There’s something about architecture that arrests us, often without our being aware. Even as Jesus was about to bring Lazarus back to life, he asked for help in removing the stone sealing the tomb.
This was something he could have accomplished with a flick of a finger. Perhaps this divine example was what has always prompted churches and monasteries to be constructed of stone—the hard element of the earth—even as they seek to touch heaven.
Notice the colors of St. Joseph’s Abbey in western Massachusetts, the Trappist monastery I photographed above, where I make my annual retreat: stone walls built by the monks themselves, of wheat and sand and the yellow-brown of winter grass.
Forests were the first temples, as James C. Snyder writes in his Introduction to Architecture, where “men grasped their first idea of architecture.”
In Ukraine, for example, churches built of wood are traditional and still being built throughout the worldwide Ukrainian diaspora. This is the wooden 16th century Church of St. George in Drohobych:
Builders soon turned to stone and brick--components more lasting than wood—in order to leave a more lasting legacy of their worship, their art and their view of the world.
Nowhere did I witness this more than during a month in Italy. As Rebecca Solnit writes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Italian cities have long been held up as ideals by the ways their architecture gives beauty and meaning to everyday acts.
I visited the library in the Tuscan town of San Lorenzo. Here’s the photo I took, in utter amazement of the cultural and artistic heritage enjoyed by the people of this little community—largely unawares, I’ll wager.
In light of all this, I’m hesitant about the architectural legacy we’re leaving for future generations.
I’m anxious mostly because the bulk of today’s architecture reflects the shabby condition of our society. We are in large part a society of commercialism, high-stepping like brown-shirts to the beat of corporate marketing departments.
Almost two centuries ago, Victor Hugo said it better than I:
The greatest products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society; rather the offspring of a nation's effort, than the inspired flash of a man of genius . . . .
I offer only two examples of what I am talking about: the Ford building and the Chrysler building. One requires crowning by its corporate logo to define it. The other, a breakthrough architectural statement, defines itself without need of a logo.
The study of architecture is a life-long endeavor. I am not academically equipped to present a professional comment on the current state of affairs of the public buildings we are constructing.
But I know this much. Their patrons are corporations, driven by quarterly profit performance.
So I must conclude, as Ada Louise Huxtable (winner of the first Pulitzer Prize for architecture criticism) did in her landmark book, On Architecture: Collected Reflections on a Century of Change:
Today, when so much seems to conspire to reduce life and feeling to the most deprived and demeaning bottom line, it is more important than ever that we receive that extra dimension of dignity or delight and the elevated sense of self that the art of building can provide through the nature of the places where we live and work. What counts more than style is whether architecture improves our experience of the built world; whether it makes us wonder why we never noticed places in quite this way before.
In my next blog, “A Millennial Pop Quiz”
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