CHRISTIAN BELIEF AND THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
This paper was presented by Professor Robert Macleod as the Keynote address at the Architects' and Planners' Conference in March 1983.
'If what faded away came with splendour, that is God's revelation to Moses through the commandments, what is permanent must have much more splendour. Since we have such a hope we are very bold, not like Moses who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the fading splendour, but their minds were hardened, for to this day when they read the old covenant that same veil remains unlifted because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day, whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds, but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed.' (2 Cor 3 v 11-16)
I think we should keep that phrase rather carefully in the context in which it is written, because I think that phrase itself has occasionally been the subject of too much expectation, too much aspiration and too much false hope. However:
'Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.' (2 Cor 3 v 17-18)
That is probably, to my way of thinking, the most hopeful single verse in the entire New Testament for a Christian and it requires an immense act of faith to believe it when you look at your face in the morning! And of course it is not necessarily true except when you are consistently looking to the Lord himself. But that is the focus of our attention and our Christian life and it is the basis of our transformation and the indication is that that transformation is, although complete in God's good grace, progressive in terms of the experience of living. That is, we cannot be perfect, and we are not intended indeed or expected to be perfect in this life. The following chapter begins to make that clear.
'Therefore having this ministry by the mercy of God we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practise cunning or to tamper with God's Word but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God. And if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the likeness of God. For what we preach is not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For it is the God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness' who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed, always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.' (2 Cor 4 v 1-10)
A Basic Paradox
I think that is the beginning paradox from which all our consideration of our Christian life and activity has to spring: that we are carrying death and life together; that we are in the process of sharing in the suffering and death of our Lord and we are manifesting, that is, revealing, his resurrected life through these miserable, poor, shortcoming bodies of ours.
'For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.' (2 Cor 4 v 11)
And further down:
'So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient but the things that are unseen are eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.' (2 Cor 4 v 16 - 5 v 1)
I will stop there. It would be tempting to go on. That description can be taken at some points to suggest that because this world is transient, and there is something much more substantial and eternal beyond it, we should become so heavenly-minded that we are no earthly good, because the earth itself is not that much use to us anyway. I think Oliver Barclay has dealt with that very adequately in the general proposition regarding Christians and culture reproduced in Chapter 1.1 It also means - and this is one of the other sides of the paradox in my view - that as Christians, because we realise the transience of the world in which we live and the insubstantial nature of the very things with which we deal, curiously enough we can see them more really than others, or we can begin to see them more really, and that our participation in these things and our enjoyment of them is richer because it is in a context. It is set in the context of certain eternal verities which are the substance of our faith.
Where do we go in practical terms from there? I would like to raise about four issues for your consideration. That was, it seemed to me, a very necessary preamble: talking about this ambivalence in which we live, that we are imperfect and we will not be perfect in this life, that however God is working out his plan in us, he is working it out as his plan in his imperfect children, and that the manifestation is not of a divine order of an alternative society but of the grace and the redemptive characteristic of God himself as manifested through our shockingly contrasted selves. One of the amazing things about the impact of the Christian life, it seems to me, is that it can happen at all through such faulty people, and I suspect that many of our great Christian fathers were not in themselves terribly attractive people.
It does seem to me, then, that living such a life, perplexed, knocked down, bewildered, uncertain as to which way we are going so often, and yet trusting that as we focus on our Lord himself we are in the process of being transformed, which is the core really of our faith, and trusting also that he is working out his plan and purposes through us as we look to him - it seems to me a very great hazard then for Christian architects and planners, who happen to be in the process of predicting (predicting environments), that we are going to be terribly tempted to anticipate God's plan as we see it being revealed, or to chase around looking for it to be revealed, and therefore to interfere in the worst possible way with the realisation of that plan itself. Because our focus is on him and his immediate purpose for us and the plan is his and the responsibility for the realisation of the plan is his too. But I find very little in Scripture to indicate that that plan is going to be manifest in this temporal world and I find a great deal in the history of the Church to indicate that every attempt to make it manifest has ended up being often absolutely fascinating, absolutely beautiful and theologically totally irrelevant. Where God's grace (and the Lord's grace), I think, is very often highly ironic, for God's grace is extremely manifest in the things themselves but not at all in the way their authors intended.
