Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The God of Architects and Designers

Last week I wrote about common Christian misconceptions about work and vocation. This week I’m going to take a Biblical look at at two interrelated vocations: architecture and design.

My grandfather owned and operated his own architecture firm in St. Louis. So, living around the corner from him, I grew up in the world of blueprints, straight lines, and Frank Lloyd Wright coffee mugs. Today, my wife works as a commercial interior designer, so I'm blessed to live an aesthetically appealing apartment. I know designers and architects do very different work, but there's overlap in what the Bible says about both, so I'll approach them simultaneously. There's a lot to say, but I'll focus on five key points:

1. God is an inspiring architect and a designer. About 15% of the book of Exodus (40 chapters total) is dedicated solely the architecture and design of God's Tabernacle. It's a God-made blueprint. He gives specific directions for the furniture (Ex. 25:23-40), the finishes (26:1-6), the structure/materials (15-30), and the space planning (26:31-37; 27:9-19). But he doesn't stop there: his Spirit actively inspires men to act as chief architects and craftsman, "See I have called by name Bezalel .... and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs." (31:2-5). Architecture and design are a Spirit filled endeavors. When my wife asks me to pray for her creativity at work she's being very Biblical, because God is the inventor and inspirer of creativity.

2. God cares about aesthetics in architecture and design. Another example of architecture and design occurs in 1 Kings during the construction of the temple. 1 Kings 6-7, lushly describes every detail of the construction. God's house is not simple, minimalist, or ugly. No, God consecrates a house full of aesthetic wonders. The interior is overlaid with expensive cedar, "The cedar within the house was carved in the form of gourds and open flowers. All was cedar, no stone was seen" (6:18). Gold, silver, bronze, sculptures, furniture, and non-load-bearing pillars, decorated the temple. It stood a massive three stories tall (a structural wonder in its time, requiring immense creativity in engineering). God's house reveals that he values aesthetic excellence.

Designers and architects should follow God's example by passionately creating remarkable spaces and structures that shine forth God-made-creativity. When you choose colors and finishes you image our aesthetic God. When you design imaginative structures, and creatively overcome engineering barriers, you image God.

3. God cares about thoughtful space management in architecture and design. As mentioned above, all of God's buildings incorporate carefully designed spaces. The Tabernacle was separated into multiple interior and exterior spaces. The rooms were geometrically designed so that as you neared God's presence, the rooms halved in size. As one moved through these spaces, one neared the holiness of God's presence. His space planning served a human purpose: to communicate his holiness to the Israelites. His designs did not alienate people, like many hyper-modernist designs (like St. Louis' infamous Pruitt-Igoe buildings*) which treat people like drones, who can fit into a readymade space, pre-determined for their good by outside experts. As designers, your space-planning serves both aesthetic and practical purposes. Designers ought to fight to listen and consider the needs of the people they are planning for. That means we do not designing only for design's sake. We also design to honor people's humanity and needs.

4. God carefully manages craftsmanship in architecture and design. As designers and architects you often work in close conjunction with contractors, artists and craftsman. God carefully choose craftsman of experience, reliability, and skill to build the tabernacle. In 1 Kings, Solomon commissioned pagans to build much of the Temple (5:7-18), because of their excellent rapport as woodcutters and workers. The businesses and people you design for expect you to be ethical, honest, and diligent in your management of projects. So far as you have the power to do so, try to work with honest, excellent contractors.

5. God cares about the human dimension in architecture and design. When the Jewish exiles returned from Babylon to Jerusalem, they returned to a city without a wall. In that time, a wallless city was open to economic hardships, political turbulence, and violent danger. So God sent Nehemiah to Jerusalem to oversee the design and reconstruction of a new wall. Human elements and considerations drove Nehemiah to make decisions that at times might have insulted his aesthetic sensibility. For instance, they use the materials from abandoned houses to rebuild the wall, probably creating blight. The human dimension of design won-out. Similarly, God's law shows concern for human safety,  “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it" (Deut. 22:8). This set a standard of safety and thoughtfulness in all Israelite design. Likewise, we should consider not just the safety of people in our structures (building regulations are a blessing, not a curse!), but also accessibility. How can we design spaces that bless both able bodied and the disabled people? How can we design spaces that are intuitive and useful for the people who use them?

Moreover, God never divorces design from humanity. I mean, he does not alienate humans via design, he communicates through it. Much postmodern architecture exists for the exact opposite purpose: to alienate humans, by disorienting them with hallways leading nowhere, crooked buildings, and optical illusions that knock people off balance (see some work by Charles Jencks, or the installations of Peter Koler). As Christians we should honor humans in design.

As always, there's much more to say here, but this is a great start to thinking through architecture and design from a Biblical perspective. If you're an architect or designer I'd encourage you to read and meditate on the many Biblical passages about your vocation: Exodus 25-27, 35-38; Deut. 22:8; 1 Kings 5-7; Neh. 3.

*If you haven't watched it, I highly recommend a documentary on this subject, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (available on Netflix or from Ninth Street Video).

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