Utopia series: cathedrals of the future

The Utopia Series

Calling an idea ‘utopian’ is normally a way of saying it’s pie-in-the-sky and not worth paying attention to. Far from it. Throughout the ages, a number of philosophers have put forward some highly provocative and interesting utopias, describing ideal arrangements of everything from schools to religion, government to holidays.

Utopian ideas aren’t meant to be immediately practical. That’s precisely why they are so useful: they take our minds off the problems of the here and now and offer us a grander vision of what there is to aim for.

 

In the developed, more secular parts of the world, it is common, even among unbelievers, to lament the passing of the great days of religious architecture. 

It is common to hear those who have no interest in the doctrines of religion admit to a nostalgia for ecclesiastical buildings: for the texture of stone walls on hillside chapels, for the silence inside vast cathedrals, for the profiles of spires glimpsed across darkening fields. But these nostalgic musings are always cut short with a reluctant acknowledgement that an end to faith must inevitably mean an end to the possibility of temples. 

Behind this assumption lies the implicit idea that where there are no more gods or deities, there can be no more buildings with some of the atmosphere of the great religious examples. Yet on examination, it in no way logically follows that an end to our belief in sacred beings must mean an end to our attachment to certain sorts of atmosphere and architecture. In the absence of gods, we still retain a longing for calm, for community, for grandeur, for sweetness, for perspective – all of which can be found and celebrated through architecture.

We need secular buildings that can also, like the temples and cathedrals of old, create feelings of awe, gratitude, wonder, mystery and silence. We need those abstracted sonorous spaces that take us out of the everyday and encourage contemplation, perspective and (at times) a pleasing terror.

In the Utopia, there might therefore be some of the following types of buildings:

- A Building for Perspective

Considering how much of our lives we spend exaggerating our own importance, it is highly welcome to come across an architecture than answers our need for perspective. 

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The advantages of being made to feel small. Tadao Ando, Church of the Light, Ibaraki, Japan, 1989

Architecture can perform a critical function in relation to this egoism, because of its capacity to adjust our impressions of our physical – and as a consequence also our psychological – size, by playing with dimensions, materials, sounds and sources of illumination. In certain buildings that are vast in scale or hewn out of massive, antique-looking stones; or in others that are dark save for a single shaft of light filtering in from a distant oculus; or silent but for the occasional sound of water dripping from a great height into a deep pool, we may feel that we are being introduced, with unusual and beguiling grace, to a not unpleasant sense of our own insignificance. 

To be made to ‘feel small’ is, to be sure, a painful daily reality of the human playground. But to be made to feel small by something mighty, noble, accomplished and intelligent is to have wisdom presented to us along with a measure of delight. There are buildings that can induce us to surrender our egoism without in any way humiliating us. In them we can set aside our ordinary concerns and take on board (in a way we never dare to do when we are under direct fire from other humans) our own mediocrity. 

Such feelings may visit us in a massive, narrow tower with charred timber walls, in a concrete void extending five storeys underground; or in a room lined with stones bearing the fossilised imprints of minuscule, shelled ammonites which partook of life in the tropical waters of Laurentia (modern day eastern North America and Greenland) during the Paleozoic Era, some three hundred million years before our first recognisable ancestor had the wit to stand upright.

An ideal secular building for perspective might end up playing with some of the same ideas explored in our science museums and observatories. There might be items of paleontological and geological interest in the walls, and astronomical instruments on the ceilings and roof. And yet there would be important distinctions between these two types of institutions at the level of ambition. Like a science museum, a temple for perspective would hope to push us towards an awareness (always under threat in daily life) of the scale, age and complexity of the universe; but unlike a science museum, it would not bother to pretend that the point of the exercise was to give us a grounding in a scientific education. It would not in the end matter very much whether visitors ever mastered the differences between, say, the Triassic and Cambrian eras, the detailed explanations of which are so painfully laboured over by museum curators and yet so likely to be forgotten by most of their audience by the time they reach the car park. This would be science roughly handled and presented in the interests of stirring awe rather than in the name of promoting knowledge; science leant upon for its therapeutic, perspective-giving capacity, rather than its factual value.