A simple and very large-scale example of that would be, say, the whole of the gothic development, and the later Renaissance development, suggested as it was on a platonically based theology around the notion of God's pattern as established through number and interval. This was the whole ideological base on which these great movements were founded and produced, anchored firmly in the Queen of the Sciences, Theology, and about as relevant to Scripture as - well, not very relevant to Scripture at all. And yet they manifest in their various ways something of the glory and something of the order and something of the natural grace which could only be given by God, through his fallen creatures, but in purely Christian terms they would have to be described as irrelevant.
Where does that leave us in our fractured, fragmented society? I would like to suggest to you several characteristics of our life in the world of architecture and planning now to which I think we as Christians are responsible, to address ourselves, and which I would suggest to you may give us some of the clues of the way forward in our field.
Lack of confidence
The first one I want to draw your attention to is that since the middle of the nineteenth century, in particular, with the fragmentation of many of the traditional great styles and approaches to architecture and planning and environment and the proliferation of new ideas, one of the great movements that has grown has been the conservation movement. There is no doubt, historically, at all that the bedrock on which the conservation movement was founded was the final realisation by an increasing number of people that their generation was not able to contribute to the continuing tale of building. That is, as the conservation movement began specifically in this country in the 1870s with the establishment of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the foundation of that movement was that we must hold on to all that is old and past and good because we are incapable in our own time of building as well or improving it.
That is a very radical and amazing change in historical attitude - a great change, for example, in 150 years from the time when Nicholas Hawksmoor quite happily chopped off virtually the whole of the west front of Westminster Abbey, redesigned it in a much improved way, according to him, and rebuilt it. And so the west front that the tourists see is Nicholas Hawksmoor's abstracted ideal of what gothic architecture ought to have been. Had it been done in the hands of a good Classicist - which suggests a lot about that period of history but also suggests an immense contrast to show how far we have come in the other direction. Now please don't misunderstand me. I am not advocating here the abandonment of a conservation platform.
What I am suggesting is that conservation and the awe and the reverence with which we treat the environment we have inherited lies very much in the area of our own terrible uncertainty about our ability to make any meaningful contribution at all. And if that is not true of all the architects and planners, I suspect it is an attitude more universally held by the planners about the architects - which is reasonable! And even more universally held by the general public about both of them! But this lack of confidence is a very serious thing and it has some quite interesting repercussions, not the least that as we move into our own time and we begin to see the lack of confidence that has overtaken our own internal attitude of 30 years ago, that in the modern movement we were on to a good and final and terminal solution to people's problems, that we too have become neo-vernacularists finding in the past, provided it is a relatively unspecific past, a kind of comfort and a kind of security which iconography does not provide us with in the development of our attitude to things around.
Now we can defend that on the grounds of good-neighbourliness and all sorts of things but it is a specific professional manifestation in most instances of our own uncertainty about a specific way forward for the time. We will come back to this, I am sure.
Lack of trust
The second issue that I want to draw your attention to is a broader one and I am calling it 'the lack of trust'. So the first I have called 'the lack of confidence'; the second I am calling 'the lack of trust'. The whole of society as we know it, I think unarguably, has been based on the principle of delegation, that societies began, as I understand it from the anthropologists and others, to develop complexity through the delegation of various activities on behalf of one another to one another, and as these delegations developed, so they lived in some area of mutual trust, and in stable societies it would appear that the basis for that trust was some sort of ideological common value system which would normally be in the form of a religion with highly specific practical characteristics. And so I as the wheelwright could delegate the butchering of animals to my neighbour the butcher, and the farmer, in turn, would delegate to me, the wheelwright, the repair of his farm wagons, and so on through the community, on the basis that we trusted and cared for another and at the bottom level there was some kind of religious and ideological value system which made us live together and enabled us to delegate to one another in trust.
It was the nineteenth century and the massive explosion of industrialisation and the great growth in specialisms that saw the big upsurge towards the rise of the modern professions - which we call the modern professions, including planners and architects. Without dwelling on this, it is perfectly obvious that the professions were mooted as an opportunity to defend people's interests in a society where life was becoming too complex and values were becoming too fragmented for people to be able to delegate to one another in trust. The rise of the capitalist market had created certain kinds of trading relationships in which people could inspect one another's produce but they were never able to cover the situation where someone had to exercise a skill on behalf of the rest of the community which had the following two characteristics: it had to be committed to in advance, and it was too complex by its nature for the ordinary layman to make a reasonable judgement about it.
