“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,” said Winston Churchill. The power of architecture to shape is evident in the movie “Columbus” (2017), set in Columbus, Indiana, a small city which has numerous buildings designed by major modernist architects such as I.M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, Eero Saarinen, and Harry Weese. In the film, Jin, a resident of Seoul, South Korea, has been called to Columbus to be at his father’s bedside. Jin meets Casey, a recent high school graduate who is an enthusiast of the town’s architecture. Casey takes Jin around to her favorite buildings and tries to explain how living in proximity to them helped her deal with the hardship of having a drug-addict mother. Jin, who is estranged from his architect father, dismisses the effect that buildings have on us. “That architecture has the power to heal — that’s the fantasy architects like to tell themselves,” he says derisively. Yet the architecture that they walk and talk and sit by has a simplicity and stability to it that works on both of them.

Casey and Jin looking around.

The structures we frequent elicit reactions in all of us. A cozy cabin gives a sense of comfort, a quirkily painted house brings out whimsy, big-box stores and malls evoke consumerist trances. Following a recent trip to first-century archaeological sites in Turkey, I wondered how the citizens of ancient Greek and Roman cities were influenced by the architecture of those cities. I’ve written about some of the structures commonly found in those cities. In one post I wrote about agoras, baths, and theatres. In another I wrote about temples. The activities performed in each of these structures affected the lives of the local residents. What about the style of the buildings, though? What message was conveyed by their form, as opposed to their function?

I don’t have any definitive conclusions to offer here, but I do have a few ideas. Here are three features  Greek and Roman architecture that I imagine shaped the populace.

First, most structures were symmetrical. From whatever side it was viewed, the typical temple had rows of identical columns spaced (or at least appearing to be spaced) equidistant from each other. Colonnades used columns in the same manner. Theatres (such as the one at Aphrodisias, below) typically had seats in neat semicircular rows, each row looking just like the next. In many cases, platforms were constructed so that buildings could be built on perfectly flat, even surfaces. The message conveyed by such symmetry was one of imposed order. Chaos and confusion had been banished by the establishment of the Pax Romana. Subjects of the empire likely sensed that, just as slabs of marble had been tamed to create well-proportioned columns, arches, and pediments, so Roman ingenuity would insure order in all of life.

Second, cities for the most part eliminated nature from the architectural space. Most modern cities have green spaces included as an important feature of their geography. Urban parks are a welcome bit of nature in an otherwise man-made environment. Often, streets are lined with trees and homeowners landscape with bushes, flowerbeds, and lawns. Nothing in the Greek and Roman cities we visited was comparable. When visitors entered the gates of a city (as in Hieropolis, below), they often saw nothing but stone and the sky for blocks at a time. The only possible exception to this were agoras, open public spaces that served as marketplaces or civic centers. It seems that the only natural feature here was an expanse of grass in the middle. We saw trees in a few agoras; I suspect that they grew after the cities they were in were abandoned, but I may be wrong. In any case, the minimal presence of nature reinforced the notion that city planners had tamed and controlled even the elemental forces of the cosmos. Each city appeared to be a self-contained world, and the Romans made sure that cities were quite similar to one another (as discussed here; thanks to Cheryl Matthews for the link). Such control even over nature suggested that Roman power was limitless. This must have disheartened those who hoped to resist that power and reassured those who favored it.

Third was the grand scale of many buildings.  The bath/gymnasium complex in Sardis, for example, was huge. The stadiums were typically also mammoth (as was the one at Perge below), though they were probably given such scale not just to impress but also as a result of their function. Chariot races took a bit of space! Such large structures conveyed majesty and grandeur. This was particularly true of temples. Not only did many of them have a large footprint, they also extended upward. During my visit, I was amazed again and again by the sheer size of these places of worship. It must have taken thousands of workers laboring for decades or even centuries to build such mammoth structures out of marble!

A CNN article about the neuroscience of holy places talks about the feeling of “elevation” evoked by ancient and modern temples and cathedrals. Such a sense of elevation, awe or exultation comes from having our eyes drawn upward. The architect Louis Kahn remarked upon visiting the Roman Baths of Caracalla that “There’s something about a 150-foot ceiling that makes a man a different kind of man” (quoted here). To be specific, it makes a man (or woman) religious. The intense devotion to the gods prevalent throughout the Roman empire was certainly fostered by visits to the buildings that were dedicated to those gods. And, once temples were being built to worship emperors, it’s not surprising how quickly emperor worship became a powerful force in the society.

