Friday, November 30, 2012

Stay in the Pulpit! When the Preacher Wanders from the Pulpit, He Often Strays From the Faith

It is hard to preach in an era when everybody already knows everything and when everyone demands to be entertained. Everybody already knows everything because all knowledge is now just a good Google search away. Whereas learned men once possessed "inside" knowledge that it took years to acquire, now anyone can acquire piecemeal information on their smartphone. Everyone demands to be entertained because an affluent society that is used to distraction and breeds a mentality of "if it isn't fun, it's not worth doing," being entertained is the crucible by which public discourse is assigned value. 

These are two serious challenges to the art of preaching in our time, and they explain a lot of the preaching we see in our pulpits, or on our stages. It helps to explain why fewer and fewer people consumed by the Entertainment and Information Ages are sitting through traditional preaching and it explains why pastors are changing their style of preaching…and fast. Pastors believe that traditional preaching that includes occasional doctrinal teaching and careful exegesis of scripture simply can't compete. So they script sermon "series" that find their origin not in scripture, but in a theme. These series are more palatable to an audience that prefers to think in story and can't be bothered with substantive points. They also allow the pastor to offer relevant life tips as a life coach might. (In truth, most pastors have watered down the office of preaching to a mass life coaching session.)

But without going down the road to critiquing megachurch preaching (go here and here for that), I want to speak to something more fundamental. When did this regression of sound preaching begin? It didn't start with the megachurches. It started when pastors who should have known better started wandering away from the pulpit. Probably to prove to the congregation that pastors were just one of the folks, they began to drift from the pulpit, free of a manuscript and free to be more emphatic, dramatic and climactic. They walked around like they owned the place, not wanting to be relegated to a distant wooden box any longer, but wanting to be near to his dear flock. 

The pastor wanted to become an entertainer, too, not content to merely remain a valuable teacher or authority figure. He was tired of the shackles of leadership and for once, he wanted to blend in. Now that the congregation had conferred authority to this pastor, he traded in his authority for a few cool points. If, in their preaching, they wandered among the congregation and their preaching became more accessible, the pastor could become a bit more like his parishioners. He could symbolically leave his office while he preached and become more like a friend or a companion or a colleague than a pastor. Amazingly, congregations obliged. 

Why? Because they understood what the pastor was doing. He was forsaking some authority (albeit symbolically at first) and they agreed to embrace him as a friend. Really, they were happy to do this because they were tired of "boring" sermons and they didn't really want anyone telling them what to do or think anyway. The parishioners should have been demanding the pastor stay in the pulpit; that is his proper place to address them. But they compromised because, in truth, they don't want a pastor as much as a life coach whose advice they can either reject or ignore. Pastors who speak with Godly authority can be neither rejected nor ignored. 

It's a deal that all in the congregation make, so all are guilty. The pastor agrees to be less of an authority and the congregation agrees to be his friend. Can I really tell all this just from a guy who leaves the pulpit? Well, of course, to a degree I am exaggerating. I've known great and faithful preachers who did not preach from the pulpit. 

But the pulpit is more than just a piece of liturgical furniture. It represents historically, liturgically and architecturally the entire office(s) of pastor and preacher. It represents the stability of the office from person to person. No matter the warm body that occupies that pulpit for 15 minutes a week, that pulpit will be with that congregation for generations, maybe centuries. Preaching is not about the pastor, much less his personality. It is about God's Word and the need for the people to hear that Word week in and week out. 

Ultimately, that is what the pulpit represents more than anything: the Word of God. That is what happens there. The Word is proclaimed in that place. Pulpits represent that which is unchanging, reliable and solid. If the pastor can arbitrarily leave the pulpit, he is forsaking that permanence, that solidity. And for what? A few jokes? A more conversational style? A "relevant" sermon series? 

More often than not, a pastor willing to forsake the pulpit is a pastor who may be on a glidepath to rebellion. If they aren't willing to commit to the permanence of the pulpit - even the symbolism of it! - then good theology may be next to go. Once preaching becomes person-centered and driven by the "felt needs" of the "audience", there is no way that the costs of discipleship, the cross, shed blood or matters of doctrine can be tolerated. Once the permanence of the pulpit is symbolically dislodged, it is that much easier to really dislodge it from the art of proclamation.

I can offer no proof. Only anecdotes. Virtually no megachurch pastor uses a pulpit. Mainline Protestants (whose track record is getting poorer by the day) abandon the pulpit more than use it. Charismatics have probably never seen a pulpit. Meanwhile, those tried and true, i.e. "traditional", more often than not will have a pastor willing to see himself as an office holder who uses the ancient symbols of that office. Orthodox preaching is simply more likely to come from such a man. 

I'm not promising that every problem will be solved by staying in the pulpit. Bad sermons, of course, will still be given from there. But it would be a great start if men called to proclaim the Word would do so from the place intended for that purpose.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Problem With Catholics: Do They Care if I'm There?

This piece, you will see, was written several months ago…after some encouragement, it is being posted now. 