And it was around these two characteristics that the modern professions began to rise, and they had to try to structure themselves in such a way that the rest of the community could look to them and delegate activities to them in trust. In general terms, over the last hundred years and accelerating in the last few years in particular, one has seen a gradual deterioration in that relationship of trust. Be it with the medical profession, be it indeed with the clergy, be it with the lawyers certainly, be it with the architects and the planners, there is a deterioration of the willingness to delegate in trust to one another and the need either to create new kinds of competition or to open up the workings of the institutions to public inspection or finally to produce legislation.
Now both planning and architecture, differently as cause and effect, have been special cases in all this, because we are about the only area where society began to make its own protections before the professions actually came into formal existence. One of the terribly ambivalent characteristics of the architectural profession in particular, and the planning profession later, was that by the time it was legislated by society, society had created its own means of protection through its own forms of predictive legislation, which we now call the building codes and the fire bye-laws and planning legislation and the increasing proliferation of legislative means of anticipating the end product before the delegated professional has actually turned even his mind to it. And we now find ourselves at the paradoxical point where it requires rather more skill and intelligence to handle the legislation than it does to design, and is often less likely to result in success.
Now this is becoming an increasingly serious situation. I said on another public occasion, two or three years ago, that we were reaching the point where we were having to spend a great deal of the education of the students teaching them specialist skills to handle the legislation rather than to handle the building, because the tools very often required for them were more complex than the tools would have been for the simple, straightforward design. There is no doubt that the architects and the planners and much of their mutual malaise and unease with one another is because they find themselves caught, very often, at both ends of that particular paradox; on the one hand, suggesting the creation of legislation, on the second hand enforcing it and on the other one, rather as with Inland Revenue, trying to winkle out ways of getting round it or to make special cases. Now, although we find it amusing and we find it stressful and increasingly frustrating, I think we should not lose sight of the fact that at bottom it has to do with our unpreparedness to trust one another in that normal delegatory way.
If more evidence were needed for that, in the wave of the complexity of legislation has come the complexity and the increasing proliferation of litigation, and personal liability insurance has become such a major issue in so many professions that in America some of the professionals have come up with the novel idea of 'going bare', which means, in the jargon, that they make it clear to all their clients before they begin that they carry no liability insurance whatsoever and if anyone sues them they can't get anything because they haven't got anything! It is no exaggeration to say that both in the medical world and in the architectural world this game has again in turn been getting out of hand. I know that in the United States, personal liability insurance premiums per annum would pay a very good specialist's annual fee by themselves - and that is just to protect the doctor from his clients, from his patients, and it means that every patient who comes through his door paradoxically is having to pay for the doctor's own protection before he can get the doctor's service. It also means that the doctor is put in the position of not being able to exercise his best judgement because in many circumstances it might be too risky.
You can quite easily trace the parallels between that and architecture and planning, and indeed the poor building inspectors' practice, because when exposed to the possibility of litigation, they are also being driven to the need to protect themselves, and they are being driven to that need very often by the avarice of the clients who want to get the money from them - to say nothing of the work executed by a third party called the builder, who as long as it is a reasonable sized building these days is almost certain to set up a claims office particularly to deal with that job before it even begins. Now these are some of the sadnesses of the world in which we live, and they are some of the manifestations of the extent to which we are productively beginning to grind to a halt through our inability to trust one another and to see the consequences of that lack of trust in an inability to serve one another as well as we could.
Why do we not do this? Because as a society we are not capable of manifesting that greatest and most demanding of Christian virtues, the bearing of one another's burdens. Now I think this raises a very practical issue for the Christian. How do I serve my colleagues in such a way that I can delegate to them in trust and carry the consequences of their mistakes as well? I think that is a very searching question, particularly for those architects and planners who are in the business of delegating functions to many of their other professional colleagues themselves, and not always as Christians delegating them with the level of trust and with the level of burden bearing that perhaps might be required.
That leads me on to the third characteristic, which I will call 'alienation', and it flows very naturally from the previous. We are quite used to talking and thinking about and reading about levels of alienation in our community at large: levels of alienation in the inner city. What about the alienations that exist ever close to home? The sense of antagonism that exists before a relationship is begun, between various parties to an enterprise in the complex planning and building issues with which we deal; the unwillingness to open our ears and open our understanding; the unwillingness even more, when required to work together, to jockey for role positions so that we can retain some kind of control, and for the Christian that is a particularly malicious kind of position to be in, because we sometimes argue it, if I can play the role of a designing architect for the moment: I say, 'Well, yes, I will bring in the best engineers and I will listen to what the planners have to say but because I am working under the grace of God and I am capable of understanding his will for this job, I am in charge. And I will use them as best I can to make them realise my vision'. That is not actually how 2 Corinthians described the Christian's role, and it may be one of the reasons why God has not chosen to manifest His plan in such determinate terms, because His plan and purpose is His glory through our lives and His glory through our lives is manifest in our willingness to trust and to bear the burdens for one another.
