Architecture: Embalming our highest aspirations

Reading further into The Architecture of Happiness (you knew that was coming, didn’t you), Botton talks about how buildings have been erected to encourage the highest ideals of a particular client or society. He cites three or four designs, including the Villa Rotunda.

The statues gracing the exterior — the ones on the pediment are awkward, visually, in my opinion — represented specific virtues the clients aspired to. To dispel any potential naivety, where viewers of such buildings or spaces are quick to point out the hypocrisy between the sculpted virtues and the lives of the inhabitants, Botton says this:

    The purpose of their art and their buildings was not to remind us of what life was typically like, but rather to keep before our eyes how it might optimally be, so as to move us fractionally closer to fulfillment and virtue. Sculptures and buildings were to assist us in bringing the best of ourselves to the fore. They were to embalm our highest aspirations.

Good stuff. I have two quick thoughts in response.

One, this seems to relate to my own desire to beautifully recreate beautiful thunderstorms. Beauty is an ideal that I aspire to, hence this blog. It’s hardwired into me to create in a visually pleasing manner and to assess my environment in terms of its aesthetics. In my sculpture, I create monuments to an object, an image, a phenomenon (prairie storms) that epitomizes beauty through my eyes. There are other such objects and images, but for whatever reason my crafting efforts are focused on thunderstorms at this point in life.

Two, this reminded me of a question Julie asked about changes in church architecture (in the comments of this post). “The notion of church architecture has changed, hasn’t it? Should churches be inviting?” It’s a very interesting question, the first half of which I’ve probably addressed — in part — already on this blog. It’s also a very big question that I don’t really have time to go into at this point in the year. Further, she’s an architect. I’m just a wannabe and probably not qualified to speak as intelligently as I’d like about her question.

However, it’s very easy to see the change in church architecture with respect to architecture that embalms our highest aspirations. Cathedrals bore a myriad of sculptures and paintings. This is something most modern churches completely ignore, probably in light of financial constraints — and perhaps also as a lingering response to certain incorrect, anti-image reformation theologies. How can we know what a church aspires to these days? The structures churches pay to put up in our culture and age say, well, say very little for an institution with such firm doctrines. The warehouse-office combinations that are so many places of worship in the year 2008 do communicate, though. They say things like

  • I am bland.
  • I am cheap.
  • I am corporate.
  • I don’t understand aesthetics.
  • God isn’t worth the time or money to put up a well-designed and meaningful building.

But they don’t say anything about grace. They don’t say anything about love. They don’t say anything about the need for repentance. They don’t say anything about the amazing character of the God they are built because of.

Julie’s question, I’m thinking, was probably aimed more at a shift in church architecture during the last 100 years or so. If that’s the case, my a.m. ramble doesn’t necessarily answer her question. But it’s what I’ve got for today. Oh, and her question on whether or not a church building should be inviting is a completely different matter, one that begs its own post. For another time.

Photo from Wikipeda by Stefan Bauer. Great capture Stefan.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

2 Responses to Architecture: Embalming our highest aspirations

  1. Julie says:

    oh, oh, ramble away. i’m an architect, but not an expert on the particular subject. a *very* quick thought – people used not to be literate, so would learn from stories being told to them and stories and scenes shown on the walls.

    but i like your comments about what vanilla-box churches say about the people making them. a lot.

  2. pNielsen says:

    “people used not to be literate, so would learn from stories being told to them and stories and scenes shown on the walls.”

    This is certainly one of the reasons for stories in stained glass, but I’ve been racking my brain all weekend trying to come up with another reason for the decoration that I heard recently too. It may also be in Botton’s book; I may have to go back and look . . . it made a lot of sense when I heard/read it.

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