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Manplan 5, Religion Part I: ‘environments created in times of religious strength reflect man himself’

Archive: what is the characteristic influence of religion on environment?

Originally published in the AR in March 1970. Manplan was The Architectural Review’s trenchant eight-issue campaign that tackled issues from schools to healthcare and local government

Future generations will be amazed at the inhumanity and uncouthness of the environment we have made for ourselves. It is an environment dominated by the machine; both literally in the priority we give to powered vehicles and more subtly in the fact that the environment reflects, not the work of human hands and minds but production processes and marketing convenience. The sight is, alas, all too familiar: for this ugly drama is evolving everywhere at once. Let the centre of Birmingham make the point. Compare the Bull Ring as it used to be with what it now is. It is not the fact of change which worries, but the form it has taken. Segregation of traffic from people is a good thing: but why should the people be forced underground? Let us take the underground first, where the people are: and do not forget that this is the newly fashioned hub of one of the richest cities in the world. Passing over the little architectural misfortunes, the grotty mosaic and the cracking tiles, there are three main areas of fault. There is a basic misunderstanding of the sort of thing man is-that is, of the factors which make a place seem pleasant to him, or nasty. There is the blankness which comes from mass applied architectural solutions - architecture which looks like a clause in a bill of quantities. Lastly there is the disregard for maintenance. This did not matter much in respect of old, carefully made, well modulated surfaces but it matters enormously with new ones, multiplying their original faults tenfold. Above-ground, are the broad effects any better? Look beyond the vehicles to the romantic skyline. All the buildings you can see have been put up during the last few years ; they are thus representative of ourselves, of our outlook and of our aspirations …. The romanticism of the Victorian warehouseman was itself an aberration; but is it not much to be preferred to the couldn’t-care-less of businessman’s functionalism? But perhaps it is unfair to take warehouses. Let us take homes. There are of course good things about these homes not visible in the picture : but we are concerned primarily with the image. Is the image of life which they represent a satisfactory one? Or does it not reflect rather our approach to production? Human packaging.

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Look at our world. Here is Birmingham Bull Ring as it was in 1905…

Because our society retains a religious orientation it is not easy to isolate the strands of thought and perception in it which are religious in origin. For these are retained equally by those who themselves have no belief, to whom therefore they seem self-evident truth, needing no religious justification. It is nonetheless possible to affirm the religious origin of a number of traits which seem increasingly at odds with the secularising tendencies in society. All of these begin as personal traits in the individual, deriving from an inherited view of man ; but being all-pervading they find a natural reflection in the environment. They are necessarily many-faceted and can be called different things, none of which perfectly describes them. We have picked out three which we call-rather arbitrarily -affection, personalism and duration.

‘Social success of historical architecture is the outcome of the joint effort of those who made and designed it’

Affection is concerned with the relationship between people and the things they do. It is a quality which derives from the idea that human actions have a value in themselves, distinct from their objectives; and is one which is necessarily threatened in a society which hands so many actions over to the machine. Personalism is a quality that derives from a belief that individual people are important. It is obscured when they are thought of only as part of a collective whole, when they are put into a setting which does not suit or in which they cannot expand or express themselves. Duration is a complex idea with many ramifications, which derives from a sense of taking part in a continuing, repeating drama. It is this sense which invests durability in things with human value, and which is necessarily at war with ‘built-in-obsolescence’.

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…and as it is today. Accommodation re-distributed into large unrelated, impersonal blocks. Traffic straddles the market. Machines on top, people regulated below

Affection: Common to all religions is the idea that human actions have a value independent of their results. This deep seated belief gives to the whole of life a sort of dignity and style, and is a characteristic of religious societies everywhere. The relative loss of it by modern technological man is due to a number of factors, not all of which have to do with the religious issue. One of these is the mere speed of change. The acts and gestures of life gain power and significance through repetition over several generations and conversely lose it when the mode has to be changed constantly to meet changes in demand and technique. This is particularly noticeable in the areas of work traditionally associated with ‘craftsmanship’. Craftsmanship is the building up and perfecting, through constant repetition and emulation, of a complex series of actions. The decline of craftsmanship is to some extent a temporary phenomenon, due to the fact that no series of actions remains standard long enough for real skill to be acquired in it. Another factor is the unintelligent distribution of work between man and the machine which results in leaving man with those parts of the task which are unworthy of his attention.

