On the need for physical epistemes
Patrick recently had a tweet that captured something I've been thinking about since I wrote about the wonders of modern architecture. While the buildings I wrote about are undeniably amazing, one difference from the olden styles is that most modern buildings feel expressly prosaic.
While we have skyscrapers that are truly incredible, they are built for quotidian reasons, as office buildings or homes. While we have modern homes and art galleries, they are built as shelter for people and things and not necessarily as a destination. The Long Now clock is wonderful but its far away, out of reach, without a community around it, and hasn’t inspired many yet, though I hope that changes.
This is one thing that the traditionalists and those who think modern architecture is bad get right. Our buildings might evoke awe, but only in passing. Because after that moment of awe, we walk into them, take an elevator to floor 28, and sit down to work.
And think about the old buildings that stand out to you. There are cathedrals, where inspiring awe was the primary purpose. You weren't there to buy something like a magnificent apple store, some of which are incredible works of art. You weren't there to do something ephemeral like the occasional visit to see a piece of artwork. You were there to experience.
In making the experience the centrality of the thing, rather than a by-product of your actions or decisions, it allows the older architectural forms to stand out in distinct ways.
I feel much more able to attune to the beauty standing in San Lorenzo in Florence than standing in one of The Gherkin (for argument's sake). And its not because they are not equally beautiful. They absolutely are. It's that for the church, beauty is the primary point. For the Gherkin, the beauty is secondary, incidental, a nice touch that doesn't detract from the fact that its a utilitarian office building.
Coming back to Patrick's point, we do need to build cathedrals. And cathedrals here doesn't mean religious, necessarily, but more that we should construct places that invoke a feeling of awe, and to which people come for precisely that feeling.
(I say cathedrals, but of course mosques like the Blue Mosque in Istanbul or the Kailasa Temple in India are the same.)
And these are not extraordinary as a display of the artist's skill, as perhaps in the case of the ArcelorMittal Orbit. That's closer to being a larger interactive sculpture where you marvel at the artist's abilities. But something that makes the visitor themselves feel connected.
This feeling also helps to understand why the modern rich person's apartment isn't the same as the old days, as Scott Alexander had wondered. Because receiving rooms are much less of a thing. Bill Gates' living room doesn't look like Cardiff Castle because Bill Gates living room isn't a public place where pomp and circumstance are important. It's not a destination, it's just a place.
Moreover, the particular benefit of cathedrals and universities of course is that they build communities around them. Not only are they destinations for visitors from far and wide, they are also destinations for those from the immediate vicinity. And that too, destinations that you visit regularly. And in building such communities around a space you ensure its primacy in myths and thought, in a way that museums and concert halls just don't.
Is it required to build myths and rituals for us to visit a place regularly? I don't know. But if the choices are visiting a place for the awe it invokes, the community it cultivates and the rituals it generates, then perhaps you need something that is a stronger draw, somewhere deep inside the amygdala, than the pure beauty of understanding or the love for clean lines.
The public's perception of the building or the mythology that surrounds the community isn't really taken into account in designing buildings, instead the architects care a lot more about the user's convenience. Arguably this is also why the modern stadiums don't hold a candle to the Colosseum. Because modern stadiums care less about your awe at the stadium and more about your convenience at using the stadium.
Some of this is inevitable. As I wrote, as we're able to construct many many more buildings, convenience becomes more important than the urge to go above and beyond simply because you could. But the insight is that the benefits of having remarkable buildings that evoke a collective sense of awe isn't to be dismissed. It's to be understood, cherished, celebrated and built upon.
Today I think we all too often feel unsettled to build large things without a utilitarian purpose. Worship isn't as favoured as this purpose any longer either. So we hedge. We make museums with lovely gift centres as a sort of compromise. And it doesn't work. Scott still isn't impressed.
Maybe there are just no other stories as powerful as the religious to make remarkable buildings built to evoke awe become destinations. Maybe we are slaves to our stories and our myths and until they themselves feel the weight of centuries we won't be able to recreate them. Myths are fragile things after all and needs to be attuned to things much larger than oneself!
But I don't believe that. In the early days of every civilisation we see the urge amongst the rulers and elite to build monuments to their everlasting glory. Oftentimes it's religious, sometimes it's tombs and sometimes palaces. Ozymandias aside, this seems universal.
When Alain de Botton proposed a 'temple to atheism', this is the feeling he was tapping into and exploring. But unfortunately, I say this as an atheist, creating a monument to negation isn't a great way to attract people to that very same monument to achieve a few moments of connection, community and transcendence. Can we have modern myths that can move us without rituals to help bond? And can we have rituals without some belief superstructure to hold it together? I don't know.
And having these places feels useful because they act as nexuses for our imagination, of becoming easily identifiable cultural Schelling points. Their lack creates an intangible ache, as if we're missing something. A kind of heartache only outlined by a negative space. That seems akin to what we're experiencing now as a culture.
Cathedrals are the Total Perspective Vortexes of our civilisation. Their existence is an end in itself, a place for us to point our inquiries, to feel at one with the world, and not necessarily one that requires a prosaic purpose that is legible.
I'd love to have a place I could go regularly to feel the wonder of the things we've built, things we've discovered, things we've enacted, things we've accomplished, things we dream of. We would do well to build many more!
Really thoughtful piece, Rohit! I'd like to add one thing, though. Cathedrals—or other architectural marvels across Europe—were build as places of congregation. Public places where people would gather around as a community (well, and worship a god, a king, etc, but that's another story). In contrast, today's grand architecture is walled and restricted. It's individualist. And it reflects today's tech: centred around the individual, not the community. In my view, that's a rather anglo-saxon perspective, and it's what's eroding the sense of community across the globe. So I'd say, tech should build more public spaces, not necessarily more cathedrals.