Do buildings push your buttons? How does it feel to walk down a city street and feel gleaming glass rising on either side? What about towers of stone, casting long, dark shadows? How does it feel to see spires of commerce (think New York’s Chrysler building) rising like space-age cathedrals against a vast, blue sky?
Recently, on a beautiful spring day, my students and I surveyed the architecture of downtown Seattle. Seattle’s urban core still hasn’t recovered from the pandemic, but its erstwhile majesty is plain to see. It’s not as impressive as world-class urban centers like New York or London, but behind the graffiti, boarded windows and urban grime, one can still detect a certain ruddy, square-shouldered, visionary optimism. It is the spirit of Seattle’s golden age moguls, one hundred years ago, trying to bring all of history to a head in one moment of space-time – trying to make the best of all possible worlds.
Like many U.S. cities, Seattle experienced a devastating fire around the turn of the twentieth century. And like many other U.S. cities (including Chicago and San Francisco), the fire was followed by a boom time, when burgeoning wealth seemed to make anything possible. Though tragic, fire had cleansed away rot and decay to make way for the new.
The twentieth century has seen massive population growth, myriad natural disasters, two world wars, and may other lesser conflicts. Each time we rebuild, we reflect: how should renewal proceed? What does it mean to remake – to start again? Should the old be preserved? If so, how much? And what about the new? Which of our dreams and novelties are good, and which are dangerous detours? Is there a cosmic destiny that guides our hands, or do we grope forward by our own (albeit heroic and determined) lights?
When Seattle rebuilt after its turn-of-the-century disaster, it chose synthesis. Seattle’s regal downtown monuments show influences from the Middle Ages, the ancient world and the Renaissance, among other eras – but on the massive scale expected in American boom times. Seattle Tower (1929) channels the architecture of ancient ziggurats, as well as the sci-fi vision of High Ferriss’s “Metropolis of Tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, Seattle’s YMCA building (1930) and its Chamber of Commerce (1924) each boast entrances reminiscent of Romanesque cathedrals, complete with layered arches and scrolling vines.
In 1920s Seattle, any influence was fair game, because history was coming to a head. Ancient ambition, medieval mysticism and modern technology would unite in a city, a country, a world, that kept, added, expanded, rose – that embodied the revelator’s “new heaven and new earth.1” This was the spirit of early twentieth-century architectural eclecticism: everythingness. All of history, understood afresh and aright, would be brought to fulfillment in a brave new world.
World War II put the eclectic, early modern spirit to rest. The totalizing, summarizing, everything spirit of the ‘20s would be tarnished beyond redemption by the shallow and murderous sentimentalism of Hitler and Mussolini, who used the romanticized past to justify slaughter. Rebuilding after World War II, then, became monomaniacally forward-looking; scrubbed of any historical resonance, it attempted the sleek, visual purity of a fresh start. The gargantuan, featureless rectangular solids of the contemporary city (imagine the late, lamented Twin Towers, or New York’s precocious Seagram Building) are the legacy of our post-War disgust toward the romance of history.
However, in God, all times are present. And in God, all goods are kept and treasured – glory be to His name! In God, all that is beautiful is cleansed and restored, and it will all shine in splendid fulfillment, to God’s eternal glory, at the end of days.
In the Christian university, there is a taste of this final, virtuous keeping and restoring. Founded on the belief that God entered history, the Christian university traces the action of God in the world – God’s process of reclamation – and treasures it up. The Christian university seeks reconciliation and synthesis, not erasure and annihilation. It speaks of emergence and unfolding, not technophilic replacement. It sheds eyes of grace and mercy on everything, for only mercy sees the soil-covered jewel and frees it from the muck.
The Christian church – with the Christian university, its handmaid – is the dazzling city of which the modern metropolis is only a shadow. Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis prophesied where synthetic, secular, modern hubris was headed: toward decadence and violence. The Church, the City of God, is the true place where all history will be gathered up. In our Christian universities, charged to both build and preserve, may we do this work with trembling reverence and wide-eyed wonder, in undying hope for the splendor that is to come.