Monday, January 30, 2006

The Neo-Rationalists and Architecture

Yesterday I had to take a trip down to UCLA to do some work with my Research Methods class. I have been reading the blog of who has been writing lately about ornamentation in architecture, an art form that I usually ignore due to my own lack of knowledge. While I was there, I decided to take in the architecture of this grand university.

The first thing that struck me was the pure size of the campus. There is nothing small at either, all the buildings were immense and powerful. I felt incredibly insignificant as I wandered through the sculpture gardens and pathways towards the library. Before I reached the Young Research library I passed by a building that must have been nothing short of twenty stories high. You could walk right under this tower since the foundation was made up of six or so pillars; there really was no true first story, but it was powerful in its size and scope.

The Young Library itself was just as massive as the pillar-tower, but whereas the first looked as if it had been the brainchild of an architect, the library appeared as if it had not been designed at all. It was a rectangle with some doors and windows.

When I finished my work at Young I took a walk to the Powell library, which is famous for its beauty. This whole area of the campus was made up of buildings that looked as if they had been taken from some old British university. I felt clever just walking amongst such structures. Remarking on these stunning buildings, one of my fellow students pointed out some Celtic designs on the arches over a doorway. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but once I entered the awesome Powell library I was confronted with a Spanish motif on the walls and a physical structure of a 200-year-old British structure.

It felt as if the architect looked at a bunch of buildings that he liked and then decided to put them all together just because he could. Each of the individual parts of the library was beautiful and powerful, but as a whole it was absurd in its apparently meaningless conflation of several different architectural styles. Recalling the other library and the pillar-tower I then realized that the campus itself was no different. Each individual structure was in someway magnificent, but together they seemed to have no unity at all; one building clashing with the one next to it in style and affect. Beauty, truth, and power were everywhere I looked, but none of it agreed.

Later that afternoon, my professor and I talked as we made our way back to the campus from lunch down in Westwood. We were both discussing intellectual problems facing ChristiansChristians in our times. We both agreed that it was important for Christians to be standing against the meaninglessness and relativism of Postmodernism, but he made the point that Christians in America seem to be anti-intellectual and that this was just as dangerous if not more so. I agreed with this, although I believe his intent was to suggest that any Christian who rejected Darwinism was irrational and therefore anti-intellectual. While I disagreed with the particular example that he was alluding too, I did agree with the broader, transcendentalist separation of spiritual truth and rational truth. Not wanting to launch into a lengthy debate on the merits of Intelligent Design, I decided to remark on a third popular philosophy that seems to be gaining ground worldwide.

It is commonly agreed upon that postmodernism (in its broadest definition as a belief system which is founded upon relativism and doubt) is the dominant philosophy of our day, whether this come in the form of art, politics, new age religions, or political correctness. This system’s crowning feature is its very lack of a foundation. Much like the pillar-tower, one is struck by the complexity and magnificence of such a structure that could be so easily toppled. And yet, it seems to be quite proud of the fact that it has an inadequate basis. It is as if the architect said, “look how great a thing I can make upon such a fragile foundation.” This is the postmodern situation, which so forcefully leaves man without meaning, without any epistemological ground, without value, and without purpose; but it does form a mighty structure by which to function.

My professor’s pet peeve was the “fundamentalist” Christians, who reject the importance of rationalism for the appearance of spirituality. To him, if one chose to be a fundamentalist, one had to reject science as a lie for the sake of believing a literal interpretation of the Bible. While I believe he was putting up a false dichotomy between science and the Word, (torn between accepting the truth of man’s science and the truth of the Word, he chooses man) for the sake of this discussion I will only describe the world’s perception of fundamentalists as ignorant and irrational. And I believe that this view is not totally out of line with the beliefs of some. As the Powell library was dressed up with the profound beauty of the ages, and yet lacked any true unity that could have come had the architect applied some rational thought to his design, many Christians look for the appearance, the semblance of the spiritual rather than True Spirituality. In this respect they are not far from the postmodernists in their relativism, the difference being that the fundamentalists deny that they lack a sufficient foundation.

The third philosophy that is pervasive in our culture is what I would call a blind rationalism. This, I believe, is the most dangerous of the three. It neither pretends to have a foundation, nor does it flaunt its lack of one; rather, it ignores the question and places it aside as a question for absurd postmodernists and ignorant fundamentalists to fight over. Logic works, and no matter what Hume may say about the rising of the sun, it rises every morning in defiance of the skeptics. Not only that, its very rise can be completely explained without any appeal to deity and should it ever not rise; there would be a scientific explanation. Its spokes men are scientists and corporations. Like the Young Research Library, the question of a foundation is irrelevant as well as all questions of beauty, truth, and meaning. The strongest opponents of ID are among these. Many Christians sympathize with it because it rejects the relativism of postmodernism, and many postmodernists sympathize with it because it rejects the faith of fundamentalism. This third system is quiet and well liked by everybody, it’s rarely called to stand before criticism, and it appeals to the capitalism of our culture.

As we neared the end of our walk, my professor commented on the beauty of the buildings at UCLA; he talked of their magnificence and grandeur and said that this is what a university should look like. To which I replied that while it maybe a grand campus, the pervasive architecture is sterile, without any sense of beauty or of meaning. Almost everything looked like an interpretation of the Young Research library: practical, rational, solid, and devoid of any transcendence. And while one could find a piece of truth scattered about the campus, as a whole it seemed to be in utter chaos. Posted by Picasa

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