Friday, January 16, 2009

How to Build Sacred Architecture 900 Years Later

Given the precedent set by medieval master masons in constructing the medieval cathedrals, we can take a step closer to building sacred architecture in a profane cultural climate.

Since the thirteenth century, western culture has emphasised secular science and gradually emphasised a profane view of the cosmos.  Today the cosmos is no longer seen as sacred, but instead as inert matter waiting for human intervention.

The problem of introducing the techniques of the medieval master mason into contemporary practice presents itself because the medieval cosmology, and the presumptions of the master masons, was demolished by subsequent scientific discoveries.  One such discovery was the heliocentric model of planetary motion which dismantled the hierarchical system of medieval thought.

The notion of sacred was closely linked with the cosmology of the medieval mind.  

If we are to approach sacred building today, we must recover the primordial aspect of sacredness and somehow find a place for it with the contemporary profane cosmology.

It should be noted that the Gospel does not put forth a cosmology.  There is no biblical worldview.  
The cosmos is an object of proclamation and consequently of Christian theology only insofar as it is related to God as its Creator, Lord, Judge, and Savior. This is the only sense in which the early Church spoke of the world. --Wildiers
Material was not understood in the same manner as it is now, nor was it elevated to such an extent.  Contemporary science looks to material explanations for everything, and as such is often guilty of reductionism.  

When we consider that
  1.  Science is often prone to reduction, 
  2. and a sacred understanding of the cosmos is concerned with the relationship of cosmos to God as creator, 
then we may have a manner of reconciling the two.  There may be enough room for both if we do not exaggerate the claims of either science or theology to negate either.

Such a task has been done previously.  Theologians and scientists such as Teilhard de Chardin, and Max Wildiers have pointed a way forward.  What I seek to explore is where architecture fits in.

The most striking aspect of the medieval mind to have been abolished by subsequent science was the hierarchy of the cosmos.  It should be noted that even if the hierarchy was demolished, the underlying proportion was not.  Each element was related proportionally to the elements above and below it.  Proportion holds an important part of contemporary cosmology, even if the medieval hierarchy was replaced with a homogeneous and infinite conception of the universe.  

Isaac Newton's three proportional laws of gravity are the fundamental building blocks of the contemporary cosmology.  Even if proportion lived on from the medieval cosmology, the presence of God did not.  These laws are mechanical, and take no relation to God as creator.  As they are, they cannot be taken as sacred.

These three laws of gravity are of central importance to architecture as they are relate directly to how buildings are designed in an effort to resist gravity.  Our ability to predict the adequacy of structure owes to a profane science.

Furthermore, science not only emphasised the non-hierarchical nature of the cosmos, but also the process of the cosmos.  Where the medieval mind saw immutability and eternal structure, contemporary science sees change and process.  

Contemporary cosmology is thusly
  1. Infinite 
  2. Processual
Teilhard de Chardin solved this unique dilemma, and painted a picture of the cosmos as sacred despite the prevalence of a profane cosmology.  He took advantage of the scientific position to look at detail, and miss the big picture.  Chardin uniquely integrated the findings of science, specifically paleontology, within a theology of process.  The cosmos is seen to be underway in a process of continual "seeing".  To see or to perish is the call of the cosmos, and the natural history of man and his evolution point towards the cosmos striving to see itself.  More specifically, he cites scientific evidence for the continual differentiation of elements that are subsequently integrated into a whole which allows for this continual striving.  In a way, his solution re-introduces a loose hierarchy whereby elements of the cosmos are pulled forward teleogically by God.

So how is a sacred architecture to look upon profane physical mechanics upon which it would base its assumptions?  

We should look at mechanics as but one element and differentiation that would allow for an integration into a more universal structure.  The proportion and geometry of the medieval mind established contingency of being, and this essential aspect of geometry that has been overlooked by contemporary science is what will bring us closer to a sacred architecture.

The final form of the architecture, and implicitly the final form of all of creation will by necessity be the guide of sacred architecture.

Whereas the mechanics and mathematical proportions are seen as secondary but necessary to architecture by many architects, instead the geometries should establish contingencies of being.  Geometries and calculations are not extraneous, but become an integral aspect of what is built.