I'm a Lutheran pastor, but when on vacation, I almost always hit up the most beautiful Catholic church I can for Sunday worship. That there will be a liturgical service is pretty much a given, and I get to appreciate historic architecture for an hour…all for free. It's also good to see how others worship, what they prize, what they value. And because I'm in the "evangelical catholic" category of Lutherans, seeing what Rome is up to (including the recent changes in the liturgy) is usually worthwhile.

But my experience several Sundays ago was less than dramatic. While I certainly witnessed no evil, and while the Romanesque space was awe-inspiring, the liturgy, preaching and hospitality left a lot to be desired. To me, it communicated a lack of thoughtfulness, a lack of care, and an arbitrary approach to the faith as a whole. I left with the very clear feeling that the church was there as some sort of favor to us, and we should appreciate it.

I'm not saying that was intentional, or that the presider, preacher and members wanted me to have anything but warm fuzzies towards them. And Lord knows the incredible devotion that most priests bring to their work, for which they are to be lauded. I'm just saying what I observed as an outsider. I say it in love, with no sour grapes and with no sense of competition. I say it so that Catholics may come to see how an outsider may view their worship for the first time at a Catholic service.

If I may, I'd like to break it down piece by piece. First, upon entering, there were no ushers, no one to say hello or offer a bulletin. Usually, Catholic bulletins help very little with the liturgy and are instead advertisements for parish member's businesses. I understand the financial pressures, but church bulletins really shouldn't resemble NASCAR drivers. The books in the pews are nice, but they are not always easy to use. And I'm a guy who loves perusing hymnals and missals. At three points before the sermon, we sung music that was not in the book. I followed along as best I could with my ear, but as a note-reader, I couldn't figure out why they didn't just use what was in the book. That follows only two verses of the first hymn (and every subsequent hymn) getting some love. To only sing 2 of 5 verses of a hymn is like reading 2 of 5 chapters of a book. Hymns are not ours to self-limit.

These decisions by priest and musician give a very arbitrary feeling to the worship. It's almost as though the worship leaders have given up: "Well, no one is going to sing anyway and whether or not they participate is irrelevant compared to the majesty of the mass, so who cares?" It is isolating when you want to sing, when you want to participate, and the leadership makes it either impossible (by self-selecting the verses) or difficult (by using unprinted music.) Many Protestants do this too, by the way. I just don't see how a culture of enthusiastic worship can be accomplished with these cultural norms in place. And that makes me wander if they even care if they offer enthusiastic worship. I had to ask, "Does the priest want me to sing along, or not?"

The sermon had some high points. The priest made contemporary connections to the Aurora shooting and the Olympics, which preachers should strive to do. He also spoke of the gifts of Baptism and the Eucharist, given to us by God through Christ. However, at the end, the only thing I really remembered were his injunctions to live differently in the wake of the Eucharist. Hint: if you have to tell them to live differently, it isn't naturally bearing the fruit it should.

I also remember his encouragement to follow the example of the Olympians, who were "good" people. Huh? Has he not heard of the rampant promiscuity among our celebrated athletes? Has he not seen Michael Phelps hitting the bong? Great athletes? Yes. Great people? Maybe. Hard workers? No doubt. Good moral examples? Um, sticking with the saints is a better bet.

It just seems like Catholic preaching rarely rises above the level of pithy moralism. Stop telling me how to live a better life and preach the Gospel with some passion. This should include the cross, some shed blood, and the FREE gift of grace. What Luther found in the 1500s is still true to this day. Catholics seem terrified or reluctant to preach the Gospel in all of its fullness (or the Law either, for that matter) because they just can't trust the people to be virtuous. We always need a little needling to be better and a reminder that we can - like the Olympians - achieve much with the right focus. The hardest thing to do in preaching is to trust that God's Word can accomplish much on its own, if it is simply proclaimed. Catholic preaching never seems to release that trust to God, always maintaining for itself a place of control.

From there, the Eucharist was celebrated quite well, though again, with different music I couldn't follow along. I won't hit that too hard. Many of my parishioners don't like the hymns I select. No pastor will ever get unanimity on that. There was the introduction of a dozen young volunteers to the congregation at the end that was uplifting. These recent college graduates lived in the convent and volunteered throughout the city for a year. Kudos!

But regarding the sacraments, I was surprised that immediately after the service, there was a private baptism. Have not most liturgical scholars - Catholic and Protestant - pretty much agreed that this rite should be part of the mass? Isn't a momentous and public rite like baptism best served in the midst of the entire assembly? The priest preached about the impending baptism with great joy, even comparing - weakly, I think - the baptismal candle to the Olympic torch. (There's that Olympic theme, again.) But no one other than immediate family participated. Again, the impression is that the Church passively provides services and the assembly's participation is nice, but not necessarily expected.

