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This detail is from the St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Farragut, TN, designed by HDB/Cram & Ferguson. Photo: HDB/Cram & Ferguson




God Is in the Details

By Ethan Anthony, AIA

In the medieval church at Amiens, the capitals of the columns show people in scenes from the Bible and in scenes from everyday life. In 12th century stained glass, we see ourselves in the simple scenes of everyday people gathered together with royalty in adoration of the Magi. Scenes of everyday life incorporate the viewer, and God, in the details.

Nine hundred years later, Mies van der Rohe would write; "God Is in the Details" (New York Herald Tribune; June 28, 1959). He was not referring ironically to Gothic architecture, although it was one inspiration for the Modernists, and actually featured God pictorially and symbolically in the details. He had changed the topic from an anthropomorphic representation of God to the concept of God as a material ideal and social statement. The Modernist was replacing the old God of the Second Dispensation with a new God of a third dispensation – science.

Now a grassroots movement for traditionally inspired architecture has taken hold in the United States. New building in Gothic, Romanesque and Classically inspired styles has come to characterize the beginning of the second millennium just as the Modernist movement came to symbolize post-Second World War society. The essential difference between Modernism and the new traditionalism is the incorporation of arts and crafts, and through them, humanity in the architecture. We want to identify with the buildings of our lives. We come to find God in our religious buildings, just as our predecessors did. We seek visual symbols of the God we know in the details because it is at that level that the building touches us, far more than the grand gesture – sweeping planes of glass, steel beams and aluminum struts.

The Modernist would lead us to a new life through architecture, a brave new world of enlightenment that is materialistic, big, fast but also built on credit – ecologically and financially bankrupt. God has become lost in the details. What new world is this? Where is the place of humanity, the craftsman, everyman and everywoman? Do we find them in the architecture? Do they have a place or are they now forgotten in a world of grand gestures?

Modern architecture through mechanization reduces the contribution of individual labor to the lowest possible percentage. It derives its aesthetic in large part from the machine. Early writers on Modernist architecture emphasized the importance of removing the craftsman from the process. The new work would be organized and routinized, pre-measured and pre-cut to eliminate the craftsman and his quirky insistence on contributing his essence. Clean and removed from the human hand, fussy details would be eliminated and parts standardized like the automobile. But in the process of eliminating the messy errata of the human hand, the Modernist movement eliminated humanity itself. To paraphrase Charles Moore in an aside to Richard Meier, "Where does the family keep the dirty laundry in your houses?"

And the Modernists at first had to rely on the craftsman, in spite of their pronouncements on the importance of the machine. As the late Peter Blake documented in his seminal book for the postmodern movement, Form Follows Fiasco, the parts from which early Modernist architecture was made, and that were carefully designed to look machine-produced, in fact were carefully produced one by one, by craftsmen, by hand.

Of course with time, the Modernist has finally gotten it right. Now we architects have a full catalog of perfect, truly machine-made parts at our disposal, from the ready-made window to the ready-made door. The architect can shop the catalogs for everything needed to complete a project. Where once we made form, we are now encouraged to assemble it. How can God be found in the details when design of details is no longer a consequential part of the design process of the modern building?

Details have been a central part of the traditional architecture revival from the first. When in 1998 we visualized our first new Gothic church since World War II, we could not find the parts in any of our catalogs. Instead it was necessary to make the parts we needed one by one. Each part had to be designed, as our predecessors had done, at full size and the necessary craftsman had to be found. A few of the arts and crafts we needed had been fostered by the historic restoration movement. But a full renewal required the development of sufficient demand for new crafted pieces to support the businesses that would supply them to the architects and builders.

Some craftspeople produced work using traditional methods, but it was not creative invention, only reproduction of historical remnants. Paolo Soleri in his prescient book, The Bridge Between Spirit and Matter is Matter Becoming Spirit, envisioned a world where routine tasks were performed by automated factories, conveniently located out of view in the lower levels of his imagined worlds, the Arcologies. On the upper levels, humanity would transform matter into objects that would contain the unique spirit of their craft creators.

In Soleri's vision, humanity expresses its spiritual richness through creating arts and crafts. Expressive hardware figures large as an example of the incorporation of spirit in matter. And now this vision is reality in the traditional architecture movement. Handmade parts, from the stone veneer pieces to the sculpted and mono-cast capitals, incorporate the craftsperson at every step in our work.

Here the craftsperson has enormous importance. In new traditional religious architecture, the arts take on an almost equivalent position with the architecture itself. Through the arts, directly and indirectly we see both God and humanity in the architecture. New traditional religious architecture once more incorporates man and spirit in the arts and crafts that compose it. Whether directly, as sculpted people in frozen poetic sculptures and mosaics, or indirectly, in the richness of hand-wrought iron gates and carved wood screens, the spirit is made concrete as Ruskin and Soleri respectively had envisioned.

Craftspeople pour their spiritual and life energy into the objects they make. The making leaves traces of the maker – the humanity leaves a record of itself in marks on the object. The result is both richness of form and completeness of detail. Whether in picture, sculpture or pure form, God is once more truly in the details.  


Since 1998, Ethan Anthony, AIA, has served as president and principal of HDB/Cram & Ferguson, Inc., after maintaining his own practice and earning his Bachelor of Architecture at the University of Oregon. He has concentrated on the planning and design of new traditionally styled religious and academic buildings in addition to restoration of historically significant buildings. Anthony is an active lecturer and author of The Architecture of Ralph Adams Cram and his Office, W.W. Norton, 2007. (See Traditional Building, February 2008, page 198.)
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