In his autobiographical essay 'Jesus Re-discovered', Malcolm Muggeridge speaks of a feeling he first experienced when he was a young child 'sometimes enormously vivid of being a stranger in a strange land; a visitor, not a native'. Towards the end of the last war, Muggeridge spent some time in Algiers where he encountered at first hand people who had been made refugees by the destruction of war. Such people were categorised by Allied Command as 'displaced' - people who had been set loose in the world without nationality or place of residence or even identity, people who once belonged somewhere but now found themselves adrift in the world, belonging nowhere.
At first the expression 'displaced' sickened Muggeridge, 'an emanation of a sick world'. But he soon found a peculiar comfort in the idea as it seemed to affirm his own sense of lostness which he had experienced intermittently since early childhood. Such a feeling was, of course, often suffocated by preoccupation but if he strained his ears to hear it, like distant music, the sound became just audible and he discovered a surprising joy at feeling once again a stranger in the world. He eventually came to realise that 'the only ultimate disaster that can befall us...is to feel ourselves to be at home here on earth. As long as we are aliens we cannot forget our true homeland which is that other kingdom You proclaimed'.
Muggeridge's experience is by no means unique. A strong theme of pilgrimage, of being strangers and aliens in the world, runs through much of our Christian tradition. 'We walk by faith as strangers here but Christ shall call us home', declares Isaac Watts in his hymn which we still sing today, leaving us with the impression that our home here on earth is not of great importance and that the best any of us can do is to wait patiently, like Abraham, for a better place, another country in which to dwell.
At Home in Creation - Alienated from unbelief
In the New Testament none of these ideas of pilgrimage, of being somehow estranged from the world in which we live, refers to the material world, the good creation. To use Augustine's contrast, Christian believers are only strangers and aliens to the city of men, the world of unbelief and sin. Our true home is the city of God, the Kingdom of God which we pray will come 'on earth as it is in heaven'. Peter's exhortation to 'live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear' is written in the context of sanctification. 'I urge you as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires which war against the soul'. We are aliens and strangers only to the world that challenges and opposes the purposes of God in his creation, not to the creation itself. Indeed in a remarkable passage from his letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us that the whole of creation has been given to us: 'All things are yours...the world or life or death or the present or the future - all are yours and you are of Christ and Christ is of God'.
The contrast then is not between heaven and earth, in terms of what is physical and what is not, but between what is separated from God by the fall and what is in fellowship with Him in Christ. The earth is our home physically and will be when the whole of creation is renewed and we are resurrected to a reconstructed cosmos, a new heaven and a new earth. Spirituality here on earth is not a disembodied existence, an escape from the physical world. God is at work in His creation sustaining it, despite its present groaning and frustration, and speaking powerfully through it. The distinction which many have made between the spiritual and physical realms, of one being the province of God while the other is of secondary significance, is a misleading distinction to make.
What makes us rootless?
While we can affirm the material world in this way, is there a sense in which we are unable to make our home in God's creation? Is there an aspect of our humanness which hinders the development of a sense of belonging, of rootedness, of being at peace with those places we inhabit?
In the beginning God placed humankind within His creation. We are not creatures made to dwell in some kind of transcendent reality outside the bounds of time and place. Neither were we created to wander aimlessly through the wilderness of God's creation. For God placed the first man and woman in a garden - which not only ministered abundantly to them with its beautiful disposition of plants and trees, it also provided the conditions under which they could flourish in the cultivating tasks they had been given. They were called to act in relation to the garden itself, to work it and take care of it. The garden held a purpose for them and through that purpose the place itself became significant.
It was only through unfaithfulness in the responsibilities which had been given to them that the first man and woman became alienated from both God and the garden. The garden of pleasure became the garden of fear as the man and woman hid from the God who had given everything to them. 'Where are you?' he called, already responding to their separation and anticipating perhaps their future life as restless wanderers in a land of wandering.
In this context Muggeridge is right. We are all in one sense 'displaced', for ever searching but never finding that condition of perfect peace which once resulted from an intimate relationship with God and the place in which He walked. Humankind's dilemma is set. We are frustrated by an environment subjected to God's curse yet we cannot escape those tasks of cultivation and care set for us. In addition, we struggle to come to terms with our own powerful emotional and spiritual drive somehow to relocate ourselves, to belong somewhere in a creation we long to call home. We must recover our lost place. When the garden was shut up, Cain's first project was to build a city, and later his descendants, still driven by a fear of wandering, built their tower on a plain in Babylonia so that 'we may not be scattered over the face of the whole earth'.
Redeemed and Restored
What is so striking about God's redemptive plan as it unfolds from this point is that who we are, ie God's image bearers, is inextricably bound to where we are. For life begins in a garden and God's first major redemptive act concerns a people who were to become settled in a land of their own; a land described in Edenic terms - good and spacious, flowing with milk and honey, well watered, fertile and abundant in fruit and crops, 'where bread will not be scarce and you (Israel) will lack nothing'; a land which was to be the place of life with God and which was always under his care: 'the eyes of the Lord your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end'. God's covenant with a people and their land whose responsibilities encompassed their relationship with that land and the God who had settled them, was fulfilled in Christ giving birth to a new community within a new Covenant. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, those who acknowledge the Lordship of Christ have now been placed in Christ's body which occupies the whole of creation and within which acts as both agent of God's redemptive purposes and serves as a witness to the kingdom which God himself has inaugurated. When that kingdom is finally consummated on Christ's return, the people of God will be settled in a city, the city of God - the new Jerusalem.
