Something of an agnostic myself (and a Jewish one, to boot), I used to take my son to various churches not to give him a taste of theology (he was only 2 then, and we lived near Grace Church in those days, to which we paid our most frequent visits) but maybe to instill in him a taste for beauty, both in the built world and in the sound of music and the human voice. Often we would repair afterward to Tazza, the now defunct restaurant near Grace Church, for breakfast. For a while you could see the world pass by outside its windows, but then they were frosted over, and now the place has been closed – though the building owner, Buff Chace, has decided to put in new windows without the stupid frosting.
Nowadays Billy worships Angry Birds and we don’t visit churches as much. (I hope Angry Birds is not the Devil’s work!)
Today is Sunday, and I am still eager to do what little I can to help Billy by trying to soften a tough world. Also, I have been reading Nikos Salingaros, the mathematician and theorist of architecture, and have reached the chapter “Anti-Architecture and Religion” in his book Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction: The Triumph of Nihilism, originally published in 2004 but reissued four times since, most recently this year, with interesting additional material.
Anyway, his thoughts influence my post today.
Church architecture has always been beautiful architecture because church architects long tried to make churches reflect the beauty of God. You do not have to believe in God to cherish the role of religion in ordering and softening the world – even admitting that all religions have committed grievous wrongs, usually in misguided attempts to get people to hew to the one true path (as this or that religion sees it). But if you put the idea that life has meaning next to the idea that life has no meaning, most people think the former view is more compelling. It may not be true but it is certainly good. Of course it is a truism that only one religion (at most) can be “true” to the extent that its view of the world reflects how the world really is – and maybe none are. But perhaps it may be said that religion embodies a higher truth, whether God exists or not.
So church architecture reflects two of the three avatars: the good and the beautiful, and maybe also the true.
It has always irked me when I see a modernist church – the Church of St. George Jetson, as I like to say. Such a church declares that its congregation, usually through a committee of its church leaders, has decided to step away from order and beauty toward nihilism – the idea that life has no meaning, which makes it more difficult to slow humanity’s decline toward a world of chaos. Modernism in architecture and in the other arts and intellectual fields beckons toward nihilism, disorder, chaos – represented by a purposeful ugliness.
Such modernism claims, as Salingaros points out, to be scientific, but its claims are bogus. True science is closer to religion than to modernism. Science and religion have, at least, a reverence for order at their base, and both reflect processes that seek truth and exalt beauty. Modernism pulls in the other direction. Even the modernists claim that architecture should reflect its era, and ours is, increasingly, one of disorder and chaos. I think architecture’s job – beyond housing humanity’s needs – is to help solve humanity’s problems, not merely to reflect them in glass and steel. That is a low, degrading purpose.
I find I am running out of things to say on this fruitful subject, so I will conclude this post with those thoughts, such as they may be. The upshot is that for a congregation to build a modernist church may seem to be an exercise in fashion but it is really much deeper than that, and ought to be avoided.
I was going to replace Chartres Cathedral with the photo below, taken last night on a ferris wheel near a local church at the end of Broadway, here in Providence, but I just couldn’t bring myself to give the heave ho to Chartres. So that photo, which seems to reflect the pressures of modernity on religion, is below rather than above, which may actually be more appropriate.
Cheers to a fantastically resonant close to a deliciously thoughtful essay.