God and Daniel Libeskind
In a post last March criticizing Daniel Libeskind’s design for Ground Zero, I had written: “This freaky postmodern monstrosity is an object lesson in what happens when man turns away from God, the transcendent, and tradition.” One commenter wrote: “Amen … I honestly don’t see what God has to do with it though. Did He prescribe a certain sort of architecture? The building design here is simply hideous.”
Obviously I was not saying that God prescribes a certain sort of architecture. But Western public architecture prior to World War II and certainly prior to the 20th century—including architecture that has nothing to do with religion—conveyed a larger sense of wholeness, even of a cosmic, hierarchical order, that was in keeping with a theistic experience of existence. Postmodern architecture such as Libeskind’s is a deliberate attack on that experience.
For example, take an ordinary pre-War apartment building on West End Avenue in New York City. Such a building is entirely secular and utilitarian, even quite boring, or so it seems. But when you look carefully, you see a hierarchical and organic order. The ground floor and the first one or two stories above that will have a certain appearance, with distinct decorative pattern or color. Then the middle stories, the bulk of the building, will be much plainer. Then the upper stories and the roof will have some aesthetic pattern which sets it off from the middle part and connects it with the first part.. This tripartite pattern (decorative design at the top and bottom, plainer design in the middle), which can be seen in not just in average apartment buildings, but in much finer structures throughout Manhattan, conveys the sense of natural, organic order, which in turn connects us with a sense of cosmic or divine order. Such a building can seem like a living organism (a quality that can be sensed especially strongly at night, when the lit windows light up the building from within). Just as man, as a perfectly formed, multilayered organism, is the image of God and so brings us to a consciousness of God, or just as a leafless tree in the wintertime, revealing its bare and perfect form against the sky, brings us to an awareness of God as the source of all form, so such a building, as an organic whole, brings us to a consciousness of God.
Through the modern era, Western people had become increasingly secularized, but still had an experience and belief in “something larger,” however they may have defined it. They wanted buildings, especially public buildings, to convey something noble and uplifting. But as modernity has advanced into postmodernity, people have become thoroughly secular, consciously and vocally anti-God. Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, and all these other contemporary fashionable architects are expressing that rebellion against God and against the consciousness of any higher order in life.
In a recent post Mr. Auster cited Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” disclaiming in a way her Atheism in still having made some cogent points to make.
Inevitably, this question brings up “The Fountainhead.”
I agree with Mr. Auster’s overall assessment of the way a belief in God affected our approach to architecture. But I wonder what Howard Roark would have to say about this design?Posted by: Joel on July 24, 2003 2:16 PM
I think he would have seen it as a freaky monstrosity. Among the bad guys in The Fountainhead are empty-headed experimental modernist architects and writers. The key to Roark’s idea of architecture was that a building be an integrated whole, like an organism, an idea inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture. This postmodern weirdo crap is of course nothing like that.
Yet the atheism is a problem in Roark, as in his real life architectural model Wright. Roark rejects all tradition. Each building must be designed as if there was no history, no culture, in which a building will take its place. So basically Roark’s/Rand’s philosophy invalidates all the architecture that has ever been. Also, while Wright was a genius whose work I greatly admire, some of his buildings, including his most famous building Fallingwater, have the chill of atheism about them. Maybe all of them do.Posted by: Lawrence Auster on July 24, 2003 2:30 PM
Perhaps it is reflective of Wright’s atheism or agnosticism that his buildings reflect very little concern for the needs of those for whom they were built. I have heard that his houses are very difficult to live in. Certainly New York’s Guggenheim Museum (which I confess I find ugly) is a building wildly unsuited to its stated purpose. HRSPosted by: Howard Sutherland on July 24, 2003 3:51 PM
I agree with Mr. Auster’s comment that monstrous contemporary architecture reflects our society’s turning away from God, but I would like to fill in more of the terms of the equation.