‘The quite unique withering of the ornamental instinct coincides with technological man’s crisis of faith’

But the question of craftsmanship is only an incident in the much larger issue of whether things done are of value in themselves or only for the sake of their products. The implication of the leisure state is that work is an unmitigated misfortune and that happiness resides in having as little of it as possible. The lie has been given to this very inadequate view by the leisure timers themselves, who work far harder during their time off than they do during their hours of work. Hopeful as this is as a sign of cultural regeneration, we must not hide from ourselves the fact that the world we live in, its institutions and its buildings, is created during working hours and that its uglinesses and inadequacies all stem from the fact that, by and ‘work’ has been insufficiently conceived and has therefore been broken down into such unpalatable parcels. This issue of ‘affection’ strikes building and environment particularly over the issue of ornament. Ornament, broadly interpreted, is the normal outcome of pleasure in work, it is a kind of unconscious flourish, the natural by-product of work well and pleasurably done. It is thus a sort of communication of pleasure : the pleasure of the maker communicated to the viewer.

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Which is worse? The close view: grotty, uninviting: or the distant, its careless silhouette, its evidence of production‘s defeat of human aspirations: the packaged home?

It would be unscientific to attempt to draw too close a parallel between religious feeling and the use of ornament in building. But it is certainly not altogether chance that throughout the world and throughout the centuries, religious buildings have been a sort of catalyst for the ornamental instinct in men or that the sudden-and quite unique withering of the ornamental instinct coincides with technological man’s crisis of faith. In the course of the last few years Modern Architecture entered its last phase. We may call it this with confidence because the outcome of this phase is to enable architecture the use of the built environment to convey pleasure-to bow itself out. The essence of the argument is that what people want it so many cubic feet of climate; and that the enclosing structure required to give this, though necessary, is in all other respects unimportant.

‘The chain between decider and user has become longer, people have been replaced by machines’

This is no more than the final stage in the application to building of an idea which underlies all aspects of the first technological age. It is, indeed, the same idea which reduces cooking to the manufacture of a nutritious pill. Art is the use of a necessary action to convey to the beneficiaries the satisfaction experienced by the actors. The prolonged social success of historical architecture derives from the fact that it is the outcome of the pleasurable joint effort of those who made and designed it, if not of those who commissioned it too. Once you translate things into terms of mere usefulness, make of them a consumer product ‘untouched by human hand’ you have taken out their social meaning.

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This, then, is the kind of world we have made during an age of incosiderate energy

Personalization: Tough there are important differences in expressing this, all the world religions set the value on the human person, if only as a node of consciousness in the general welter of creation. ‘Personalization’ in the sense in which we are using it here, relates, not the scope offered to the makers of things, but to the feelings of people who use things. In our case, to the people who use buildings. Interestingly, the chief defect which ordinary people notice in modern architectural solutions is their impersonal quality. This arises partly because the units are too big to be comprehended, too standardized and repetitious, but chiefly because the way in which we order our lives compels those who commission buildings and those who design them to regard the users of them as an anonymous mass. Once again building is only a very special instance of something which affects a great many other departments of life: the growing distance between the decision makers in our society – whether theses are commercial or political – and those who use or consume. And once again, this is not something we have actually desired but something which has been forced on us by our particular use of technology. It is not only that the chain between decider and user has become longer, but that so many of the links in it which were formerly people have been replaced by machines.

‘To destroy a thing made in the past is to close a channel of communication, to silence a voice’

This makes the decision making more rigid, less flexible. It also produces a sort of ‘slip-stick’ effect. Instead of things being done piecemeal, gradually, as the need arises society is always staggering from one desperate situation to the next. This is one reason why building programmes tend always to be too large and why they always appear to be carried out under conditions of duress. This puts further pressure on the users who are made to feel that if they are not careful to remain anonymous they will not get anything at all. In a religious conception of society, society itself is people: all else us merely the matrix in which they are set: in a good society this matrix serves to bind them together: in a bad one it serves to hold them apart. The test of a good society is the sense of interdependence it generates. People depend on one another for the things they need: they depend, for the most part, on people they can see and touch and communicate with. The trouble with ours is that, though individuals are dependent on the collectivity and thus on people who are so distant that they are unreachable. Architects are the servants of society and must produce what the leaders want. Even so, critics of the period 1950-70 will probably feel that architects have responded too enthusiastically to the call for the anonymous, converting an unavoidable misfortune into the universal aesthetic. This comes out in a number of different ways. In the tendency to design quite small buildings as though they were only the outlying parts of much bigger ones. By using members which are much too coarse and big and contrasts which are much too strong to produce an environment which seems not to have been made for the human race at all, but for creatures much larger, with nervous systems in a much more primitive state of development. But most telling of all perhaps is their unconscious desire to see their buildings without people, as betrayed in their dismay at the little touches – the curtains and the pin-ups – whereby the ocuppants try to make the place their own.

