Building for Humans: Architecture after Modernism

By Milliner, Matthew J. | The Christian Century, March 10, 2009 | Go to article overview

Building for Humans: Architecture after Modernism


Milliner, Matthew J., The Christian Century


THE FIRST DAYS of Princeton Theological Seminary's annual book sale are an academic feeding frenzy. Used copies of biblical commentaries, patristic texts and works by Aquinas, Luther and Calvin are quickly scooped up by eager seminarians. After two days of this, what's mostly left are the "cutting-edge" religion books of the 1950s and '60s--the dregs of retired pastors' libraries that the next generation can do without.

Most of these books, having passionately defended a bygone mind-set, won't even find a taker on the sale's final day, when a box full of books can be had for five dollars. Titles like Episcopal bishop James Pike's A Time for Christian Candor have one last modern cause to serve: they add to the pile labeled "recycling." As the saying goes, he who marries the spirit of the age will soon become a widower.

The book outnumbering all others on the dregs tables each year is John A. T. Robinson's onetime best seller Honest to God, a heartfelt cry that traditional God-talk can't make sense to "modern man." In light of the resurgence of the doctrine of the Trinity, Rowan Williams some years ago suggested that "Honest to God seemed a museum piece." Martin Marty's prophecy that Robinson's best seller would "serve no more than a footnote" in any survey of 20th-century theology now seems a bit generous. Robinson, who called his book in retrospect "the worst thing I ever did," would perhaps have agreed.

One year, as I was sifting through the copies of Honest to God on five-dollar box day, I came upon a hidden gem. It was a hardcover copy of The Modern Church: Masterworks of Modern Church Architecture, by Edward D. Mills, published in 1956. I opened the uncreased pages. "If the church is to remain a vital element in the sociological adjustment of the twentieth century," trumpeted the introduction, "its new building should therefore be an expression of its purpose in our life today. The nineteenth-century Gothic Revival has lost its meaning for the scientific spirit of this age."

I had discovered the architectural equivalent of Honest to God. What followed was page after page celebrating churches that communicated this "scientific spirit"--that is, churches that looked like they were built to house scientific laboratories.

Many architectural styles have been embraced by the Christian tradition. But when a style seeks by definition to annihilate tradition, as does that style known as Modernism, Christians should be suspicious.

"It is only from the present that our architectural work should be derived," insisted the hugely influential Congres International d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM), whose leader hypostasized the modern spirit by erasing his family name and inventing for himself a new one, Le Corbusier. This was not historical amnesia, but active resistance: "We must set ourselves against the past," wrote Le Corbusier in his Modernist treatise Vers Une Architecture.

Accordingly, Gothic cathedrals were dismissed as a futile "fight against the forces of gravity." Vestiges of the past such as Chartres were "sentimental" and "not very beautiful." Le Corbusier's disdain for St. Peter's Basilica didn't even merit a complete sentence: "Wretched failure!" he called it. Sending architectural students to Rome at all "was to cripple them for life." The purifying ambition of architectural Modernism was a sort of Calvinism without Christ.

The hostility of Modernist architecture toward religious faith perhaps came from the fact that the style was itself a kind of faith. Bauhaus director Walter Gropius promised not just new buildings, but a "new structure of the future ... which will one day rise toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith."

Modernism once sought to help--even to save--the average person. But it tended to alienate the average person. The founding intentions of Modernist architects were laudable. …

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