It communicates a sense of entitlement, a sense of power that I can't imagine helps the church when preaching to already entitled people. The Church has to present itself as the servant of the people, not God's gift. Yes, the Church presents God's gifts to the people, but it must do so in humility and with an earnest desire that others respond to a life poured out. I just did not get the impression at all that the leadership cared if I was there, cared if I participated or cared if I ever came back.

I don't necessarily mind the anonymity and I absolutely do not want my posterior romanced. And I'm not advocating the insane "user-friendliness" of the Church Growth Movement. Their watered-down pop Christianity with teams of greeters and contemporary worship is miles worse than even the most apathetic Catholic mass. I just doesn't seem like the Catholic church really cares if people are there or not. And as I ride the buses and the El in Chicago, I see a whole lot of entitled and apathetic people roaming the streets. How can we possibly reach them if we act like we have so much to offer? That may very well be the case. But instead of projecting that, we should convey in no uncertain terms a passion to reach all people and a humility that meets folks where they are. Shy of that, it is hard to imagine any institutional church making an impact on a broken and entitled culture.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

How Romney's Mormonism Will Affect His Presidency

Mitt Romney is poised to become America's first Mormon president. His debate performances have won over a number of independents, evangelicals have gone from saying they'd never vote for a Mormon to openly campaigning for him, and he is running against a man with as dismal a record as any modern president. While the election is too close to call, it is certainly close enough to consider exactly how Romney would govern as a Mormon in the White House.

Americans tend to hold to separation of church and state and our presidents are not to be theocrats, but there is no doubt that they bring their religious convictions into the Oval Office. Barack Obama may be the least religious president of them all, but his own brand of Christianity - black liberation theology – was certainly in line with his policy choices. We should expect that Mitt Romney’s Mormon conviction will guide his presidency. After all, he is not only a Mormon, but a deeply committed Mormon. He is, as opposed to the likes of fellow Mormon Harry Reid, a true believer.

 Now many might be saying, "So what? Mormonism is just a branch of Christianity, so what's the big deal?" I can see where one might think that. High profile meetings with Billy Graham and the tide of evangelicals supporting Romney without carefully delineating how Mormonism is not a branch of Christianity can lead to that confusion. In some ways, Mormonism has become mainstream. In other ways, it is receiving more scrutiny.

 What I want to try to answer is how Romney's Mormonism will shape his presidency. I think it will in three ways. First, Mormons have a peculiar relationship with the American experience, for better and for worse, and that will underscore Romney's vision for America and his relationship to the Constitution. Second, Romney is a utopian, and that will shape his policy goals. Third, Mormonism is a works-based religion, so Romney will want to succeed.

 The first issue is the largest, most ambiguous, and most complex. Without retelling the entire story, let's just say that Mormonism is a distinctly American religion (or religious cult) and it has thrived because of America's grand history of religious freedom. Its beliefs are pretty unusual and non-Christian in almost every respect. But their story bleeds American. The Book of Mormon (albeit inaccurately) speaks of American places and Jewish tribes who traveled to America. In Mormon folklore, America is the Promised Land. Their holy books reference America. Americans don't have to just imagine Jesus in Israel. Their own prophets ended up right here in the US of A! How could a Mormon not love this place? And how different that is from a president whose liberation theology has led him to conclude America is a source for evil? (Trust me, that is what liberation theology teaches. Jeremiah Wright is just the tip of the iceberg.)

 Mormonism's experience in America has not always been happy, though. They were persecuted, or at least rightly pursued on many occasions by U.S. law enforcement. They ended up in Salt Lake because Utah was not yet a state and they were free to practice their faith, including polygamy. Only after intense pressure when Utah sought to become a state did Mormons give up polygamy. Joseph Smith was assassinated and that persecution is part of what has historically bound this group together.

 This is the paradox of Mormonism and their relationship to America: they are free to be Mormon for the most part, but at times, they experienced legal rebukes to end their more extreme prophecies. In the end, it seems that Mormons have moved on from those persecutions and have decided to make a go of it. They now say that they are Christian, whereas in the past, they said they were not. They work on conversion, not on starting militias. And there are even those strange prophecies that speak to a Mormon president saving the American Constitution, which hangs by a thread. Some persecution aside, Mormons know that the Constitution protects their right to belief (false) prophecy. So whereas Mr. Obama sees the constitution as incomplete and/or inadequate, Mormons want to see it protected. That will certainly shape Mr. Romney's presidency.

 The second area is, at least for conservatives, far more problematic. Mormons are utopians because they deny original sin. While they say they affirm the Protestant (Pauline) doctrine of "justification by grace alone," they operate on a works-based theology. Good works earns favor in the eyes of their god (who was once a man). This means that they believe men are capable of building a better world. If you hang out in Salt Lake City, you might tend to agree. If you are in control of your eternal destiny and your good works earn you special dispensation in that eternity, you are a utopian.

