What would your dream house be like? What about your dream office, or supermarket, or community building?
Most people will be able to answer the first fairly easily, describing location, age, size and many other characteristics from the number of windows to the height of the ceilings to the type of heating system used. It’s highly likely, though, that you’ll have given little thought if any to the types of buildings you want to work, shop and spend your leisure time in. That is unless you’re an architect, like David Greusel.
“From ballparks to churches, architecture has a significant impact on people’s lives and should therefore be about the creation of places where people can flourish,” Greusel said in a recent interview in Faith and Leadership.“Unfortunately, much architecture today, both sacred and secular, has not been about human flourishing. Instead, architecture in general has been about originality at the expense of tradition, while church architecture has been marked by mediocrity born of pragmatism.”
Ouch! It’s worth noting at this point that Greusel is speaking from an American context. Anyone who has travelled in the US will know that newly-built churches over there tend to be vast, often featureless, out-of-town boxes with few windows and enormous car parks separating them from the view of any passers-by. Pragmatic they may be, but conducive to the flourishing of the people who use them or the neighbourhoods they’re in? Not so much.
Greusel explains how this has come about:
Because of the fundamentalist movement of the last 100 years or so, churches have tended to treat buildings as unimportant. As churches—in North America, at least—focused on saving souls to the exclusion of everything else, they tended to ignore the physical facility where they worshipped and treated it as an afterthought.
Because of that, you see a lot of mediocre or less-than-mediocre church architecture that’s born out of a spirit of pragmatism, which is a very un-Christian way of looking at building.
The pragmatism comes from thinking that if it’s not related to saving souls, it’s unimportant. Therefore, buildings are unimportant—we should just move into the cheapest, crummiest building that can keep the rain out.
That is a distortion of the creation mandate in Genesis to cultivate and subdue the earth, and a distortion of what the church is supposed to be about.
While I’m not sure that his accusation of North American churches having the cheapest possible facilities stands – churches spend outrageous amounts on their buildings, particularly when the fixtures and fittings are taken into account – the actual architecture is certainly uninventive and unappealing.
His interest does not just extend to the building of overtly ‘sacred’ spaces, though. As he points out, “all space is sacred in that everywhere people are is important space and needs to be treated with reverence.”
How, then, does an architect approach building, say, a sports stadium with a view to the flourishing of the people who use it, those who pass by it, and those whose lives are affected by it? Asked about this in relation specifically to the two baseball parks for which he was the lead designer, the Houston Astros’ Minute Maid Park and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ PNC Park, Greusel explained:
Those ballparks were very much about seeking the welfare of the cities where they are located. As an architect from out of town, I first try to understand the city where I’m working—its history, traditions, architecture and people.
But beyond that, I’m trying to bring my best understanding of urban design to a large building (because ballparks tend to be very large buildings) and design it in such a way that it can help the city to flourish—not just people in the ballpark but also people around the ballpark.
That means responding to the street in a certain way and responding to the pedestrian who’s walking by in a certain way, and really keeping all those things in mind as you design the project, not just trying to come up with a zoomy shape that’ll look good on a magazine cover.
One of the main critiques of modernism generally is that the buildings never look like they fit in. They look like they’re the one guy at the party wearing a bunny suit, and they don’t seem to be able to have a conversation with their peer buildings.
That’s something I’m sensitive about. I try to make buildings that look like they’re part of a community and not something that got dropped from a UFO.
Beyond simply creating good buildings which contribute to human flourishing, though, Greusel wants Christians to re-engage in the discussion about what constitutes good architecture in the first place, across all types of buildings. It is a role the church historically had as a matter of course, but lost when it began to separate supposedly ‘physical’ issues from ‘spiritual’ ones:
In the history of Western civilization, the church has always been the most important, most beautiful, most expensive building in town. But if you think about the church in North America today, none of that is true.
The church is no longer important, it’s no longer beautiful, and it’s no longer expensive. It’s unimportant, cheap and shoved off to the side in our public discourse.
Most of the history of architecture is the study of religious buildings, from ancient temples through the cathedrals right up until about the middle of the 19th century, when it started to be about other buildings, like museums, schools and libraries.
The church had a central role in the discussion about what is good architecture but basically abandoned it.
Art museums and performing arts centers are now the largest, most expensive and most important buildings in town. … Buildings for the arts are where people focus their attention architecturally and where they put the most resources and money. … The arts have taken the place of the church as the place where people put—you might say, invest—their spiritual dollars.
How can we start to reverse the trend, then? How can the church play a role in the flourishing of a city’s – and a nation’s – architecture?
Step 1 is to convince the church and Christians generally that caring about the built environment is part of our duty as stewards of creation, stewards of this beautiful world that we’ve been given.
We have a responsibility to care about this stuff. And if we care about it, we have a responsibility to speak up and let our voice be heard.
What do you think? What does architecture have to do with the flourishing of a city? Have you seen buildings which contribute to a city’s well-being? What were they like? How did they make a difference? And what is the state of church architecture like in the UK today? Is it contributing to the flourishing of neighbourhoods, detracting from it, or ignoring it altogether?
This article first appeared on everythingconference.org