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A Spiritual Call to Insurrection

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Santorini is an ancient Greek Island at the southern end of the Dodecanese islands. Shaped into a crescent by a volcano that blew it apart in the second millennium BCE, it wraps its arms around the caldera that still steams offshore. The towns of Thera, Oia, and Akrotiri sit along the inside of the crescent where cliffs rise out of the water and white-washed buildings tumble down the slopes as far as they dare to go. At sunset in Oia, you can join the applauding throngs as they watch our star disappear over the earth’s edge. During my first visits many years go, I traveled around the island on rented mopeds and by bus without much of an itinerary. I drank ouzo with expats, walked the villages, read a lot of lowbrow Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum novels, and sat on black sand beaches gazing across the sea.

At this impressionable time of life, I found Santorini to be almost sacred, an elegant balance between the profane violence of geology and the simple nobility of indigenous architecture. However, one of the memories that I have carried across the years has very little to do with either of these things. It is about what I witnessed on a local bus while traveling across the island to an archaeological site. As can be expected in such a place, the bus riders included locals and travelers. There were older women dressed in black, traditional Greek attire that seemed to me as much as part of the country as the Parthenon in Athens and the blue domed churches dotting the island. As my attention wandered during the ride, I noticed that these women occasionally made the sign of the cross. Initially, it seemed like a spontaneous action without any particular justification and I could not figure out why they were doing it. Curious enough to keep watching, I finally figured out that they did this each time the bus passed a church. It was a simple, reverent gesture.

When Pope Francis was in New York City last month, I kept thinking about what I saw on the bus. Full disclosure: I was raised a Roman Catholic, but no longer practice the faith for many reasons. There is power behind religion and its history of social impact is indelible. But I am intrigued with the Argentinean for a very different reason, which can be summed up in two Latin words: “Laudato Sí.” This is the encyclical letter issued by the pontiff that describes his views on our unfolding environmental catastrophe. He does not write much that has not been written before, but what is truly remarkable is his willingness to challenge from within the papal structure an orthodoxy that has bedeviled the church since the Enlightment. In the 17th Century, Rene Descartes reestablished the Platonic view of nature by the church, shifting it away from the Aristotelian perspective of harmony with our natural world. As the scientific revolution got underway, humans elevated themselves to the role of nature’s observer with a separate moral structure. Pope Francis, simply, wishes to bring human culture back into a harmonious, pre-Enlightment, relationship with nature.

Regardless of their religious affiliation, many architects recognize that buildings consume significant resources in their construction and operations. With the growing awareness over recent decades that our consumptive habits are far outpacing natural resources, we started measuring and certifying how our buildings reduce energy use and minimize environmental impact. Whether it is LEED, BREEAM, Green Globes, or Passive House, the general purpose of the rating systems is to describe accurately how well a building performs compared to a similar one that does not pursue any environmental initiatives.

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I have no idea how much embodied energy exists at Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute in La Jolla or Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, scientific and religious buildings that existed long before any of the rating systems were in place. But when I stand on Kahn’s plaza or inside Corb’s chapel, there is a reflexive, transcendent moment that I simply do not have when I look at one of many bland, contemporary glass towers that has a LEED rating. The rating systems do serve a purpose. In fact, there are three projects in my office right now that are pursuing sustainability goals. But most “green” projects lack moral certitude. I constantly get ribbed about my environmental stance: “Go save another tree” or “You’re such an environmentalist” are common refrains. I don’t mind this, but it gives me pause that my actions to reduce water consumption, recycle plastic, or use less electricity are more the exception than the rule – they actually seem hard to do and their value is dubious. Our society’s reflexive action is to consume resources and create waste. How do we reconcile this attitude with the facts, and understand that our precious comforts are leading us to ecological disaster? (And despite my efforts, I am still as guilty as the next person.) Many of us try to persuade clients, friends, and family members of the value of such efforts, but when we push too hard others fear that our way of life will be compromised, despite the daily news feeds on the ominous consequences of global warming.

By issuing his encyclical, the Pope is challenging an embedded philosophy within a rigid, hierarchical structure that is not accustomed to change. His proposed rethinking of the church’s relation to our natural world is bold and it is necessary. If he succeeds, my hope is that our notion of environmental stewardship will become a spiritual undertaking, albeit one without all the baggage of religious doctrine. Installing low-flow fixtures, taking shorter showers, and sourcing our materials from responsible sources are simply not enough to solve our environmental crisis. Despite my lapse in religious conviction, I would like to walk by a church, or any religious structure for that matter, and feel a reverence towards its commitment to the philosophical underpinnings of environmental restoration. As an architect, I want to be able to transfer that reverence into creating sublime places that tap into society’s greater spiritual need.

Francis has the power of his position to challenge entrenched dogma. Most of the rest of us do not, but that is where our insurrection, as designers and citizens, must begin: together, step-by-step, insisting on a fundamental rethinking of our civic responsibility until we can create a built environment with the spiritual and ecological values that will heal the open wounds we have wrought upon our planet.

posted by David Briggs