 This will benefit you if you have Mormon neighbors. But its not a good guide for government policy. Utopians are stubbornly optimistic and hope for the best in people. This is why he will never be as conservative as many conservatives hope for. He will defend the Constitution, but he won't be bashful about social programs with good intentions. The core of conservatism is a fundamental belief in original sin, and therefore the need to limit government and protect man from man. A utopian who believes in human/social progress will want to help men along rather than stop them in their tracks. This optimism will almost certainly be a blind spot for Mr. Romney.

 Finally, there is a flip side to this works righteous heresy. Mr. Romney will bust his butt trying to be a successful president. For a mind like his, there is no sting worse than failure, and, for better or worse, he will not want to leave a legacy of failure. He will want unemployment to go down, the economy to improve and the debt situation to improve as well. Unlike Mr. Obama, whose liberation theology teaches that America's lack of success is itself a success, Romney will be more motivated than most to see to it that he is a successful president. He believes he answers to a higher power with special dispensation towards America. If America is the Promised Land in your religion and you are her leader, you definitely don't want to blow your opportunity to succeed.

 To a degree, Romney's own personality will shape his presidency. He is a frugal, detail-oriented, managerial tightwad. After four years of detached, professorial cool, I’m perfectly okay with that. For the first time in years, we will not have a lazy president or one so rigidly ideological that they let their stubbornness impede progress. I can't believe I'm saying this as I certainly did not support him in the primaries, but I think that Romney has a rare combination of skills and motivation to have as consequential and successful a presidency as Ronald Reagan.

 It is only the Mormon factor, particularly his stubborn optimism, that will slow him down. It will keep him from seeing the full truth of a broken humanity. But in the end, it could propel to him to a consequential presidency. Two things are for sure: first, Mormons are not Christians; second, a deeply committed Mormon like Mr. Romney will absolutely take that into the White House and it will guide almost everything he does.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Of Taste and Transactions: Explaining the quality of construction in the United States

Among the younger set in my profession, there emerges a bitter realisation on the difference in architectural quality between what they produce on the job and what gets published in the official peer magazines. It's similar to the gap between the kind of work they were doing at school and the mundane jobs they find themselves in at the office. The question must certainly arise--"how come everything I work on seems to boil down to conventional materials, systems, and forms that seem to have been done over and over since time immemorial, and yet there are architects half-way around the world who seem to come up with a building that's so wizbang?"

Even as I count myself fortunate enough to have worked on the "wizbang" variety of projects throughout my career, it becomes hard not to ponder on this very question when I sit through weekly lunch-hour product presentations. A convenient means of fulfilling required continuing education credits, they are for the most part sales pitches by companies to convince us to specify their product on a current or future project (this happens in virtually any of the licensed professions). Often the products are very innovative and cutting-edge (i.e. expensive) and they proudly show images of their product applied on built projects just featured in the most recent issue of our cherished design magazines. Not only are the sample projects presented are largely European in origin, the products and the companies that make them are often European as well. When it comes to products having to do exterior finishes, synthetics, finely detailed cladding systems or high-tech mechanical systems, the narrative at these presentations seems to go: "this product has been around in Europe for over thirty years, but only in the last five years has it become available to the U.S. market…"

While one can come up with even more technical explanations on why European construction seems so much more sophisticated, what is on the minds of many of my colleagues is this message:

American architects need to get with the program and raise their design quality up several notches, or they will be left behind when competing against other more sophisticated firms on a global scale. Framing buildings with two-by-fours and covering them with wood siding and asphalt shingles might pay the bills in the place where you practice, but you will never be able to say that it meets the global standard in construction methods. What may seem a practical way to build given cost and resources is considered by many outside the U.S. as backward, disposable and cheap.

While I and many others would argue on the merits of traditional American construction, I've come to the realization that the above message isn't really about such technical issues. Instead, it's sort of an underhanded cultural critique- Americans don't invest much care and attention to buildings. And it has little do with actual know-how.  It has more to do with buildings' place in a culture. To put it crudely, the making of buildings is perceived less as an act of culture here in the U.S. than it is elsewhere. Granted, all building can be valued with a spectrum that ranges from a purely economic and utilitarian endeavor at one end to a strictly cultural, even ego-driven, undertaking on the other. Each and every construction market consist of projects inspired by a mixture of both economic and cultural motives. Based on my own professional experience, American developers and owners seem to view buildings as part of a larger financial transaction, an instrument towards a more important goal: acquiring or conserving wealth.

Foreign clients are not averse to this view, but they are willing to place varying levels of importance on a project's cultural impact, even if it’s the result satisfying their personal ego or seeking a political advantage. The advantage of people treating buildings as economic instruments is that it results in a more robust construction environment, hiring more architects in general to oversee a wealth of mundane, budget conscious projects. In places where making money matters much less because making a cultural statement is the goal, overall construction activity is anemic, requiring fewer architects to work on a dearth of ambitious, often dazzling yet expensive projects. A transactional view of architecture compels firms to calibrate their designs in line with a client's goal in making a profit, being more competitive in the marketplace, and rewarding technical specialization. In contrast, the cultural view reinforces a building's capacity to express a sense of place, its people, the epoch, its technology and the prevailing socio-political order. Practicing architecture in this context favors a more academic approach and encourages an avant-garde to help define a project within a particular point in history.

