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God And Architecture

How the structure of our buildings discloses something about the divine

Here’s an extraordinary essay by the architect professor Christopher Alexander, author of the well-known book A Pattern Language.  In the piece, Alexander talks about how his work over the decades, studying which architectural patterns produce buildings that please us. Here is how it begins, audaciously:

It has taken me almost fifty years to understand fully that there is a necessary connection between God and architecture, and that this connection is, in part, empirically verifiable. Further, I have come to the view that the sacredness of the physical world—and the potential of the physical world for sacredness—provides a powerful and surprising path towards understanding the existence of God, whatever God may be, as a necessary part of the reality of the universe. If we approach certain empirical questions about architecture in a proper manner, we will come to see God.

Only in the last twenty years has my understanding of this connection taken a definite form, and it continues to develop every day. It has led me to experience explicit visions of God, and to understand, in some very small measure, what kind of entity God may be. It has also given me a way of talking about the divine in concrete, physical terms that everybody can understand.

There can be little doubt that the idea of God, as brought forth from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has ­slowly become tired . . . to such an extent that it has difficulty fitting into everyday twenty-first-century discourse. As it stands, it is almost embarrassing to many people, in many walks of life. The question is: Can we find a way to mobilize, afresh, the force of what was once called God, as a way of helping us to recreate the beauty of the Earth?

The view put forth here does not leave our contemporary, physical view of the universe untouched. Indeed, it hints at a conception which must utterly transform our conception of ourselves and our place in the universe. It shows us, in a new fashion, a glimpse of a beauty and majesty in the smallest details of human existence.

All this comes from the work of paying attention to the Earth, its land and rocks and trees, its buildings, the people and ants and birds and creatures all together, and the blades of grass. It comes from realizing that the task of making and remaking the Earth—that which we sometimes call architecture—is at the core of any commonsense understanding of the divine.

He explains how successful architecture discloses something about both human nature and the divine nature:

All this has a unique ability to point to the reality of God. In theory, other disciplines such as ethics might seem to have more claim to illuminate discussion of God. But the tangible substance of architecture, the fact that in good architecture, every tiny piece is (by ­definition) suffused with God, either more or less, gives the concept of God a meaning essentially translated from the beauty of what may be seen in such a place, and so ­allows it to disclose God with unique clarity. ­Successful architecture ultimately leads us to see God and to know God. If we pay attention to the beauty of those places that are suffused with God in each part, then we can conceive of God in a down-to-earth way. This ­follows from an awareness in our hearts, and from our ­active effort to make things that help make the Earth ­beautiful.

This is not a pastiche of pseudo-religious phrasing. In technical language, it is the structure-preserving or wholeness-extending transformation (described in The Nature of Order and capable of being precisely defined) that shows us how to modify a given place in such a way as to give it more life. When applied repeatedly, this kind of transformation is what brings life to the Earth, in any place.

Earth—our physical Earth and its inhabitants—sand, water, rocks, birds, animals, and trees—this is the garden in which we live. We must choose to be gardeners. We must choose to make the garden beautiful. Understanding this will give us intellectual insight into the nature of God, and also give us faith in God as something immense yet also as something modest, something which lies under the surface of all matter, and which comes to life and shines forth when we treat the garden properly.

The most urgent, and I think the most inspiring, way we can think about our buildings is to recognize that each small action we take in placing a step, or planting a flower, or shaping a front door of a building is a form of worship—an action in which we give ourselves up, and lay what we have in our hearts at the door of that fiery furnace within all things, which we may call God.

He adds:

Taking architecture seriously leads us to the ­proper treatment of tiny details, to an ­understanding of the unfolding whole, and to an understanding—mystical in part—of the entity that underpins that wholeness. The path of architecture thus leads inexorably towards a renewed understanding of God.

Read the whole thing. 

What he’s talking about here is sacramentalism, and how the divine, transcendent order is expressed (or fails to be expressed) in the creations of man. He’s talking about structures that lead to wholeness and integration, both in individuals and communities — and this inevitably means existing in harmony with God.

Matter matters. Having just read this, I am wondering to what extent we can apply his insights to the architecture of Christian worship. Which forms are better at doing what worship is supposed to do? For Christians, worship should not merely expressive, but is also formative in that it should lead us to experience God, and something of His nature and being, so that we can become more like Him. Expressions of the same pattern may change across eras and places, but the basic forms should manifest, right?


I’m off in a moment to the Eighth Day Institute symposium, and will be out of touch all day. I’ll approve comments when I can. Vigen Guroian speaks this morning about sacramentality and gardening. I’ll be leading a discussion about sacramentality in Laurus later this morning. If you’re in or around Wichita, come on over!