Creating Spaces

Earlier this month, officials announced the winner of the competition to design a replacement for the World Trade Center and the accompanying memorial. The Washington Post called architect Daniel Libeskind's design "a most excellent choice" -- one that has the potential to transform the site into "something truly special." At the heart of Libeskind's plans is a 1776 foot-high spire, one of several glass towers surrounding an excavated pit that serves as a memorial to those who died in the attacks. In addition, there are two ground-level parks. One of these parks is positioned in such a way that every September 11 a wedge of light falls on it "from the time that the first plane hit the Trade Center's north tower until the time that tower fell . . . " The New York Times called the plan "visionary," and the Post praised the way it balances "the competing claims of past, present, and future." Other critics went beyond the aesthetics. As the Times put it, some critics see in the "vast emptiness of the pit" a confirmation of the "1960's counterculture thesis that only by personal experience can one ever really know the world." One of them compared the memorial to an "inkblot test" where "we all have our own interpretation." Others call the design "anti-authoritarian" and a "[rejection] of dogma." This is worldview language. Yet few of us pay much attention to the buildings in which we live, work, or even worship. That is unfortunate because architecture is more than a matter of concrete and steel. As the discussion about the Trade Center reveals, it embodies ideals and values. The clearest examples of this are the great medieval cathedrals. One architect has written, "The cathedral was literally an image of heaven . . . " Its proportions and its geometric ratios were "imitations of the ultimate harmony that the blessed will enjoy in the world to come." A counter-example is modernist glass and steel boxes like the old World Trade Center that took the saying "form follows function" to an inhumane degree. This reflects a worldview that was the product of Enlightenment rationalism. Buildings were "machines" in which to live and work and were stripped of any human or spiritual aspect. Unfortunately, this modernist style was not limited to office buildings. Many churches fell into this trap. They became like school auditoriums or gymnasiums. "Form follows function" meant emphasizing acoustics and rapid egress over theology and aesthetics -- a thoroughly utilitarian worldview. Many churches would argue that they can't afford anything else. But the medieval idea of "sermons in stone" was not limited to cathedrals. Even the smaller parish churches, many of which are still standing, testified to the builders' beliefs. Because we understand the importance of the physical world, Christians should learn to be discerning about the worldviews we see in architecture. Whatever we have anything to do with, whether it is home or church, says a lot about what we believe about the world. Winston Churchill once said, "We define our buildings, and our buildings define us" -- exactly so. For further reading and information: Benjamin Forgey, "At Ground Zero, a Plan Worth Building On," Washington Post, 28 February 2003, C1 (archived article; cost $2.95 to retrieve). Robin Pogrebin, "Plans for Cultural Complex at Ground Zero Take Form," New York Times, 31 March 2003 (free registration required). Joyce Purnick, "An Architect with the Drive to Get It Done," New York Times, 3 March 2003 (free registration required). Ada Louise Huxtable, "The Next Great City Center," Wall Street Journal, 19 March 2003. Justin Davidson, "New York's New Visionary -- Daniel Libeskind," New York Newsday, 12 March 2003. Paul Goldberger, "Eyes on the Prize," New Yorker, 10 March 2003. Information and pictures of all Libeskind's projects can be found at Michael E. Desanctis, "Notre Dame's neo-classicists yearn to build grand old churches," National Catholic Reporter, 21 April 2000.


Chuck Colson



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