To accept, for the sake of argument, the idea that Americans are more driven by profit than by culture naturally implies that they are shallow. Many people outside the U.S. seem to agree, but this is because they misunderstand the role that culture plays in the lives many Americans. At the core of an American's identity is that you are an autonomous, unencumbered individual. Cultural inheritance from family and upbringing plays a small part compared to the importance of being able refashion oneself according to whatever values that feel most true or authentic to him or her. In America, you can choose your culture, you can choose your tribe, and you can change these things over the course of your life as circumstances change. If there is anything constant about Americans throughout history, it's that they move around a lot, and have adapted their cultural identity as something that they take along with them--portable. At the same time, they easily embrace new cultural identities as a means to fill holes in meaning that were left behind in their old places of origin. For example one of the best ways to understand many American's lifelong loyalty to the college they once attended is to view it at as means of establishing a kind of tribal identity that didn't exist strongly enough elsewhere in their lives. Culture becomes a commodity that can be bought, worn, exchanged, and disposed of at will. From this perspective , it isn't a surprise to see inherited culture, even ethnicity, as an oppressive force that obstructs a person to truly realize oneself. There is an inevitable aspect of rootlessness to it all, which to many people would see it as more alienating than liberating. It's a great environment for outsiders since they are given plenty of space to thrive.

In much of the rest of the world by contrast, inherited culture is at the core of one's identity and informs the general sense of social life. Culture is rooted in every sense, from the land where it sprung, to the way it has been inhabited over a long history and the language that evolved within a defined territory. One is born into an inescapable cultural reality that is the product of a long history, even prevailing genetic patterns on a society that has stayed put during all that time. Tradition holds considerable sway in most of these nations, offering a secure sense of identity to people, a set of accepted values and a clear life purpose. People tend to stay at or pretty near the place of their birth, establishing a strong emotional connection to a place unknown to most Americans. Many who uproot themselves to live in the larger city find it difficult to belong in their new environment and are steadfast in maintaining connections to their native towns and villages. Inevitably, a thick layer of social conformity affects daily life in such places, as a means of enforcing social cohesion and assuring continuity.

Even in other nations with long histories where outward examples of tradition have been jettisoned in favor of a secular modernist culture such as in Europe, there is still a high degree of cultural conformism that informs the "proper way of doing things". Though stripped of their historical underpinnings, secular modernism (of which progressivism is synonymous) pushes for a values and ideals that are perceived as inevitable and the embodied will of the people, not that of individuals. Outsiders tend to suffer in this environment, and it's not surprising that rooted cultures have trouble assimilating newcomers. Ideas that react against this conformity can't prosper and frequently causes the people who don't want to conform to leave for places where their ideas are more tolerated.

Whether culture is rooted and permanent or not goes a long way into explaining the qualities that influence how we build. As much as we think the cost is the biggest factor in how we design and what gets built, where cultural authority resides in a society is just as important. If this authority lies in tradition or deferred to elite cultural producers or tastemakers, an individual will build according the dictates of the prevailing culture that surrounds him at that point in time. However, when cultural authority resides in individuals, based on one's personal taste, or an authentic understanding on who that person believes to be, buildings become a manifestation of the individual and results in a constructed landscape that lacks stylistic coherence or harmony. In the U.S., people build to express their own personalities, from what they like to what they imagine themselves to be. In my experiences in Europe, people build according to a kind of established stylistic template that expresses a person's acceptance of prevailing cultural norms of the times, a kind of self-effacing architecture. Even as the new clashes with the old within the same block, all the buildings within are alike in consistently representing the spirit of their times. Both the old and the new convey an exquisite attention to detail, as if they are being judged by how well they embody prevailing cultural ideas, not in how they allow the owners within to express themselves and their particular needs.

There's an inherent discipline at work where culture is rooted, as rules governing verbal and artistic expression have had time to become refined and quite sophisticated. Often these rules aren't openly published, but instead are absorbed and reintroduced as 'taste'. Cultures that are either defined by tradition at one end or modern sophistication at the other enforce a standard that judges a work to be acceptable in the form of taste. They therefore do not tolerate tastelessness and are deeply suspicious of iconoclastic or self-centered individuals. Taste enforces a consistent rigor, aesthetic harmony, and a comforting order to the visual environment. To assert oneself in open rejection to prevailing taste is to earn public opprobrium by being called 'tacky'. As much as I personally champion individual freedom, it comes with a responsibility that arises from personal virtue--taste--developed through serious study and reflection, is definitely a part.