Now, it hasn't taken Christians to discover this. There are a great many fundamentally secularly based people who have discovered the glories and the joys of sharing in project-based activity. The basis for it always has to be what the basis for society traditionally has always had to be, whether Christian or not: an understanding of goals and standards and values lying at the bottom- in the case of a project, that is almost certainly an understanding of its objectives; the willingness then, to delegate within that to one another in trust in the confidence that all are aspiring to the same goals and values; and as a flow out of that, the amazing role shifts that begin to occur, when quantity surveyors start talking aesthetics, when energy engineers start talking overall costs and giving way, when structural engineers talk aesthetics and when architects talk like structural engineers. And these role shifts I have seen happen in the most amazing ways and some of the transformations had something of the Christian delight in community about them, even when they were purely secularly based, but what they had to do was the discovery of commonality, the discovery and enhancement of one another's skills, relationships of actual joy and love in sharing out of a context where goals are being aspired to together.
I want to touch on one other aspect of this alienation, which is perhaps more characteristic of the architect than of any of the other roles for the game, and that has to do with the mystery of the word 'artist'. We have tended to grow up, and our education has tended to grow up, with some very strange nineteenth-century views of the nature of an artist and what he was. I think the most prevalent view has been what you might call the Ruskinian view, of the artist as an extraordinarily sensitive sort of chap who has been gifted by God with perceptions and sensibilities which are beyond the lot of the common man, and that therefore he cannot be quite readily constrained within the ordinary rules because he has a kind of private pipeline to heaven or to some mystical other place which suggests to him forms of creativity which are not the lot of people like biologists, for example; that the artist is somehow special. The artist therefore is a bit of an autocrat. He makes the rules as he goes along and others serve him.
Now much of that lies at the basis of the notion of the architect as so-called leader of the team in the role relations. The architect is the one expected to provide the vision and if his vision is faulty we all carry the consequences. There was another nineteenth-century view of the role of the artist which seems to me to come very, very much closer to what would be an acceptable Christian view. It comes historically out of, curiously, a Christian tradition, a Christian architectural tradition. Pugin, the first architect of the serious phase of the Gothic revival, is regarded in many quarters and in many aspects as a figure of fun, but he was a deeply committed Catholic. That he had a vision of mediaeval society which was totally unrealistic, there is no doubt, and that his vision for restoring the ills of nineteenth-century society falls squarely into one of the camps, in an extreme form, that Oliver Barclay1 has already outlined in his paper. That was to suggest that we could all marry again into the divine plan if we simply picked up where we had left Gothic before the degeneration of the Reformation, because that was a divinely ordained society in which God's purposes were becoming clearer and clearer until the Reformation got in the way, and that therefore in architecture it carried with it something of the qualities of what God really wanted to see built.
Now that underlay (and it was picked up again by the ecclesiologists and others about whom I and others have written) an enormously serious movement throughout the nineteenth century, and although stylistically we can laugh it off and theologically we can dispute it, one of the things it produced was probably the most holistic view of the nature of the environment and its inter-connections that had yet been manifest in Western cultural history. It brought with it, for example, the notion that the quality of the environment that was produced had something to do directly with the moral and ethical quality of the community that produced it, and what's more, and perhaps at the end of the day what's even more important, it brought to the attention of designers the necessity for the making and the doing for the service aspects. It brought into the realm of architecture all that was made. It was, in one word, holistic.
Now, the movement lived out its natural span and died, but the notion of the holism pressed on, and I find it manifest in very moving ways towards the end of the nineteenth century in the work of, in particular, Philip Webb, associated directly with William Morris - both of them agnostic, possibly atheist, but both of them picking up this holistic, community-based notion of extremely high and aspiring ethic, to say that architecture or anything else would become an art, but it became an art through service; that it was only an art when that which was being met with, that which was needed, was raised to the highest possible level. And so you had the notion emerge of an artist who could be a bricklayer or a painter or an architect or an engineer or a physicist or a mathematician. All of them were capable of being artists through the transcendence of their crafts, through the doing.
