Modern architecture opposes values of sacred space
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
We learn many interesting words when we enter churches, look around, and ask the names of things.
But consider how many of these words are at all familiar to you: “arch, aedicule, engaged column, pilaster, vault and dome.”
How is it not even churchgoers, who in the midst of a secular society still try to cultivate a sense of the sacred, do not even know what a “pilaster” or an “aedicule” is?
The answer lies with modern architecture, which has spread like a cancer even into sacred spaces.
In the secular city, modern architecture imposes its “sheer, stark, uncompromising, cold” features on the buildings that, according to Roger Scruton, look like a “frozen junkyard.”
In Conversations with Roger Scruton, published by Bloomsbury in 2016, Mark Dooley presents a new book-length interview with the famous English philosopher. These fascinating conversations cover much ground, including philosophy, politics, Britain, Europe, sex, farming, wine, tobacco, religion, and music.
Yet Scruton’s willingness to explain further his thoughts on architecture to Dooley makes this an especially important book. Scruton returns to themes he explored earlier in The Aesthetics of Architecture (1979) and The Classical Vernacular (1994).
In Dooley’s book, Scruton tells about a friend of his who pointed out to him how “on Mount Sinai, God gave to Moses not just the Ten Commandments and the law, but also the design for a temple.”
This idea about the supreme importance of sacred space has obviously remained with Scruton over the years. In Scruton’s understanding of architecture, “the building of a temple is the first step” in the entire project of “undertaking the communal task of settling.”
For Scruton, the sacred space must come first, because it is the act whereby “a consecration of the land” is achieved. Without such an act, the “bid for home,” which is involved in any communal effort to settle in a place, is doomed to fail.
Without the sacred space of a temple or church, the city takes on “a kind of godlessness.” We see this in the “facelessness” of the modern city’s skyscrapers, whose “glazed facades mirror each other’s emptiness.”
Scruton speaks of how, in most cities, modernist buildings cause the streets to “die in their shadow.” But this barren urban environment has arisen only because modern architecture has intentionally discarded the requirements of sacred space. Instead, it has instituted a rival cult of desecration.
In his dialogue with Dooley, Scruton makes the devastating observation that “if you can’t build a temple and get it right, all other building is merely provisional and utilitarian. It becomes a matter of putting up sheds.”
In other words, “Real architecture is precisely getting beyond the shed to the settlement, in which the earth is transformed from a mere habitat to a lasting habitation.”
Of course, many examples of real architecture may still be found in the world. Scruton points to the example of Venice, which he thinks is a particularly wonderful accomplishment. Alluding to Botticelli’s famous painting (which he fondly used to illustrate beauty in his BBC documentary, “Why Beauty Matters”), Scruton calls Venice “a lasting work of the religious imagination, a vision of eternity rising like Venus from the sea.”
St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice obviously performs Scruton’s “first step” of architecture, by consecrating the land, making a lasting habitation possible. It does so because, as with the civic benefit conferred by all sacred space, it is “the thing that reminds you that you are together and under a shared obedience.”
In his conversations with Dooley, Scruton explains why cities need to have centres. He makes clear his distaste for those big box stores on the edges of towns. “You must tell the supermarkets that they must build in the centre or be part of a shared attempt to create a new centre. That is to say, they must build in the style accepted in the centre, which means behind a proper façade and on a street. That means they can’t get very big,” he insists.
While some might find this an outrageous constraint on economic activity, Scruton presents a compelling argument why the benefits of such a policy would outweigh any costs involved. For the common good, “we all have to obey laws that have an economic cost to obeying them.”
Therefore he thinks it is not too much to ask retailers to submit to a vision that serves the community rather than simply enriches their shareholders. Otherwise, we will be saddled with the ongoing ugliness inflicted on our environment by corporations. Their desire for unlimited growth, for example, creates hideously gigantic parking lots for the customers they need to fund unlimited growth.
Scruton’s ideal is more appealing. Rather than making us drive to shops, architecture must answer to human nature’s real need for walking. We should always be able to “walk from the home to the centre” of any town, he says. Rather than mega-cities, we need many towns, each with a human-scale commercial centre.
As for those big box stores, Scruton insists we must “forbid people to build on the edge of towns.” Without such zoning laws, a large cost is offloaded onto the environment and also onto the humans who drive instead of walking everywhere. While the companies pursue unlimited profit growth, our bodies and buildings become obese.
Yet none of this is sustainable. Maybe we should try out the divine plan given to Moses instead.