This proposed office tower in Texas is an excellent example
of how communities' attempts to raise the quality design
are often afflicted by their shallow understanding of traditional
design and an inability to avoid tackiness. This seven-
story tower is wrapped in a half dozen distinct facades, so
as to give the illusion of a village built over time. The effect
is naturally superficial, and will instantly date the building
and cheapen its value over the long term.
Alas, much of what we see in places where culture is not rooted, such as the U.S., is indeed tasteless. Individual satisfaction has become so paramount that taste has become an entirely personal matter. To declare something to be "in poor taste" is to be accused of being a snob. A couple of American developers I have worked with proudly proclaim that there is no such building that is truly ugly, as long as the owner is happy with it--it's all relative in the end. Just as there is proud strain of anti-academicism in mainstream American life, which can harbor both a healthy skepticism of elite ideas and an unhealthy aversion deep philosophical thought, an accompanying elevation of the casual over fine art has engendered art forms that are highly infectious and accessible yet shallow and disposable. Conversely, the less stylistic refinement due to taste matters, the more a construction project is driven towards reducing cost and making a profit. A project's transactional value comes and goes relatively quickly in the life of a building, and often influences whether a building is built to last or will become obsolete in a few decades. If making money is the main goal and taste doesn't matter, why bother wasting money on looks?

Because building is more than anything else a public act, and it therefore comes with an additional responsibility towards the culture in which it exists. For as much as taking the financial risk benefits the investors and all associated designers, engineers and contract labor, it must benefit the public's self-regard. After all the payments have been processed and all the certificates are handed over, the question still begs an answer: What does this building say about who we are, where we are from and where we stand as a community? In highly rooted cultures, this question is answered pretty early in the design process either by following tradition or adopting a style that enjoys a dominant consensus. In un-rooted cultures such as in the U.S., this question is answered often too late, if at all, since they often question the very existence of any kind of communal identity.

But does ignoring something as subjective and as intangible as a new building's cultural value come at any cost? I would argue that in the long run, there is certainly a major cost to avoiding some level of cultural responsibility. It distinguishes communities that exhibit sophistication, permanence and integrity from those saddled with crudeness, transience, and waste. Building with an eye for taste and quality may not result in apparent short term benefits such as expense and profit, but it often yields longer term benefits such as resiliency, lower life-cycle costs, and a shared preference for preservation and restoration, as opposed to costly demolition. This is not to argue that aesthetic taste and quality should override fundamental transactional considerations. A building's primary value is worth the cost that the owner is willing to risk, that its construction makes him better off because it functions well and successfully carries out his expectations. Still, applying design sophistication to a building adds intangible value that reveals itself in through time such as prestige, beauty, fostering a sentimental attachment to the community.

Still, young communities will usually want to grow and prosper, and there must be an unrelenting openness to attracting business and the accompanying development that it brings. Industries take root, infrastructure expands and services arise and deepen according to the needs of the a community's growing population. Aesthetic sensibility will find its way in projects where owners value it, but it in this early phase, it should never get in the way of growth. Official restrictions that favor of aesthetics too strongly will risking snuffing out potential and critical development, but too much of a free-for-all in what is allowed to be built risks saddling the community the withering detritus of cheap development. There is an ironic bright side to the wood-based platform construction that characterizes much of the construction in the U.S.--it makes buildings essentially temporary, easy to change or tear down depending on whatever the local economic needs of the site are at a point in time.

There comes a point where the expansionary phase winds down, as growth changes from quantitative to qualitative in nature. Thanks to industries and businesses that have created a relatively stable and highly productive economic base for the community, its population now demands quality to match its affluent lifestyle. They start building homes that specify higher quality construction, or renovate exiting homes with either 'good bones' or sophisticated detailing and ornament. They want structures that exhibit craftsmanship, some artistry, and durable materials. They also want higher quality retail and restaurants, and find that luring them into their community requires spaces that provide costly amenities and a signature architecture that contains "character" and a "sense of place". When popular chains that cater to the middle to lower classes move in, they are instructed to adopt a nicer architectural envelope or at least change their prototype or risk refusal by the council. Undeveloped land becomes rare and commands a premium, both in price as well as in expectations by its residents. These residents are more aggressive in using zoning towards raising the value of property both monetarily and aesthetically in the form of development codes, which prohibit the use of certain materials due to their cheap and thin appearance while mandating masonry, and regulating the massing of new structures so as to not appear too "boxy" or "bunker-like".

