Stuart Sutcliffe: The "Lost" Beatle
Birds. Bees. Calvinists.

My Friend, the Architect (Part Two of A Conversation)

Hometown_1[Continuing a conversation begun a couple days ago, my architect friend Andy and I continue to discuss Chrustian faith, architecture, and planning, trying to discern the good, true, and beautiful.]

SW says:

Ok, now where were we?

AO says:

Something about cities vs gardens, but let's move on.

SW says:

Here's a big question.  Take from it what you will. . . .

SW says:

I know that you work in downtown Raleigh and live not too far from the downtown, and you have observed the changes occurring there.  As Christians, how do we evaluate what is happening downtown or consider what should happen downtown?  How do we determine what is good or what is bad from God’s perspective?  What are some of the healthy things happening?  What things may prove problematic later?

AO says:

There are a lot of question marks in that instant message.

SW says:

Ha!  It wasn't intended to be one, you know

AO says:

It's okay to start basic and elemental.  This is a question of discernment, as with anything we see in culture.  What is good and bad in the news?  What is good and bad in this TV show I'm watching?  Those questions and the interpretive role of the Spirit and of Scripture are relevant to the built environment.  I've traveled some recently, and in Raleigh/Cary et al, it seems more symptomatic that people think it's rude to be critical or worse, that it's irrelevant to make value judgments on events.  Well, that's a rabbit trail, isn't it?  Cases in point: criticism of the Coker towers versus criticism of the Freedom tower (World Trade Center replacement).  Let me get back to a couple other question marks above.

SW says:

Let me just agree that discernment is a great word for what must be done.

AO says:

Intention is significant.  In any art, the intention of the artist has some relevance to the good/badness of the art - though not all relevance.  Architecture is similar, but somehow it seems to be more transparent.

SW says:

You may need to explain -- is intention really important, or do we just evaluate what is done – objectively?

SW says:

After all, the intention may be X, but the result on the ground may be Y.

AO says:

For example, some of our clients want to put up a shopping center quick and cheap so they see immediate returns.  They may even plan to sell the building during construction.  The level of detail and quality of materials plummets.

SW says:

But I would evaluate that apart from intent -- it's just bad, ugly construction (to be inarticulate).

AO says:

On the other hand, a developer who plans to hold onto property and leases it to tenants will be very concerned about the appearance and durability and innovative schemes because he wants to attract tenants and build a good reputation in the neighborhood.

AO says:

In architecture, human intention is present in the expression, constantly. 

SW says:

But again, I would evaluate what he did and does, not what he intends.

SW says:

Human intention is present in everything!

SW says:

I'm not saying intention is unimportant, but a more objective evaluation must deal with what is, not what was intended.

AO says:

We can look at the retail buildings from the early 1900's.  They are extraordinarily simple.  They are literally brick boxes.  The faces which aren't promptly on the street front have brick that is poorly set.  But, if the owner’s intention was a shiny facade on a street, that is where his detail is, the brick work is done by a skilled mason.  This is where Wright/Sullivan's line comes in about form following function.  The built work becomes the embodiment of what the owner/architect/government/time and place created them to be.  It sounds vague, but in architecture, the art has a raison d’etre, and that is inescapable in assessing the work.

SW says:

Intention. . . Take a song – a writer may have intended a man-woman love song, but it may be widely interpreted as a love song of worship for God.

AO says:

Ah - songs, i.e., renovation!

AO says:

Absolutely, architecture will be modified for a new intention just like a bar-tune may become a hymn.  And then, your city gets much richer.  This is how a city adds the layers that make it rich.

AO says:

So, that's something good downtown.  We're adding layers to what's already there instead of bulldozing and building more Styrofoam.  We're turning parking lots into three-dimensional space.  That's positive.

SW says:

Yes, I think so.

AO says:

I'm not sure how to make it spiritual, but I like the idea of it.

SW says:

I do too, but that does point out the difficulty of relating what is done, that is, what is good, to a biblical worldview.

SW says:

For example, I think that we can argue from the idea that we are made in God's image, to the principle that people have a dignity that needs to be respected in the built environment, but then it gets difficult to make hard and fast applications of it..

