Saturday, August 4, 2012

Churchill's dictim...

Every one has heard Churchill's famous dictum that we shape our buildings and afterwards they shape us.  It is an obvious truth that is too often forgotten.  In addition, the benefits of the influence of our building past are often debated.  For example, Vatican II created an architectural revival that has only recently paused for a moment of reflection.  Maybe it is well time that we parse the impact of those architectural changes and think a bit about their benefits and draw backs.

It would seem that the first centuries of Christianity following Constantine set a rough pattern or form for the Christian assembly that receive refinement and elaboration across the centuries until it seemed to reach a zenith in the medieval cathedral.  This was for generations upon generations the final pattern of the form for the Christian assembly.  It was duplicated on various scales for many, many years.  From the small country parish to the suburban or small city church buildings of various locales and times, the cathedral influence was not without impact.  It was a ghost image that we Lutherans could not replicate on scale but it did not stop us from erecting our steamboat gothic knock offs of these great European buildings.  Inherent in this form is the distinction between the chancel and nave, the ad orientem altar placement, and the rectangular shape (which benefits visual and musical elements of the liturgy).

Then in one fell swoop it all changed.  Rome breathed new air into the old lungs and renovation and new structures began coughing up all sorts of shapes and designs which made the old elongated box and its formal divisions seem positively antiquated.  The Church stopped looking like the Church and began to take on the persona of the shopping mall and generic assembly space with some of the harshest edges and distinctive shapes ever imagined.  This was not just about a change in style but a revolution and an intentional disconnect with the past.

It seems to me that slow and deliberate development is one of the kinder things that has happened to the liturgy and to the Church (in form as well as practice).  I think our slow and methodical evolution of the architectural form that houses the Church is a good thing and the rush of change has actually been dangerous and disastrous for the Church.

I am more and more convinced that the shaping of the buildings of Christianity was a blessedly slow and deliberate process that reaped huge benefits for the Church in that age to age we appeared the same to those inside and outside the household of God's people.  Slow steps meant that we kept the connection and kept the faith with those who came before us while at the same time adding the best of what we offered today as a living legacy for those yet to come (I read something like that by Norman Nagel in the Introduction to the much maligned Lutheran Worship hymnal).

The radical architectural disconnect with our past was precipitated by those who were foisting a theological, doctrinal, and liturgical revolution.  Whether intention or inadvertent, they have left us with a couple of generations of buildings unfriendly to their main purpose and at odds with what it is that we have believed, confessed, and taught over the years.  So I am glad to see us return to the familiar forms and shapes, to renew the old buildings we treated so shabbily in the revolution, and so attentive to the legacy of our past.  We may not be able to undo all the structures we erected in the name of modernity but we can at least learn from our mistakes.

1 comment:

Christopher Gillespie said...

I agree. I advocated a similar critique at last week's Redeemer Family Conference. You might even see it in an STM thesis some day. :)