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By contrast, environments created in times of religious strength, reflect man himself

Duration: The third point at issue between religious man and the tendency of modern society concerns the time dimension. Religious people, almost by definition, live in a vast time perspective. They see things sub specie Aeternitatas; as in the mirror of eternity. Their concern for things of the past is not therefore merely academic, ‘a sense of history’, or aesthetic, or sentimental, but vital and intimate. This arises because they are very conscious of taking part in a continuing drama. In this drama, things play an important part, but in order to play this part they have to be invested with a certain durability, relative to man’s own time scale (for none are more aware that nothing lasts for ever). Manmade things are medium for communication which is not between the living only, but also between the dead and the living. Deliberately to destroy a thing made in the past is to close a channel of communication, to silence a voice.

‘Human society as it has evolved up to now is religious in orientation’

Durability relates also to the value of human actions, discussed under ‘affection’. Things play an essential in human actions. If they are durable they lend to actions an added sense of ritual: if they are clearly ephemera, they detract from the action, make it seem incidental and unimportant. Thus durability in things affects the quality of life. Again, the notion of the conservation of energy also enters in: religious man on the whole is more aware of the limitation of energy resources available: and things that last seem a better use of resources than things which must be constantly replaced. By contrast to all this, ‘secular man’ lives in a very short time perspective: he is a reckless innovator: the past – past forms, past experience, past people – is of no interest to him at all. For him, there is no repeating element in the drama of life: what the future holds is always wholly different: human actions are merely casual, resources unlimited. But when we consider the matter we see that this is not what secular man really thinks: it is rather an attitude imposed by our chosen approach to production. This requires a settled policy of change, what we call ‘planned obsolescence’. In building terms the conflict erupts over a wide field. On the one hand is the issue ‘how long should a building last?’ At one time it liked as though building life was going to get as short as that cars or washing machines. But the building industry itself has dragged its feet on this vital issue. In recent years the emphasis has turned, less on replacement, more on adaptation, and, modern structures at least are still designed for a long life. There is in fact a distinct difference between building practice and architectural aesthetics. Modern buildings, if they are looked after (and if all that mastic is renewed at the right time) will last as long as old ones: but architects have given them a distinctly provisional look, as though they were to be dismantled the day after tomorrow.

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There is conflict necessarily on the issue of preservation. The logic of mass production requires that old buildings should take their turn in a programme or planned destruction. It resents manpower spent on servicing, maintenance and adaptation and considers the fact that a third is thus used is a ark on inefficiency. Lastly there is no conflict on the issue of monumentality – whether a structure should express durability. It is interesting to notice how modern technology has come to the aid of the time dimension, both in the area of recording facts – photography, microfilm etc – and in that of retrieval and preservation. Because of this, more people know more about past people and past things than ever before. It is tempting to think that perhaps the whole of this side of experience could be canned. Would it not be easier, simpler, less costly, more efficient to merely record on tape or film and then, with the aid of computer retrieval, to replay? But we have here a useful additional facilty, not a substitute. Just as communication by telephone or by recorded speech are no real substitute for meeting someone, so reproductions are no substitute for solid touchable fact. After all, the environment remains and is much sense in making a record of its vicissitudes, there is no case for making this an excuse for robbing the environment itself of interest. It is not hard to show that human society as it has evolved up to now is religious in orientation. In the long term, the effect of the various revolutions which have shaken it – even and particularly those which have been anti-religious in inspiration – has been to make it possible to fulfill more perfectly some part or other of the basic religious programme. It seems likely that the industrial revolution, when it is finally complete, will prove no different from the others: but it is not certain. If religion were to cease to be a source of knowledge, the kind of objections to the present phase of industrialization which we have been describing would fade; and the way would be open for man to become a different sort of person from what he now is.

Is our religious orientation a permanency? What are the chances of religion being restored as a prime mover in the foreseeable future?