Bold disjunction of the parts is a major feature of the Libeskind design and of so-called post-modern art generally. (Gehry’s shiny metal castles, like the Weisman Art Museum here in Minneapolis, have far more unity, and should probably not be considered post-modern.) The valuation of disjunction defines an anti-aesthetic, which favors the disruption of aesthetic experience in favor of cognitive experience. The consumer enters into a process of “having his preconceptions challenged,” being “intellectually stimulated,” recognizing ironic references, etc., everything but aesthetically enjoying an unprecedented beauty. I think most readers will agree that twentieth-century art overwhelmingly appeals to the mind instead of the heart. (Which is not to say that abstract art cannot have a strong aesthetic appeal.)
The overvaluation of cognitive experience in art—analogous to the hubris of intellect in every realm of experience, you name it—is a symptom of the disintegration of man that results from rebellion against God. God, or the sacred, or transcendence, is the keystone of reality. To deny God’s centrality and human dependence on Him results in ever-ramifying distortions of reality (Voegelin’s second reality). God, Man, and Society are all progressively distorted once this rebellion has occurred. Aesthetic experience at its highest is an experience of transcendence. (Why that is so is discussed by Eric Gans in his philosophical anthropolgy, see esp. Originary Thinking with its fascinating aesthetic periodization.)
To deny the transcendent ultimately requires rejecting the aesthetic experience of transcendence. We end up with a non-art whose purpose is to vindicate the ways of person to person (man being an ironized category), vindicate the intellect as the agency of human self-experience (knowledge and truth being taboo in the second reality), and vindicate the artist as the creator ex nihilo of the second reality (which denies even the existence of reality, not to mention creation, though authorship is still expected to pay off).Posted by: Bill Carpenter on July 24, 2003 7:42 PM
It’s good to see that some are protesting this travesty:
As an example of using architecture to symbolize rebellion against God, this is reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. I’ve heard other commentary suggesting that if this design goes up, then al-Quaida won. But al-Quaida can’t be blamed for our reaction to what they did, (which was more significant than a constitutional display falling over on a Supreme Court justice.) If this is the way we respond to what was surely a wake-up call, then we’re really asking for it.Posted by: Joel on July 29, 2003 7:15 PM
“If this is the way we respond to what was surely a wake-up call, then we’re really asking for it.”
Talking about responding in an inappropriate way to that major wake-up call, how about our being attacked in a mass murder of Biblical proportions by Muslims who see us as, among other things, sexually liberated and deviant infidels, and then, in response to that attack, we place a right to sodomy in our Constitution? Does this sound like the behavior of a society that is “getting” it?Posted by: Lawrence Auster on July 29, 2003 8:54 PM
Indeed not. It’s just one more stick on the fire. We’ve rebelled against God in our culture and entertainment, in our politics, and now even in our architecture.
Speaking of ‘Biblical proportions’:
“And the rest of the men which were not killed by these plagues yet repented not of the works of their hands … Neither repented they of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts.” Rev 9:20-21Posted by: Joel on July 29, 2003 9:13 PM
I do not want to pretend to know what or where your general observations on architecture, modernism, and subsequent socio-religious movements come from. However, they are just general observations formed from the perspective of your experiences. Your perspective can only grasp the now. Your experience of the historical can only be of what exists now. So for a moment think of the now. How much of the now, will go unrecorded as part of our history? How much of that history will be distorted or taken out of context? As for the spirituality of ‘post-modern’ architecture, how does one know the soul of another man, let alone gain the audacity to say in what works God can or can not exist. Just because the comfortable order of your traditionalist understanding of things is not being perpetuated today, does not mean that order and spirituality do not exist in things you do not understand. Post-modernism is not an anti-theological movement, it an attempt to expose and discuss, in multiple discourses, including religion, the mis-guided attempts of modernism. If you look closely, you will find that many of the founders of architecture’s post-modern movement where alive and died well before your blessed West End building was ever conceived. They were also supported by the churches and were often devout believers in God.Posted by: michel on April 16, 2004 12:42 PM