Architecture and Theology
I had just had a remarkable discussion with my stepson, Abe, who is just back from a very successful competition in Washington, DC, where he submitted a house, designed and built by his team at Middlebury College, to be both a well-engineered building and a home for real people. We talked about architecture as being an art for human beings who need shelter, a sense of home, comfort, safety, memory and a base for an active life. An architect is a theologian of sorts. In fact, architecture, I said, is a sub-branch of theology. Take a door, for instance. Some would say a door should have human dimensions, not too high or wide. Others would say that a door may take you to a transcendent level of experience and should be high and thick and graded, showing the stages of movement from the secular to the sacred. We see many church doors like this, and I often advocate that hospitals, devoted to the mysteries of illness and healing, should have spiritual, theological doors that suggests the vastness of experience. I could imagine architects taking courses in theology that is not limited to a particular religion.
I often recall reading about a person in Palladio’s time who wanted to build a majestic home. He acquired the services of a musician, a theologian and an architect to make the design. We are not capable today, generally, of imagining such a thing. I am writing in a room that has the proportions of 4:2:1 A fourth, an octave and the unison, pleasing musical sounds. You could play my room on the piano, and it would sound harmonious. It feel harmonious. Its acoustics are harmonious.
Abe and I discussed the Shakers, who made beautiful buildings. Their aesthetic came from their theology. I recommended that for a future project Abe study the theology of the Shakers closely and find out how to realize their vision in building. Their highly praised simplicity comes from their simple theology. They were able to accomplish something that has eluded us in modern times: a full merging of the material world with a spiritual vision. This is not materialism, and yet it derives from a love of material things, a love that leads to beauty and practicality, a pleasant and effective lifestyle. We tend to see an opposition between the spirit and matter. That is a severe weakness in our spirituality.
Many spiritual people do not love their bodies or the material world, and they suffer because of this unnecessary and ill-conceived polarization. It affects their sexuality and their enjoyment of life. How can you be spiritual and not take pleasure in living?