Thursday, October 26, 2006

We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us...

Some people can't stand it if their thoughts don't seem original (as if, on most subjects of any importance, that was possible). Me, I'm glad when I find anyone else who thinks even a little like I do, and might have expressed it before I did. When I find it's also one of the men of the recent past whom I most admire, I'm on cloud nine.

I've commented before on how important it is that churches be designed to look like churches, inside and out. I've been especially hard on the 'wreckovators' who take beautiful old Catholic churches and 'modernize' them -- that is, strip them of most of the traditional Christian art that has characterized them. They thereby cut off generations of Catholics from the physical environments in which their faith was nurtured, and they cut off future generations from the inspiration that can only come from being in the actual presence of the places and things that were meaningful to those who came before us, and have now gone on ahead of us.

Practically everything about the physical environment of a past event works to keep the memory of it alive. That's just the way we human beings are hard-wired. Who hasn't felt the otherwise inexplicably vivid rush of memory when we once again encounter a certain scent or sound, or wander into a certain place, that was part of the moment when that memory was born?

Destroy the physical space associated with memory, and you go some distance toward eradicating that memory and all the connections with it.

It seems that Winston Churchill insisted on something of the same connection between a place and what people do there. After the old House of Commons in which he had built his career was demolished in one of the last raids of the London blitz, he said this about the importance of restoring the old place to the way it had previously looked:
... we have now to consider whether we should build it up again, and how, and when. We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than forty years in the late Chamber, and having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, should like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity.
Wow. Note the sequence. We, or rather our ancestors, get the first move: they shape the buildings. But after that, the buildings take over. They are the places where our lives then happen, where we have our thoughts and emotions. They're the physical connection with our memories. Destroy them -- and fail to rebuild them -- and the priceless legacy that took its place in time within them blurs and fades, like a watercolor that's been dropped in a puddle.

Ah, but you might say, shouldn't we rebuild in a more convenient, modern fashion? Churchill didn't think so. He knew just what a pain the old building had been, yet he wanted its old "form, convenience, and dignity" back the way it had been. From the notes at the link above:

The old House of Commons was rebuilt in 1950 in its old form, remaining insufficient to seat all its members. Churchill was against "giving each member a desk to sit at and a lid to bang" because, he explained, the House would be mostly empty most of the time; whereas, at critical votes and moments, it would fill beyond capacity, with members spilling out into the aisles, in his view a suitable "sense of crowd and urgency."

For all his faults -- and he had many -- Churchill understood that an essential part of the greatness of the House was the drama that could take place there at watershed moments, and he wanted the House back the way it had been, so that future generations could experience what he had.

There are some who would say that the pre-V2 Church was like the old House of Commons -- too small, too drafty, too somber, and no "lids to bang". To them, I say: too bad.

I'm a cradle Catholic, brought up before Vatican II. And as I reflect on how the hijackers of Vatican II did much the same sort of damage to the Church as that German bomb did to the House of Commons, I'm happy to borrow some of Winston's words as I recall the Catholic world I grew up in, and the prospects of its restoration, both physical and spiritual: having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, should like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity.