Phil Hofstad here. In the past few years, I’ve worked with a number of Locus’ religious clients and have past experience working with congregations while at other firms. Spirituality is an important aspect of my life, and I would consider myself an “actively practicing” Lutheran. My writing certainly reflects my beliefs, but the topics are applicable to our spiritual clients. At our office, our staff has a wide range of spiritual beliefs and we work with congregations across a wide range of spiritual beliefs, including spaces for Jewish Synagogues, Unitarian Universalist Meeting Halls, and Christian Sanctuaries. While the beliefs differ, a rigorous application of space as it relates to faith remains central to how we do our work.
“Why God Cares About the Built Environment” was the title of a lecture I attended at Luther Seminary in St. Paul this past weekend. The speaker was Dr. Tim Gorringe, Professor of Theology at Exeter University on England. He has a great interest in architecture and specializes in the relationship between theology and human culture. Given the forum for the lecture, the audience seemed to be well versed in both Christian and sociological ideals and principles. Dr. Gorringe raised a number of questions to ponder: What is the relationship, if any, between God and our built environment? Is there an inherent connection between nature and the built environment, and does one inform the other? What role can architecture play in promoting human dignity? He has written entire books on the subject, so I wouldn’t pretend to write any summary of his lecture, instead I will simply offer some personal impressions on some of his key points.
Dr. Gorringe spoke eloquently about God’s creation, which, by Christian definition, encompasses everything. He spoke about how ordinary, everyday objects- say, a coffee cup- can be sacred if we consider that, as he put it, “God is part of the depth of all reality”. All things have their very being rooted in God. Dr. Gorringe also asked, if God is omnipresent (everywhere, always), then how should this inform our built environment? If we would carefully consider God’s presence in the very places of our lives, he theorized, then perhaps we wouldn’t build/create any place that is devoid of meaning or dignity. There would be no forgotten back alleys, buildings, or neighborhoods.
Dr. Gorringe also spoke about God as the ‘architect’ of all creation, and how God created a universe of natural order, pattern, and harmony – as the physical sciences, math, and music demonstrate. He pointed out that God’s creation is also one infinite, interconnected web- one object can never be considered in complete isolation to other things. Dr. Gorringe believes this principle has correlations in architecture, where the context of a building to its environment is crucial to its function and meaning.
Finally, Dr. Gorringe talked about the central doctrine of Christianity- that God became human flesh in the form of Jesus Christ. “If God is incarnate in Christ, then ALL people are equal”, he stated. If Christ came to earth to break down barriers- race, gender, and class – and if we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, then this surely has implications for our built environment. Dr. Gorringe laments, for example, how our society houses the “less fortunate” in high-rise slums that lack a sense of place and human dignity. He doesn’t suggest that we abandon our political structure for some kind of socialism, instead he demonstrated built examples of housing where the users of a development took part in its design and creation. Meaning and dignity happen when we invest a part of ourselves in our built environment. Regardless of belief, I think most people can agree on the value of investing in community.
I believe that the search for meaning and dignity in our built environment is integral to what we do as architects. While I did not have the privilege to work directly on this project, LOCUS spear-headed a design-build project in Biloxi, MS after Hurricane Katrina. Paul and Wynne, the firm’s partners, led a team of University of Minnesota architecture students to Biloxi to design and build a new neighborhood park shelter to serve as a beacon of hope and a point of pride for the ravaged community. The design team worked alongside parents and children to create a meaningful place for people to gather and play. Creating a place of beauty and human dignity was vital to the project’s success.
When the users of a built environment are invested in a place physically, socially, and spiritually, then I believe it becomes a part of them and a part of the community’s collective soul- a true place of meaning and dignity.