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God & Building

January 15, 2015

Buildings mirror the values of their builders.

When survival was central in a nakedly hostile world, 17th century Colonists built wood tents against weather and predators.

When the mysteries of life and death overwhelmed humanity’s knowledge base, hundreds of years of effort and resources made pyramids, temples and cathedrals reaching up to the unknowable.

When money seems to be the answer those who value it build mansions, Mc or otherwise, embodying the fruits of labor and fortune.

But values are not just personal: they are social, corporate and institutional. But the language available to the architects of corporate values are limited: Yale is building its first new residential colleges since the 1960’s as iconic beacons of their worldwide academic credibility. At this time, and for those they are trying convince, brilliant Millenials, that means Hogwarts. Its overtly borrowed aesthetic was lifted from ancient Oxford and Cambridge via early 20th century American hubris that created “College Gothic” as a pastiche.

As part of that movement James W. Sterling gave enough money before his death in 1915 to Yale that they could hire “College Gothic”‘s Frank Lloyd Wright, James Gamble Rogers to build the Jewell in the Crown of Knowledge Yale aspired to be: Sterling Memorial Library.

Although cloaked in perfected 1930 Gothic materials and details, this building’s signature public space, its entry, was not rendered as an Academic Hall, mimicking banqueting, parliamentary or royal design, iconography or other aesthetic messaging, Architect Rogers, with the approval of Yale, created a Nave: a Cathedral of Knowledge.

Well over $20,000,000 has been spent in the last 3 years to undo subsequent erosions of the Nave – a stair to the huge underground Cross Campus Library was removed from its central hall, security apparatus was removed, decorations revived, grime removed, all to bring back an overtly religious sensibility – ironically in a New World that generally views belief in anything beyond the contents of Sterling Library as delusion.

Religion helped create every Ivy League School except Cornell (and there are those who debate it’s Ivy-worthiness- mostly those of us who went there). If you are in a Retro state of mind, almost all of Ancient Great Architecture has a religious purpose or nod as religion was the science and literature and cultural foundation of almost every society before the Renaissance.

Even the most secular of buildings in the first truly secular government, the United States Supreme Court is a Xerox of a Classicist Temple. In its first 150 years America grabbed at the straws of precedent cultural credibility amid the antiquity of its Western progenitors.

But the United States now has 16 of the world’s top 20 universities, a military that dwarfs all others, an economy that makes or breaks the rest of the planet’s. Yale is arguably among the tip of education, creating those with an EZPass to power, and has access to wealth sufficient that it can spend billions on architectural expression beyond the simply necessary.

Why then maintain, even enhance, the Altar at the Chancel of the Sterling Nave, focusing on a Mary-like Incarnation of Knowledge, before a Biblical Tree of Knowledge, surrounded by the Disciples of Knowledge (including a cleric)?


I believe it is because in the belly of human accomplishment, steeped in Terabytes of explicated, applied and evolving information, we  humans have a deeper sense: that our lifespans are so limited that despite the explosive engorgement of intellectual capability and technological capacity to access the infinite factoids of reality, we will fall short of ecstatic victory over the unknown.

The more we discover, the more we realize what we never knew. The better we see, the more we realize we do not see, and never saw. Answers have become questions.

Where do we go when we sense vagary? The  solace of the past. Just as 19th century American robber barons found solace in historicism in the infant America, we are afloat in a sea of triumphant technology revealing an endless gap of understanding.

In theory, libraries are all unnecessary. Your smart phone has access to far more information than all of Yale’s libraries. But humans are humans, not detached intellects. We need to stand on something to look ahead.

Yale gets that. The fact that the history of Sterling Library’s overtly religious Nave has a baggage of Faith as its aesthetic genesis is simply something to chuckle over – as every literal icon carved into its walls venerates Academic Inside Baseball scenes. But, as usual, the trappings of design often obscure its essential reality.

We have retroactively made “Colonial Architecture” a style where Royal Barry Wills and Colonial Williamsburg made Disney out of desperate survivalist architecture. Pyramids, cathedrals and cemeteries all embody what is a fresh as a daisy in all of us when our brain is at a resting place of circumspection: we do not know much beyond what we use to cope.

Architecture reflects what we value. In the First World we value being safe in our meaning more than most things. In a place where information is more of a threat than the Devil, we seek solace in a faith beyond that information.

That faith is overwhelmingly secular at Yale, in Connecticut, in New England: but the value of belief beyond our knowing is the universal motivation of living outside a cave, or a wooden tent in 1620.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Joseph Dzeda permalink
    January 15, 2015 9:15 am


    Some of your very best writing. Clearly stated, deeply thought-provoking, reflective and warmly human, I didn’t want he piece to come to an end.

    I wanna buy you a drink or two at 116…



  2. adam mihlstin permalink
    January 20, 2015 10:49 pm

    struck a cord on a whole nother level. working with banks . . . in this day & age, the correlation between image and “your money is safe” isn’t reflected in the bricks & mortar. older bank branches built of granite lobbies, iron teller cages, steel vaults all communicated a sense of security. times (and taste) have changed and theses stately mausoleums are dinosaurs. obvious reasons dictate smaller efficient designs but why has the banking customer become so artificially loose with its riches and fortunes (or lack thereof)?


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