This sequence from a garden to a land, to the whole creation occupied by the body of Christ living and working redemptively as God's agents, suggests that God's desire is not only to heal our severed relationship with Himself but also to heal our broken relationship with His creation. We having been banished from the garden, His plan ultimately is to relocate us within a renewed creation. Indeed the Hebrew word shalom, being that condition of peace we will all enjoy when God again finally dwells with us, means 'to be complete' and is closely related to the Hebrew concept of 'properness' - things and people as they ought to be.
The Meaning of Place
What conclusions then might we tentatively draw from these themes as we consider the meaning of place from an architectural perspective? For whether we acknowledge it or not, our craft is one that is bound up with place creation and many live out their lives in architects' mistaken ideas of what it means to make a place.
Firstly, it is important to understand that human action in the world is part of the creation pattern for our lives. Responsible cultivation is an important part of what it means to be human. My preoccupations in the world, my tasks, concerns, cares, projects, determine how I inhabit the earth and shape the manner of my existence. I can free myself from this or that task or care but never from preoccupation of some sort.
Secondly, these preoccupations leave their imprint on creation, on the physical and material world which we inhabit and which we are to cultivate either responsibly or irresponsibly, acting redemptively in Christ or following what is separated from him by the Fall.
Thirdly, this imprint always has a spatial dimension for we do not act in a vacuum. We are spatial creatures and spatial concepts are woven into our experience, so that to conceive of an alternative structure of things is quite beyond our imagining. Notions of above and below, back and front, inside and out, of near myself or beyond myself require language that in itself frames out our idea of space as a system of physical relations into which our bodies are placed. Yet for the most part, we do not experience space in abstract terms of geometric relationships as though physical reality was like a carefully plotted map from which we were somehow apart. Rather space is experienced and assessed in the recognition of certain qualities rooted in the given-ness of creation: the play of light and shadow, solid and void, shape, surface, mass, texture, colour, sound and smell.
It is an extraordinary aspect of our humanness that these qualities are experienced not as isolated incidents but as whole bodies of phenomena standing together in complex relationships which we perceive as places and which we understand in an array of different ways: symbolic, emotional, cultural, political and so on. But underlying all of these is the notion of use and purpose, of the action or event which has brought the place into being. Indeed in the Hebrew conception of place it was always human or divine action which gave the place its significance and meaning. Jacob's dream of heaven in a place which he called 'Bethel' (meaning 'House of God') and his encounter with God in a place which he named 'Peniel' (meaning 'Face of God') are two examples among many of the way places derived their meaning from significant events commemorated in specific places.
Place and Activity
This conception of space as qualitative place whose meaning rests in the actions or events which have brought it into being, is in stark contrast to the rationalist view of space as an infinite, homogeneous void. Here only the rational is real and space is reduced to a set of abstract geometric relationships derived from mathematical physics. How different is our everyday experience of actual preoccupations inserted in the world, actively engaging with it. The preparation of a meal, writing a letter, reading a book, talking to friends, listening to music and so on, all these seemingly mundane activities require certain conditions which enable them to be carried out and determine how we order the physical and spatial qualities given in creation. We collect books, a library is formed, we eat together, we require a dining room, we worship God corporately, a church building evolves. Of course, it is true that a vast range of tasks and projects can and do take place anywhere in places which do not provide ideal conditions for the particular task in hand. Many of us live out our lives in impoverished places which have been established with indifference to our cares and concerns and do not demonstrate any kind of fittingness for our tasks.
From an architectural point of view, then, we might argue that the success of a place, at least in part, is determined by the quality of the conditions which enable the specific task to be carried out. This fittingness of place or 'placeness' often has a long and rich history associated with it and from which, as architects, we can often draw. Indeed, it is when those tasks are celebrated and interpreted richly that a certain architectural richness follows. Sometimes if the conditions that a place provides become closely tuned to our preoccupations, our cares and concerns, and to the tasks in hand, our empathy with that place becomes so great that we catch a glimpse of that seemingly elusive thing for which we appear always to long - that sense of belonging to the world in which we live. Such places seem to provide one of the ways by which we are able to locate ourselves in the world and on one level, bring meaning to it, however imperfectly.
With these attitudes in mind, we might briefly comment on the way in which some strands of modernism appear to have greatly hindered humankind in our attempts at locating ourselves within the creation. The buildings that best exemplify the aspects of modernism I have in mind treat space in a kind of unparticularised homogeneous way, denying the lived-in qualitative space which brings a kind of richness to our experience of creation. In addition, modernist ideas of 'function', 'process' and 'efficiency' appear to have diminished our capacity to celebrate the creativeness and drama of human action. In a culture haunted by technology, it is not surprising that we have all been taken up with the tools with which architecture is made. Elevated to the highest position, technology has become of central importance while issues relating to place are attributed only marginal significance.
This paper is one of a number of papers written by members of the Architectural Theory Group, which has been meeting regularly since 1993. These papers were written for discussion only, as a way of getting out into the open aspects of architecture we each felt passionate about. Reading my own paper again I realise its many inadequacies - a number of points need to be elaborated in more detail if they are to make sense. I hope, nevertheless, that it contains enough to provoke discussion, as it did when it was first written.
From ACPA Newsletter No. 29, Summer 1997
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