Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Evangelicals and Architecture

Over at the Evangelical Outpost, Tim Bartel points to the faddishness of evangelical cultural engagement:
The problem with Christian fad-mongering and the problem with liberal take-over of the aesthetic realms are the same. This problem lies in the difference between the art that replaces traditional doctrine and values and the art that doctrine and values plan for and protect. The former type of art is predicated on the assumption that aesthetic theory and artistic creation occupy the same cultural space as theology and religious practice, and that because of this, one must make way for the other; there is no room for both.
This is well illustrated in the realm of architecture. Evangelicals like Dick Staub (whose book on culture is really quite good), can in unguarded moments be found lionizing, even fawning over starchitects like Gehry or Libeskind in the name of relevance, instead of forging the kind of countercultural critiques provided by Michael J. Lewis, Philip Bess, or Catesby Leigh. Leigh, for example, articulates the architectural morality tale that Princeton will be telling for the foreseeable future:
It so happens that Princeton University has recently undertaken construction of a new science library designed by Gehry and a residential college in the Collegiate Gothic style (for which Princeton's campus is well known). The latter was designed by Demetri Porphyrios, a member of Prince Charles's circle. Just completed, Whitman College is a large, impressive assemblage of 10 buildings, arranged around two courtyards and housing 500 students. It is built with load-bearing masonry walls, meaning there is no steel or concrete frame to support the floors. The walls boast outer envelopes of fieldstone or limestone. The science library's design, on the other hand, is at least contextual in that it plays off the sharply contrasting scales of the adjacent buildings. It features the familiar twisting metal panels. It is an exercise in inorganic complexity.

Whitman is going to age gracefully as the patina of time enriches the stone. It will also perform very well from a structural standpoint. As a matter of fact, barring some catastrophe, it will be around for hundreds of years. Whitman, in other words, is likely to increase in cultural value over the long term as an asset that enriches Princeton's architectural patrimony. It will be loved. Were it not for the inadequacy of its figurative detail, it would be loved even more. As for the science library, one can only hope it does not leak. Over the longer term, it will not age. It will corrode. Moreover, it will probably peak in cultural value within a relatively narrow time frame. It is, after all, essentially an architectural fashion statement - a manifestation of an architectural theory or sensibility fundamentally conceived in terms of the negation of other theories and sensibilities. It has no normative architectural significance whatsoever: idiosyncracy is the whole point. In sum, it would be surprising if Gehry's library were still standing a century from now, both because of its structural character and because it probably will not be loved in any meaningful sense of the word. Buildings that are loved are much more likely to bear the humanist imprint, regardless of style.
I imagine most Princeton residents already intuit this. If not, they are sure to come around to agreeing when the neon fades. We can hope this long view perspective will catch on with evangelicals, if only because "When the neon fades" sounds like the beginning of a worship song.