On Gardening and Architecture...and the awareness of God

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 13, 2016

Speaking of rethinking how we think (e.g., Modern “objective” knowledge is a circular system: Why?), Christopher Alexander has tried to do much the same thing for the field of architecture. Professor emeritus of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, Alexander has written a number of ultimately influential books, including A Pattern Language, four volumes of The Nature of Order, and The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth.

Alexander has devoted most of his professional life to developing a way of thinking about architecture which places its impact on human well-being at its very root. A moment's reflection on the drab, soul-sapping architecture utilized under Communist regimes is enough to recognize the importance of this task. It took Alexander a long time, including a seven-year lawsuit, to overcome the hostility of other faculty who tried to prevent him from teaching architecture in ways they regarded as value-laden and non-empirical. In the end, however, he became extraordinarily influential.

Alexander believes that the critical issue in architecture is to figure out how design concepts lead to beauty, which is clearly conducive to human happiness. Of course, this has an inescapably spiritual dimension. For example, Alexander found he could ask people questions such as “Which of these two doorways is closer to God”, and he would get remarkably consistent answers. He argues that the predictability of the full range of results when approaching architecture in this way actually provides an empirical component to our awareness of God.

In a recent article in First Things (February 2016), Alexander describes the evolution of his conviction that successful architecture fosters wholeness, including an awareness of God. The article is happily entitled “Making the Garden” (also happily available online even to non-subscribers). Since most of us have experienced the grace of God in the sublime beauty created by gardeners, this title clearly signals the direction of his thought. While he does not use the language of “personal knowledge” which I have recently outlined from the work of Michael Polanyi, Alexander is on the same track: All knowledge, including our apprehension of beauty, is necessarily personal and relational.

As an architect, Alexander is obviously a great student of our “surroundings”. His point is that just as the beauty of nature heals our spirits and points us to God, so too does the beauty of good architecture. Therefore, it is impossible to speak of good architecture without acknowledging this dimension of the architects’ craft.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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