So the Roman political and religious systems were bolstered by Roman architecture. Yet Rome faltered, while a religious movement that had no permanent worship spaces for the first three centuries of its existence grew ever more powerful. How did Christianity spread so effectively? In my next post I’ll turn to the apostle Paul, who did more than anyone except Christ himself to disseminate the Christian message.

 

wrote recently about the old stone ruins our group saw during our recent tour of Israel. As I said in that post, seeing ruins built by different people groups separated from each other by thousands of years showed me that my historical sense is simplistic and our culture’s claims to uniqueness are totally inaccurate. I also described another lesson the ruins taught: we are very much like fortress-building ancients in our desire for security. I have a few more reflections about the ruins we saw, and they will be the subject of this post.

Our first encounter with the ruins of an ancient city occurred at Tel Gezer. While there, Tim, our tour guide, made the point that, just as the city of Gezer was situated strategically, on a trade route between Jerusalem and the coastal plain along the Aijalon Valley, we are placed strategically as well, located in a particular location in order to achieve a particular purpose. It’s not only Gezer as a whole that was located with a purpose in mind, but each stone within it was intentionally placed in such a way to form its walls, houses, and other buildings. The same can be said of us.

Peter describes Christ as a cornerstone, the stone put down first around which the rest of the wall or structure is built. Peter tells his readers, “ you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood” (I Peter 2:5). As a living stone, I’m meant to be part of a structure built around Christ, the cornerstone. If I was a stone standing by myself somewhere, I would accomplish nothing. Just as the stones of Gezer provided protection, shelter, and privacy only when arranged to form walls and buildings, we accomplish something meaningful only when we join together to make a larger whole.

Massebot at Tel Gezer

Massebot at Tel Gezer

At Tel Gezer there were a number of massebot (the singular form is massebah), or memorial stones. My son Elliot wrote a nice reflection on massebot  here. As with the massebot, memorials have been built by many different cultures to commemorate something thought to be worth remembering. Our age doesn’t sufficiently appreciate the memorials raised by previous generations. I recently read The Spiritual Practice of Remembering by Margaret Bendroth. Bendroth suggests that one of the key features of modernity is that we disregard the past and consequently are stranded in the present. Modernity is characterized by a belief in progress, and thus is future-oriented. We think that previous generations have nothing to offer us. In consequence, we ignore the stone memorials they built and the living memorials that their lives provided.

In contrast with the modernist dismissal of everything before the present, Bendroth advises us to instead cultivate an appreciation of the past, recognizing the “infinite array of personal experiences and convictions, talents and achievements, sins and failures that make up the human race across time and space.” She calls such an appreciation “righteous remembering.” The trip to Israel was a step towards practicing righteous remembering. Believers from long ago can be massebot for me, memorial stones teaching me about the life of faith. I can also be a massebah for someone yet unborn. It’s useful to think of my life in that way.

The ruins found at archaeological sites we visited provide a nice metaphor for this process of learning from the past. Those who built on a previously used site didn’t just level the ruins and build something new atop them. They often searched the rubble for useful building materials. Thus, stones were sometimes taken from old walls or buildings and incorporated in the new structure. In some cases, this resulted in rather odd-looking walls patched together from salvaged materials.

Wall Built from Rubble, Bet She'an

Wall Built from Rubble, Bet She’an

Whether or not we realize we are doing so, all of us scavenge the past for materials we then re-purpose. I’m struck with how often ideas people express as if they are original hark back to a whole range of thinkers from the past, from the Greeks and Romans through Augustine, the reformers, and the Enlightenment all the way to Freud, Nietzsche, and existentialists. I gained an appreciation for how much we all draw on such previous structures of thought from Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Becoming aware of where our ideas came from is an important step toward freeing ourselves from the prison of unexamined assumptions.

We build from the past, and are ourselves building materials that, like the stones in ancient tels, can be re-purposed. As a psychologist, I am always hoping that my clients will take something I’ve said and incorporate it in their lives. I’m essentially hoping to provide rubble that others find useful. Often they do so in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The church, the followers of Christ who are the living stones to which Peter alluded, is such a rebuilding project. We don’t look so much like an assembly of fresh-hewn, straight-edged blocks as we look like a collection of salvaged souls that are jagged and uneven but, remarkably, stand together to form a structure that God himself inhabits. It’s remarkable what he has done with a bunch of old stones!