Typical strip center in the U.S. that illustrates a developer's
minimal interest in a quality design. The envelope mostly
consists of foam with a thin coat of stucco (EIFS), which
tends to fail at the slightest impact.  The stone at the bottom
is likely the result of a city zoning code demanding a
minimum use of a natural material so that the building doesn't
look deliberately too cheap. The awnings above are also
 like the for the same reason. If the developer had his way,
all of it would be EIFS or painted concrete, the decorative cornices
would be gone, and there would be fewer awnings. So long
as he's managed to lease it at a desired rate, he's accomplished
his goal.
As the community prospers a shift from a transactional view to a more cultural view of buildings occurs among its residents. And yet they often don't know what this change should look like. Though they are very clear in expressing what they don't want, very rarely do I sense that these residents can specifically describe what they do want. They lack the ability to articulate what a culturally confident, more appropriate architecture is supposed to look like. In newer towns and cities where there is little to no built historic fabric to draw from, forming an enduring architectural identity is daunting, since there is almost nothing to anchor the community's place in history. In addition, contemporary communities, especially those uprooted from tradition and having devalued art appreciation as part of one's education, often cannot confidently impose a system of taste that could steer the future aesthetic direction of their built environment. They grab the thin straws of historicism, hoping that past styles could inform the design of new buildings without having any kind of rigorous or in-depth knowledge of those styles. For example they adopt for an "Italian" style for a new development, and achieve this by applying it in the most superficial, often abstracted way. They ignore proper classical orders, the judiciously applied materials and the craftsmanship involved in the making o f their most cherished monuments and townscapes in old Europe and America. Having no real experience or understanding from which to make sound aesthetic judgments, and lacking builders who know how to convincingly recreate the charms of past construction, they go on to approve watered-down kitsch designs that instantly undermine their desire to appear refined. These buildings tend to age badly, since the timeless aspects of the historic architecture they borrowed have been ignored. The chance to raise a community's cultural profile is wasted, and the lingering tastelessness is once again there for all to see.

Every place, regardless of function or history, belongs to some sort of cultural landscape. Some places are filled with buildings, streets and landmarks that overwhelmingly cry out their noble cultural heritage. Others are little more than clusters of simple sheds, from the more functional ones dedicated to industry, to the more 'decorated' ones for retail, leisure and worship. If they convey any cultural meaning, it's that the transaction and function matters over everything else, with attention to the short-term financial bottom line leaving little to no room for artistic flourish. Cultural signifiers on building is understood to be a surface application, as opposed to incorporating it at every phase. Responding to those who criticize the quality of construction in the U.S., the problem isn't a lack of technical competence among its designers, engineers and builders. They have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to innovate and compete in the global arena. Instead, the challenge is a lack of serious cultural inertia on the part of owners who don't attach themselves strongly to any strong cultural identity in the first place. If their personal attachment to a place is that thin, why invest in making a structure permanent within it?

One can endlessly berate this state of affairs in American construction, but it won't change anything. Once people can fully benefit from the commodification and improvement of land, anything else that doesn't add short-term monetary value will not get much attention. In an individualistic society, what one's culture is and its importance becomes an individual choice, and whether to instill in a building some architectural flourish is part of that choice. Imposing some kind of directive for higher quality design from above is out of the question, particularly in a society that is innately antagonistic to elite opinion. However it can come from the ground up, much as it did not to long ago in the U.S., especially before the middle of the twentieth century. There is an abundance of very straight-forward, functional and modest structures in countless towns and cities throughout the country that exhibit a pretty high level of stylistic refinement, often clustered in what are now endearingly called "historic districts". A group of brick warehouses, tall storefronts fronting Main Street, train depots, school buildings, detached homes--all were embellished with ornament, or composed according to stylistic templates popular at the time. Even as there was much less capital to build back then, it mattered a lot to owners for their structure to contribute to the establishment of their community as a kind of cultural bulwark in an largely untamed land.

We can view this cynically as a sentimental notion, but a lot of average Americans back then believed such a thing as taste, and lived with the expectation from their peers that they would know how to separate the beautiful from the dull. To be educated was not only knowing to read, write, and count, but it was also to acquire some notion of culture and to respect it with sensible judgment. At the same time, property ownership and development was a lot more laissez-faire than it is today, with little zoning or form-based codes to be found, and municipal masterplans a rarity. They didn't seem necessary, since there was a sense of rootedness among people back then, even it consisted of their own cultural inheritance or was imported form the cosmopolitan or foreign influences. Whatever the source, it mattered, and it demanded that an 'educated' person have some minimum level of knowledge of culture and how it applies to one's life. Our problem today is that we have either thrown away our heritage or have a very shallow understanding of it, and rather than subscribing to an overarching standard of taste, we ourselves become our own unrestrained (and uninformed) arbiters of what's great.

I'm not suggesting that we should defer to our taste-makers at once and hang onto every word they say. I'll be the first to admit that the public intellectuals of our time have failed us, not only because they deny the very notion that something can be actually good or beautiful, but because they are contemptuous of those who still believe and want to maintain some kind of broadly shared standard at all. If taste-makers apply any standard, it often has to do with his own personal values and achieving certain social and political goals, while beauty takes a back seat. Creative types such as students and young architects absorb the styles depicted in magazines books that select works based on a specific agenda of the editors (self-anointed tastemakers), then begin their careers unprepared in confronting clients with completely different expectations in what they regard as beautiful.

