The Sacred Space of Architecture

“[T]he new forms of architecture make no reference to the sacred origins of the city, and treat buildings as instruments, in something like the way that we have treated human beings as instruments.”—Roger Scruton

The construction in the city block opposite my office building is a perfect illustration of Scruton’s point. In his new book The Soul of the World, which I have been commenting on recently, he develops into a formal theory the inchoate misgivings that many of us have about contemporary urbanism.

Scruton begins his meditation on architecture with a discussion of the temple—the sacred space of ancient Greece and Rome and later the sanctuaries of high Christendom. It was consecrated ground where building materials became an encounter with a realm beyond the purely physical. “The I of God resides in this place,” says Scruton, “and architecture makes us aware of that. It is not simply stone that surrounds us, but a witnessing stone, stone brought alive by carving, molding, light and shade, so as to stand beside us in an observing posture. The temple is the place where the faithful can encounter God.”

Just as human life in a traditional order is centered on the divine, so too is the city centered on the temple, which sets the tone for the structures and dwellings around it, even to the point that other buildings were originally not allowed to exceed the height of the central place of worship. It is hardly surprising that where the temple has been downgraded and new values have replaced those of the gods, the architectural fabric is radically altered. “Traditional buildings have an orientation: they face the world… in such a way as to address the space before them.” The author makes the observation that they are not simply “edges to the public space” in the way that highways and blank concrete walls are. These things seem almost hostile in the way that they confront and impede us. By contrast, older structures are “visitors that congregate along” and accompany us on our thoroughfares.

The purely utilitarian structure is “faceless,” lacking as it does any sense of proportion, ornamentation and texture. The giant polygonal edifice possesses neither a visual starting point nor an aesthetic conclusion. In an apt description of the downtown office tower in my city, the building “has no posture and no repose.” It is “composed as a ground-plan, which is then projected upward through slab upon slab and floor upon floor, until the required number of desks or beds or cells can be accommodated.”

Scruton argues that urban architecture lives in a “shared space” and therefore buildings should be designed not only for the private client but for the entire city. The old pattern books of town planners imposed a kind of urban “civility” that was also civilizing. By contrast, the new polis “is like a frozen junkyard, and even if it looks like this forever, it will look forever temporary.”

For related commentary, see The Moral Significance of Buildings.

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