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A prospective building for perspective whose structure would represent the age of the earth, with each centimetre of height equating to one million years. Measuring 46 metres in all, the tower would feature, at its very base, a tiny band of gold only one millimetre thick, standing for mankind’s time on earth. 

- A Building for Tenderness

Because life is generally so practical, unforgiving and harsh, we are liable to be stopped in our tracks by anything that is uninhibitedly and unapologetically not any of these things, such as the rose window of Strasbourg Cathedral or the ironwork on the front door of the medieval church of Eaton Bray, in rural Bedfordshire.

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Rose window, Strasbourg Cathedral, c. 1290                                 Thirteenth-century ironwork, Eaton Bray Church, Bedfordshire

What these two designs have in common is their willingness to go far beyond what is functionally necessary merely to light a hall or shut a door. They seem not to mind too much about being sensible or abstemious. They stand out by their charity, playfulness and kindness in a world preoccupied with gravity and practicality. They are certainly open to being described in aesthetic terms: one might speak of their symmetry, proportion, complexity and balance. But it seems a more fruitful approach to shift register and describe them instead in emotive terms, simply as examples of love, for they embody some of what happens when we enter into a loving relationship with someone: the way we give more of ourselves than we strictly have to, take seriously attitudes that stern judges would deem irrelevant and act with rare forgiveness and endurance.

While architecture and design can only ever make suggestions as to how we should feel and act – issuing mere recommendations rather than legal orders – we can nevertheless sense well enough how a relationship might unfurl if it were to be governed by the attitudes implicit in the Eaton Bray door or the Strasbourg window.

To accord prestige to buildings embedded with attitudes of love is to make a public case for a value which stands out from, and occasionally threatens, our utilitarian, commercial societies. A glass cube surrounded by a façade of limestone, carved into subtle interlocking floral shapes of painstaking delicacy, would speak of what life might be like if it were freed of some of its overpowering practicality and coldness. Love would be required to bring such a building into existence, but once built, it would majestically radiate the same virtue back out again, illuminating a world in continuous need of sensory reminders of its importance. 

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A building whose primary purpose is to evoke a prized emotion: a celebration of tenderness

- A Retreat for Thinking

It is one of the unexpected disasters of the modern age that our new unparalleled access to information has come at the price of our capacity to concentrate on anything much. The deep, immersive thinking which produced many of civilisation’s most important achievements is now under unprecedented assault. We are almost never far from some machine that will guarantee us a mesmerising and libidinous escape from reality. The feelings and thoughts which we have omitted to feel and think while looking at our screens are left to find their revenge in involuntary twitches and our ever-increasing inability to fall asleep when we should. 

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Christianity knew to give us plenty of opportunities for being on our own to think. Gougane Barra church, County Cork, Ireland, 1879

Because we are drawn in architecture to styles which seem to possess some of the qualities we lack in ourselves, it is little wonder that we should be readily seduced by spaces that are purified and free of distraction, and in which stimuli have been reduced to a minimum – places, perhaps, where the view has been carefully framed to take in a few rocks, or the branches of a tree, or a patch of sky, where the walls are solid, the materials are enduring and the only sounds to be heard are those of flowing water. 

A proper building for thought would lend structure and legitimacy to moments of solitude. It would be a simple space, offering visitors little beyond a bench or two, a vista and a suggestion that they set to work on unravelling some of the troubling themes that they have been using their normal activity to suppress.

There is a devilishly direct relationship between the significance of an idea and how nervous we become at the prospect of having to think about it. We can be sure that we have something especially crucial to address when the very notion of being alone grows unbearable. For this reason, religions have always been forceful in recommending that their followers observe periods of solitude and silence, however much discomfort these might at first provoke. A modern building for thought would follow this philosophy while creating ideally reassuring conditions for peaceful contemplation, allowing us to wait for those rare insights upon which the successful course of our lives depend, but which run across our distracted minds only occasionally and skittishly like shy deer.

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A place to lay in wait for shy, elusive insights: a Shrine for Thought

There is no need to catalogue here all the themes that a new generation of buildings might take up; the point is only to argue that we should revive and continue the underlying aims of religious architecture: to place us for a time in a thoughtfully-structured, three-dimensional space in order to educate and rebalance our souls.

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