I don't think that that notion has had anything like the credence in this twentieth century that it has deserved, because what it puts is the highest of all professional challenges, that is, to master your craft and to do it well. And it may well be that part of the business of living out the growing mastery and discovering God's grace through that, because what it brings with it is perhaps an uncertainty as to the iconographic intent but a growing assurance with the handling of the problems you're doing and a much greater commitment to the holistic nature of what we are about, and, I think, an immense redress to the kinds of alienation that have been specifically aimed at us and to us and in us. We all know, as architects and planners, society at large feels immense alienation and bitterness over what we have been parties to perpetrating over the last thirty to forty years. Now regardless of whose specific responsibility that has been, we have been parties to it, and we cannot escape the responsibility for that. And the redress to that, it would seem to me, is not in suggesting yet other iconographic changes and new patterns which might be closer to the divinely revealed plan but the immersion in the service to the problems that present themselves to us.
The interesting thing about this is that it was already spotted by 1928 by one of those very arts-and-crafts men. It is one of my choicest little quotations. W.R. Letherby, who was a great friend and disciple of Philip Webb and of William Morris, died in 1931. In 1928 he gave a lecture at the Architectural Association, and typical of the old man (he had been reading and writing in French, German, and English for many years and was probably more in touch with Continental developments in the early part of this century than almost any other architect alive here), he said, 'I see that Monsieur Corbusier has called houses "machines to live in" and I find it a very suggestive thought'. Now when I myself read this first, I felt one of those strange, quirky feelings as if history had turned itself upside down, because we know the chronology of our history and it is just not right that a nineteenth century arts-and-crafts chap should be alive long enough to be treating Corbusier, before the poor chap had even got fairly under way. But he said, 'I find it a very suggestive thought'.
Now Letherby himself had been preaching such a doctrine in a rich way for many years, because he saw architecture in the Morris terms as service. But he went on; he said, 'But (referring to Corbusier) it must be pointed out that for given conditions, roofs of thatch and walls of brick may well be as sensible and scientific an answer as cubes of concrete or structures of steel'. And then, later: 'What funny stuff this architecture is. "Ye olde modernist style".' That was 1928 and some will argue that he anticipated many of the shortcomings of the so-called modern movement before it had even fairly begun anywhere, in those few remarks. Now, why could he and should he do so? Because he was a prophet? Because he had greater insight? I would suggest it was (a) because he was a clever man but (b) more importantly, because he had his eye on the nature of the service to which we should have been aspiring and was not distracted by the iconographic affection for visions of the new world. It was the reality of the emergent world with which he was concerned and not visions of the new one.
I offer Letherby to you as a model to aspire to. The more I read and try to understand of my role as Christian, the less I think it has to do with the visionary; the more it has to do with service, but not necessarily the less it has to do with the exciting; that very often there are true visions that begin to occur, when the hearts and minds of people are directed in the same way and when they are seeking to serve, which may well result in forms that we do not anticipate. If they do, the forms will have a validity which we could not have anticipated and validity which will be other than any of the slightly quirky imaginative powers that we may bring to them. And this, I suggest to you, is one of the great lessons of history, that arts which are a thousand men deep, all pointing in the same direction, bring to them a kind of glory which may be the manifestation of God's natural law in one form or another but have little to do with the great visionary insights of an individual. And where one finds those insights of individuals which have had meaning, they have nearly always come through the very heart of the problems and issues which that community was addressing at that point in time.
Let me very quickly recap, then. I have suggested that we have a lack of confidence, we have a lack of trust, we have alienation, and these things manifest themselves increasingly in a variety of ways. They not only manifest themselves with respect to the community at large; they manifest themselves very specifically within our own professional relationships and within the ways we work. Somewhere around these lies the heart of our Christian challenge and what we are expected to bring to the world is not a new vision, not a Christian formula but a participation in life and in death, in dying and in living, in bringing forward under the ministry of the Holy Spirit a spirit of reconciliation, a readdress to wholeness, which is the basis on which we can then begin to be predictively bold in our activities, not bold in the sense of trying to impose on society our own images but bold in the sense of having immersed ourselves in a servant role in trust, bold in the sense in which Paul was in addressing the ills and the problems of the community in predictive ways. These are the skills that we are called on to bring. And lastly and necessarily, as we accept one another through our failures and weaknesses, the continued acceptance of the failed in our communities, although with no satisfaction with their failures. And therein lies, I think, the spirit of reconciliation and redemption.
1. Oliver Barclay, 'A Christian View of Culture', in Christian Dimensions in Architecture and Planning, ed. Ian Davis (Leicester, 1985), reprinted as chapter 1 here.
From Newsletter of the Association of Christians in Planning and Architecture No. 1, 1983, pp.6-17.
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