AO says:

It's something about making the earth into what it longs to be, that whole Romans 1 bit.  That whole "subdue the earth" bit from Genesis.  It's what we're made to do.

SW says:

Yes, the cultural mandate.

AO says:

And so, that's good and right.  That's absolute.

SW says:

I understand that idea of Adam tilling and keeping actually means, in a strong way in the Hebrew, to actually serve the earth.

SW says:

That's a good perspective for planning and building.

SW says:

Places need to not simply be beautiful structures but humane structures, places that are livable (if residences) and which build community.

SW says:

I also think community is inherent, and eternal, present in the Trinity.  As we image God, we must image community.

AO says:

I used to walk frequently down the Dawson Street block, west of the police station and Nash Square.  That one block has two gay bars, a pornography store, and a goodwill outlet.  The buildings are one-story, brick, dilapidated except for some upfitted retail bits.  When I walked there, I would pray that God would tear down those buildings.  He hasn't yet.  I wonder if he wants me to pray another way.  In either case, those buildings are more than symbolic of what's inside.  They're also a haven for what's inside.  But, they're also ugly, and I don't think that's irrelevant.

SW says:

No, me either.  There are people there desperately trying to connect, to have someone, some community, and yet it's not what God intended.So evaluation is difficult, isn’t it?

AO says:

Well, architects are critics.  We're brutal (I'm nice.)  Our school experience was pouring our hearts and minds into [something], pinning it to the wall, and having a professor tear it apart - often literally tear it apart.

AO says:

Evaluation is part of the mystique - on a good day.

AO says:

What's next?

SW says:

How about this: What biblical narratives or doctrines do you find instructive for how we plan and build cities?  (I’m thinking of Creation, or the wild imagery of Revelation, or the doctrine of the incarnation or the trinity, but there are undoubtedly more.)

SW says:

Another biggie!

AO says:

Wow - that's an awesome question.  Every time I read the dimensions of the tabernacle or the temple or the New Jerusalem, I want to start drawing it in CAD [software].  I haven't done that yet.

SW says:

Your employer may not appreciate that!

AO says:

The first thing I got excited about, architecturally, in Scripture, was meeting Bezalel and Oholiab.  These were men who were filled with the Spirit to be craftsmen for the temple.  That doesn't tell us how to design buildings or cities, but it tells us to care about the skill and materials we use as we are led by the Spirit.

SW says:

Yes, very important.

AO says:

Yeah, it's a great question, but I'm not sure where to go with it.  Sometimes I do put crosses in my designs, and I'm happy when I find them there, but I don't think it has to be that symbolic.

SW says:

Well, let me try something on you. . .

SW says:

Let's begin with Creation.  There is diversity in the created order.You cannot argue in a strict way from that fact, but I think you can formulate a normative principle that a design must allow for a healthy diversity of function and use.  What we do is make a creative response to that norm.

AO says:

We saw Gaudi's Sagrada Familia - he had sculpture around the bottom depicting Bible stories, he had twelve spires for the disciples and then in the spires, he wrote "Hallelujah" in tile and glass.  That's literal and beautiful, but my office buildings don't have spires.

SW says:

But all that stuff is like propaganda in a way -- using the design as a soapbox for witness.  It's not that crass, but you know what I mean.

SW says:

What I'm talking about is something that inheres in the design.

AO says:

Okay, yes.  Diversity is good, order is good, even propaganda is good, but it kind of happens anyway.  Tadao Ando makes chapels out of concrete.  The finish is impeccable - he creates bare, gleaming, absolutely smooth concrete boxes.  Yet, because of that monotony of material, the light on the surface shimmers, the corners glow.  And order, architecture especially is bound by physics.

AO says:

Even in the attempted disorder of the postmodernists, that structure comes out even more.

SW says:

Well, I think order is inevitable -- because of how we are made.  Any artist (like John Cage) who has attempted to produce pure randomness in his art has been frustrated.  Order rears its head.

AO says:

So, architecture uses that order as part of the palette.  It's a sweetly spiritual art in many ways.

AO says:

I'd like to hear your comments about bringing order to a city.  Should a city be a grid of streets?

SW says:

     Yes.  But I’ll get back to you later on that.  OK?

Comments