By Duo Dickinson
When we think of religion and architecture, it is easy to have visions of churches: ascending forms, focused and spiritually evocative spaces, perfect settings for icons and rituals. But architecture starts with architects.
Architecture is the self-designated Mother of the Arts because it combines all aesthetics in one built effort. When architecture’s aesthetic mantle is combined with Western Civilization’s historic spine of religion, it is a daunting legacy. But times are changing.
In parts of Western Europe and in my own New England, religion is in a free fall from public support and cultural resonance. Architecture is often the canary in the cave for cultural change, manifesting what people believe in built accommodation. The eruption of church expansion in America after World War II realized the huge and anomalous explosion of a country’s reset from a war, and a culture that leapfrogged to a middle-class model of manufacturing expansionism and a suburbanism encouraged by interstate highways.
In that context, the architect Christopher Alexander became a seminal presence. A former professor at the University of Cambridge, Harvard, MIT, and Berkeley, and now in England, his academic credentials as a teaching architect are almost legendary. His writing has offered a different perspective than that of the traditional Modernist Fine Arts Canon that developed after the war.
His book A Pattern Language established an alternative method that was simply not following the rules that architects created unique visions of their insight. This is the “starchitect” model of venerating the genius creator, like Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, or the late Zaha Hadid. Instead, Alexander saw the Michelangelo model that the architect channels beauty that is already there, the sculpture that is already in the block of marble, ready to be revealed.
His other books — including Notes on the Synthesis of Form, A City is Not a Tree, The Timeless Way of Building, A New Theory of Urban Design, and The Oregon Experiment — have sold so well, despite being outside the academic mainstream, that he may be the leading seller of writings on architectural design of all time. Recently he completed the four-volume The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, about his newer theories of “morphogenetic,” almost spiritual, design.
In his later years his wife, Maggie Moore Alexander, has been the face and voice of a final effort: the Building Beauty Program at the Sant’Anna Institute in Sorrento, Italy. They have asked me, as an architect for 40 years, to be a part of it. She clearly states that “As Chris became less and less able to work, it was more difficult to shift the message from pattern language to building beauty. To him, letting that lie would have been failure. So I took it on with colleagues who have been willing and committed to seeing it through.” That is what is happening now in Italy.
The Alexanders’ shift from language to beauty is, to me, the simple transition from ideas to action, from horizontal openness to vertical aspiration, from being a disciple who acts within my life to an apostle who brings life to a message for anyone. I believe this reflects the latest evolution of Alexander’s scientific method of deduction and analysis into the reality of God in his late life. He was a physicist and mathematician who became an architect, and every insight flows from that perspective.
Always a Roman Catholic, Alexander was a devout academic. That public perception has been shifted by a recent article, “Making the Garden,” published by First Things in February 2016. His words, in a place of desperate secularization, have the ring of obvious truth, despite my profession’s canon of human control.
Alexander clearly understands the state of decline in the relevance of religion: “There can be little doubt that the idea of God, as brought forth from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has slowly become tired … to such an extent that it has difficulty fitting into everyday twenty-first-century discourse. As it stands, it is almost embarrassing to many people, in many walks of life.”
His early training revealed that “in an epoch when God was not acknowledged, it became virtually impossible for people to build the kinds of buildings where God appears.” He saw a different way: “I did maintain an inner knowing that the best way to produce good architecture must somehow be linked to God — indeed, that valuable architecture was always about God.”
Alexander justifies this conclusion by stating that “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. Yet in twentieth- and twenty-first-century discourse, reason is almost the only way we have of explaining a difficult thing so that another can participate.”
Alexander sees a different way, “a new kind of empirical complex in buildings and works of art that is connected with the human self, spirituality, social and mental health, God, ways of understanding the role that love plays in establishing wholeness, the role of art, and conscious awareness of the human being as part of some greater spiritual entity. … With this, with a searchlight focused on the whole, I could no longer really avoid the topic of God.”
But more than broad oaths of devotion and insight, Alexander offers an insight that is both rare and a basis for architecture that is more radical than any of the other of his well-known aesthetic insights. For him, his theories and practices add up to one point: “[T]he tangible substance of architecture, the fact that in good architecture, every tiny piece is (by definition) suffused with God, either more or less, gives the concept of God a meaning essentially translated from the beauty of what may be seen in such a place, and so allows it to disclose God with unique clarity. … If we pay attention to the beauty of those places that are suffused with God in each part, then we can conceive of God in a down-to-earth way. This follows from an awareness in our hearts, and from our active effort to make things that help make the Earth beautiful.”
In the end he has a clear imperative: “We cannot make an architecture of life if it is not made to reflect God — an objective condition. … [T]his is the garden in which we live. We must choose to be gardeners. We must choose to make the garden beautiful.”
His conclusion defies the zeitgeist of correct indifference to faith, especially in the architectural establishment: “The path of architecture thus leads inexorably towards a renewed understanding of God. This is an understanding true within the canon of every religion, not connected with any one religion in particular, something which therefore moves us beyond the secularism and strife that has torn the world for more than a thousand years.”
The 80-plus years of Alexander’s life have led him to a place of understanding that challenges other architects’ work with the simple fact that beauty is real and it comes from somewhere, but not from the recesses of a starchitect’s mind. Beauty is in all of us, and is exposed by our delight in it. Beauty is as unjustified and various as grace.
We, even architects, do not deserve the giddy delight we find in that beauty that is all around us, but it is ours. It is the special gift given to architects that their mission is to reveal that beauty to everyone, because that beauty touches the divine. If architects can trust that, even more than themselves, Alexander’s insights will offer a road to Emmaus for the creative among us, if we can see his truth.
Duo Dickinson works as an architect in Madison, Connecticut, and is the author of A Home Called New England: A Celebration of Hearth and History (Globe Pequot, 2017).