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Building for Humans: A Primer on Christian Architecture

How do we know that God cares about architecture? Perhaps the clearest answer is found in the book of Exodus. In fact, most of the second half of the book consists of the Lord’s instructions for building and furnishing the tabernacle. The Lord instructs the Israelites in the precise dimensions (the ark is to be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high), the materials to be used (gold, onyx, acacia wood, fine twisted linen), and all its aesthetic features (the cherubim’s wings should overshadow the mercy seat, the cups on the lampstand should be shaped like almond blossoms).

Why does the Lord provide such detailed instructions? “Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst,” says the Lord. “According to all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it” (25:8-9). The Lord is not a material being, but he certainly seems to care about the details of his material dwelling place.

Of course, God does not require a material dwelling place — either for his own sake, or in order for us to worship him. The most obvious explanation for the Lord’s concern about sacred space is that these details matter because they shape our understanding of who the Lord is. Hand-carved cherubim are not absolutely required for the worship of Almighty God. God’s people worshiped in the wilderness before there was a tabernacle, and the early Christians celebrated the Eucharist in catacombs. The tabernacle itself was merely preliminary for the temple that would be built later by Solomon.

But Christians have long recognized that while specific architectural features may not be necessary for right worship, some architecture is more fitting. This simple observation is the basis for the distinction between sacred space and secular space.

The term “secular” means different things to different people, but it need not mean “godless” or “theologically neutral.” It simply refers to a domain which has not been specifically set apart for worship. It’s the domain where we spend most of our lives. If we were to reject the category of secular, then we would fail to preserve the sanctity of the sacred. If everything is sacred, then nothing is sacred.

The strongest support for the idea of sacred space, for Christians, is found in the doctrine of the Incarnation. Jesus’ title, Emmanuel, means “God with us.” When the Son of God took on human flesh, we could meaningfully point to Jesus and say “God is right here” in a mode that is distinct from saying “God is in Antarctica” (even though God is in Antarctica, since God is everywhere).

We behave differently in sacred space than we do in secular space, because God is uniquely present in the former. This is most obviously true in churches where the reserved Sacrament is kept. Anglicans and other Christians, upon entering their churches, genuflect out of reverence for the real presence of Christ. Parents can point to the tabernacle — no longer a structure confined to the Ancient Near East — and tell their children, “God is right here,” which means something different than when they say “God is right here in our home” (even though God is in their home, since God is everywhere).

These observations can serve as a helpful starting point for thinking about the nature of sacred architecture. But what can they tell us about the nature of secular architecture? What does the Incarnation teach us about how to build our homes, our office buildings, our universities? What does it teach us about our kitchen renovations, our gardens, our public parks, our city planning?

It’s true that there is no clear, indisputable line from the doctrine of the Incarnation to the normative principles of architecture. But we must remember that architecture — the very concept of architecture — demands that we provide at least some account of what it means to be human. Basic Christian anthropology affirms that human beings are a composite of body and soul. More than that, however, it affirms that humans are called to a particular destiny: namely, union with God.

The Incarnation reaffirms the original goodness of creation, as declared by God in first chapter of Genesis. It also teaches us that we do not merely have “immortal souls,” but that we will one day be resurrected, body and soul together. As St. Athanasius wrote in the fourth century, “through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature,” all human beings have been “clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection.” Christians do not believe that human beings are mere animals, nor do we believe that humans are souls that happen to possess a body temporarily. We are embodied, and our destiny is embodied.

Granted, all of this may sound like it has precious little to do with architecture. I’m simply trying to outline what it might mean to call something “Christian architecture,” given what Christians believe about being human. If good architecture can help us flourish as human beings, then we cannot ignore these fundamental anthropological questions.

The reason architecture matters so much is not simply because we spend so much of our lives in human-created spaces. More importantly, the spaces we create are not only shaped by us — they also shape us.

John Ruskin, in his magisterial 19th-century treatise, The Stones of Venice, writes that there are three primary virtues of architecture. First, the structure should act well. It should do the things it was intended to do in the best way. Second, it should speak well. It should say the things it was intended to say. Third, it should look well. It should please us by its presence.

The second virtue Ruskin describes — speaking well — is the least understood in our own age. We understand (or at least we think we understand) what it means for a building to function well or to be aesthetically pleasing. But rarely do we think about what our buildings have to say to us about being human.

Contemporary buildings gain notoriety when they express the genius of the architect. Sometimes this perceived genius manifests itself in the form of engineering prowess. See, for example, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest skyscraper. It embodies what Louis H. Sullivan, the father of skyscrapers, described as the essence of the skyscraper: “It is lofty. It must be tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing,” which is basically a paraphrase of Genesis 11:4, in which the builders of the Tower of Babel declare, “Come let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.”

Other iconic structures are noted less for their engineering prowess than for their aesthetic interest. Contemporary architect Peter Eisenman has made a career out of “liberating” architecture (from what?, one wonders) with his highly conceptual, deconstructivist works. His failed project, City of Culture of Galicia, with its rolling hill-like contours, is certainly unlike any structure on earth. But as with all of Eisenman’s works, it is not a structure built for humans. In fact, it appears to be a central tenet of Eisenman’s architectural philosophy that there is no such thing as human nature. There is nothing redemptive about his architecture, because he doesn’t believe there exists a human nature to be redeemed. Eisenman’s buildings tell us little about how to live well as human beings, but they speak volumes about Eisenman.

Gaudy skyscrapers and avant-garde buildings may provide us with obvious examples of architectural vices, but the same vices can manifest themselves in more mundane buildings, too. When we forget that our buildings speak to us, our architecture begins to foster bad anthropology. One hundred years ago, when the historian and philosopher Lewis Mumford began to observe the way homes were becoming more like machines than dwelling places, he observed, “The end of a civilization that considers buildings as mere machines is that it considers human beings as mere machine-tenders.” As we have increasingly mastered our physical environment through scientific progress, “we have forgotten that there is a science of humanity, as well as a science of material things.” When we remember to base our architectural principles on sound anthropology — the “science of humanity” — we will be on the right track.

I once heard a theologian describe good church architecture as conveying a sense to worshippers that the building is worshiping with them. In other words, the church building itself participates in the proclamation of the gospel. This is how the building speaks to us. The starting point for Christian architecture — not just sacred space, but secular space as well — is simply to ask the right question: “What does this building tell us about how to be human?”

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