forged, not by faith, but by digital immediacy. Traditional faith is often based on the unknowable mysteries of the human condition, but it’s harder to have faith in anything when information is exploding on billions of cell phones every second of every day.


As technology allows more people to be their own doctors, lawyers and social pundits, the resulting political, moral and aesthetic judgements are now unfiltered. The consequences of these radical changes are impacting both organized religion and the practice of architecture in deep and resonant ways.


For religion the measurable of those impacts are stark. As reported in 2013 by Patheos  the long term trends for American churches are not good: eighty-percent of the U.S.’s 250,000 Protestant churches are either stagnant or declining; 4,000 churches close their doors every year; there is less than half of the number of churches today than there were 100 years ago; 3,500 people leave the church every single day.


Until the 20th century, it was common that the largest buildings in cities were cathedrals, and in the U.S. the central focus of almost all small towns was a church.


The winnowing of religious expression has direct implications for architects. Architecture has had a huge religious focus for millennia: Mayans, Buddhists, Jews and later Christian and Moslem sacred spaces often dominated cityscapes and were civic points of pride. Until the 20th century, it was common that the largest buildings in cities were cathedrals, and in the U.S. the central focus of almost all small towns was a church. Condo conversions, teardowns, abandonments, and the obligatory cafés are no longer just a European reality.


Of course there are contrarian anecdotes. In some places the “build it and they will come” model still works. The most celebrated new church construction is arguably Antonio Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia.  Its construction, stopped by Fascism, wars and the exhaustion that followed, has now been jump-started in the last generation to the point where it may be completed by 2026, the centennial of Gaudí’s death. The cathedral was even consecrated a few years ago. You might think its revitalized construction must be an architectural testament to the sustaining power of religious expression. Alas, the opposite may be true.


Antonio Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia is scheduled for completion in 2026, the centennial of the architect’s death.


Although the Catholic Church and the church’s parishioners fund the operations of the parish, the source of construction money is more Disneyland than Vatican. Visitor entrance fees of about $20 finance the annual construction budget of nearly $30-million. But just as spirituality is detaching from church attendance, spiritual architecture may be detaching from religious architecture: the most spiritually uplifting building of the 21st century might just be the transit hub and high-end shopping mall by Santiago Calatrava at the new World Trade Center in New York. SANAA’s Grace Community Church, in New Canaan, Connecticut, is a gorgeous display of faith-based patronage, but, like Sagrada Familia, likely draws far more people due to its cutting edge design than its religious mission.


Beyond the broad implications of the loss of cultural importance of traditional belief systems, I write this as an architect who goes to church every week. I am also that church’s Properties Committee Chair and sit on an Episcopal Diocesan committee, whose charge is to create the ethical reuse of abandoned parish buildings. As an architect I have designed about 50 projects creating or adapting places of worship. Having said that, I toil at sacred space creation and support, in a place of dwindling sympathies: New England.

When buildings are designed to be objects detached from human scale, use, the surrounding context or environment, they’re as unrelatable to most people as a Latin Mass.


The larger question is whether architecture can escape religion’s fate. Will architects have better results at demonstrating relevance to people’s lives than clerics have in the 21st century? When buildings are designed to be objects detached from human scale, use, the surrounding context or environment, they’re as unrelatable to most people as a Latin Mass. If architects design for primarily for image, architecture becomes two dimensional—and images require graphic artists, not architects. Similarly, priests and rabbi’s may know the Talmud or the Bible, but if they are tone deaf to the vagaries of contemporary life, life coaches begin to look like a good option.


Traditional religious expression is rapidly losing its meaning, because it has put faith in the wrong places. To its own disadvantage, organized religion has been perceived as a closed system, happy (some would say smug) within itself, inaccessible to the billions who might find meaning in belonging to something larger than themselves. Organizations and buildings do not create faith: they respond to the human condition or they lose relevance. Religion that focuses on the comfortable continuation of its clerics’ preconceptions loses touch with those who are in the middle of radical cultural change.


Similarly, architecture has meaning in everyone’s life, but the values of its devoted practitioners are often out-of-touch with the real stakeholders—not the thousands of architects and their acolytes who profess deep devotion to an art form, but the billions who actually use and live with the buildings architects design. The dramatic losses in organized religion are just one signal that new technologies accelerate the velocity of social change. One tweet can sink an entire political movement (think Trump), one viral video can make a church service appear completely lame (think liturgical dancing), and the arrogance of architects can be projected worldwide (think Frank Gehry’s misdirected middle finger).


The decline of organized religion was not caused by the parishioners who left the pews: it was caused by the irrelevance of what organized religion offered them. If you do not believe in God, religion has no meaning. If the work of architects is primarily created to please other architects, its beauty becomes harder to value for those who are not architects. We can continue to preach to ourselves, but, like the emptying out churches, that could be a small, shrinking market.


Get smart and engaging news and commentary from architecture and design’s leading minds.

Donate to CommonEdge.org, a Not-For-Profit website dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the public.