We therefore shouldn't rely on acquiring a sophisticated level of taste from on high. Instead, we should nurture it from within. We should be disciplined, make a genuine effort in learning about what we like, why we like it, what it truly takes to make the things we like. We should also dig deeper into what influenced the things we like, what cultural values inform these things, and whether we closely identify with these values. And finally, we should hold ourselves responsible to what we like, to be able to defend what we like on multiple levels, and that in making something for the public to experience (such as a building, or even just an interior renovation), we are true to ourselves and manifest our beliefs as faithfully as possible. To pursue building exclusively for financial gain betrays not only a more visually enriching environment, it betrays a primal need to see an important part of ourselves in the way we give shape to our lives.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Maybe America Isn't So Great, After All

Like most normal, red-blooded American boys, I grew up with an understanding that this nation was a city on a hill, a supreme nation whose history and people separated it from all others. As I became more politically aware in my 20s, suffering several political defeats along the way (the continued growth of the welfare state, the curtailing of liberty, the moral decay) I held in the back of my mind a future turning point when things would get better. Just as an example, I remember writing President Clinton as a 13-year-old about the abuses of food stamps at my local grocery store in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Surely by now, such abuses would have come to an end. They have nearly doubled. 

Still, with the decay in the moral life, the cultural life, and the political life, there was always a stubborn insistence in my mind that the American will and persona would "take back the country." After yesterday's decision by the Supreme Court, that naivete is quickly disappearing. I am training my mind for a new reality, a reality in which there isn't a turning point in the future. True, I am probably overreacting to one man's strange judicial mind. And yes, the pundits remind me of particular silver linings. And yes, there are still political opportunities in 2012 and beyond. 

But there are far deeper problems that the sane person cannot ignore about our nation any longer. This particular law and Supreme Court decision have brought them to the fore. Highlighted now is our nation's desire to be acted upon, to become passive where we were once actors.

The nation we live in is one of increasingly weak minds and weak wills; "men without chests," C.S. Lewis said. Somehow, weakness has become acceptable to us. I always understand American to be a nation of strength; strong men and women, independent men and women, people who could accomplish and succeed on their own. Moreover, men and women who wanted to accomplish and succeed on their own. 

The American is active, not passive. The American seeks to do things on his own, without compulsion from others. He decides, he creates, he produces. He succeeds or fails on his own merits. He trades the promise of utopia for the risk of failure. Or he used to.

The American is also virtuous, defined by thrift and modesty. Religious life, now in a slow retreat, was once hugely defining for Americans. Will it continue to be so? Americans are charitable and compassionate. Americans are prudent, content to let the wisdom of experience guide their minds. 

These are the qualities that I assumed would come roaring back one day in enough numbers to turn the tide of our nation and to restore the city on the hill. The strong men - not the lazy ideologues who impose - would decide they prefer the risk of liberty. They would sacrifice to be free. While these traits are visible in many, especially our military, they are too easily being given up. Instead, other sins have won out. 

It begins with greed. We are a nation that consumes more than we produce. To be sure, capitalism is moral. But the consumerism we have embraced - defined by everything from sex-selective abortion to living beyond our means - is evil. We have gotten too lazy to distinguish between the two. Conservatives have lost the courage to defend capitalism and decry consumerism.

It continues with sloth. While many Americans, of course, continue to work hard, too many have become too lazy, relying instead on largess and unearned income. While a social "safety net" may be compassionate, sloth is immoral in any century, in any nation. 

Next comes narcissism. Read the works of Jean Twenge for a more comprehensive and damning summary. One anecdote says a lot. An international study that compared academic test scores and self-esteem found that Americans scored terribly on the tests, but had the highest self-esteem. South Koreans meanwhile scored much higher on the academic tests, but had lower self-esteem. A majority of young Americans are at best delusional about their abilities and their goodness. Nothing is more despicable to God than a proud sinner, a narcissist who lives by their own terms.

Most pernicious and pervasive of all is the sin of coveting. Where we once were content to earn what was ours and respect what others had, we have become a society that envies. Envy is at the root of our passive acceptance of sloth and the moral depravity of the vapid and lifeless celebrity culture. Our wealth has led us to believe that there is something desirable in material acquisition. That is a lie. 

Marketing, television, the celebrity culture and, of course, the politics of class warfare all have at their root the damnable sin of coveting. One cannot blame the marketers, the television producers, the celebrity or the politicians. They are complicit. But it is the American who covets. We own that sin. Until America becomes a nation of men who are content with their lot in life, we we continue to be a sick nation indeed. The material world is not, in and of itself sinful. But coveting is, and it is the root that must be destroyed if we will ever be a great nation again. 

What of religion? Aren't Americans still a religious people. Americans may be religious, but in so many ways, it is often the mere form of religion that passes for Christianity. Many Christian charities are largely government-funded. Megachurches and charismatics preach a false gospel. We have turned religious faith into a consumerist model like everything else. Even the Catholic Church contributed greatly in justifying the welfare state. Their efforts to fight it now are almost certainly too little too late.

Is it still possible that America can change? Of course. But it will require a majority of people willing to live lives of risk and independence. That corner may always be turned. But it seems naive and probably even ignorant to see it anytime soon. And not because a particular law has been upheld. But because that law represents a nation handing over something as fundamental as their health to others. That is profoundly un-American. Or at least, it used to be.