We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” With these famous words, Winston Churchill argued that the House of Commons, destroyed during the Blitz, should be rebuilt according to its original design. The rectangular design of the building, he claimed—in which the opposing sides had to sit facing each other, and changing “sides” meant literally getting up and changing sides—had shaped the British two-party parliamentary system. Abandoning this in favor of a semi-circular design would mean ushering in a different mode of government, even without any change to the law. Churchill’s opponents, whose proposed design reflected a different political theory, knew this.
Churchill’s statement reflects two truths about architecture that we forget at our own peril: Architecture is always a way of conveying our beliefs about the world, and our place in it, in physical form; and buildings have a profound effect on the people who use them. The physical spaces we occupy shape not only how we act, but ultimately what we believe. Put another way, when we build, we put into the world a “gospel,” which will be preached long after we are gone.
After decades of slow growth, the contemporary classical education movement is experiencing an unprecedented boom. These schools, which often begin humbly in church basements and at dining room tables, are expanding. As they do so, many will need to renovate old buildings or build new ones. Since it is reasonable then to expect a classical school building boom, classical educators and administrators must ask themselves: What is the gospel these buildings will preach? And what gospel do we want them to preach?
The mission of classical education, Brian Williams writes, is “to educate whole persons through the accumulated wisdom of the ages for a lifetime of flourishing regardless of their profession or place of employment” (emphasis mine). These goals are achieved in a variety of ways, from seminar discussions on great texts to painting, drama, and choir classes. This is a sacramental sort of education, one that sees all of created reality as a sign of its Creator. And it is incarnational, recognizing that God took on human flesh to reach us and that physical reality is the medium through which spiritual reality is communicated to us. “The world is charged,” Gerard Manley Hopkins writes, “with the grandeur of God.” We pursue the true, the good, and the beautiful, knowing that these are vital for human flourishing because they are features of God, who made man ultimately for union with him.
Conventional education is concerned less with what is true, good, or beautiful than with what is useful. Hence the ascendance of STEM and the marginalization of the arts and the aptly named “humanities.” Knowledge is instrumentalized and becomes about the exercise of power. Conventional education also does not contain a coherent anthropology, an understanding of man’s telos, and thus cannot be ordered toward “true human flourishing.”
In classical education, we see ourselves as recipients of and participants in a rich tradition 2,500 years in the making. This is not a tradition frozen in time. As the maxim goes, “tradition is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire.” We see the past as a great gift—one always open to correction, but with much to offer to the present. In contrast, conventional education, like the society that birthed it, holds the past in suspicion or outright contempt. History is a catalog of offenses. We do not read the great thinkers of previous centuries except to criticize them. To move toward our bright future, we must break the shackles of the past.
What we believe about the human person and the past impacts the sorts of schools we build. When we build, we give our beliefs physical form. Modern architecture, owing much of its philosophy to the atheist Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, was an explicitly anti-traditional project. “There is here no longer any question of custom, nor of tradition,” Le Corbusier writes in his 1923 manifesto Towards a New Architecture. “The architectural code, with its mass of rules and regulations evolved during four thousand years, is no longer of any interest; it no longer concerns us: all the values have been revised.” Le Corbusier has been honored with seventeen UNESCO World Heritage Sites; his style and philosophy are taught in nearly every architectural program.
The result is concrete, glass, and steel boxes: Soviet apartment buildings; brutalist churches; suburban megastores and Amazon “fulfillment centers”; and contemporary schools and prisons. The ugliness of this architecture is almost everywhere we look. This is the Bad News, the anti-gospel preached by so many contemporary buildings. They crush the soul. Our contemporary malaise cannot be understood without considering the physical spaces in which we work, study, live, and die.
It is no wonder that children educated in these buildings are struggling. This leaves those working in education with a great responsibility, as well as a great opportunity. By following the contemporary building paradigm, we can build schools that preach its anti-gospel to our students, contradicting our mission. Or, instead, we can say to our society, “No! The physical world is not meaningless, good only to be used today and demolished tomorrow. It is a sacrament—a sign of the presence of God, who cares deeply about his creation.” We can build beautiful schools, knowing that man is made for beauty, that it is intrinsic to human flourishing; schools that are deeply rooted in the tradition of architecture rather than only in its last hundred years; buildings that draw on the best of our rich history without remaining trapped in the past. We can build in such a way that our schools, and not just the curriculum taught in them, are acts of participation in a living tradition, one capable of giving life. This is the gospel our schools ought to preach.
Patrick Tomassi writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon.
Cover photo: Le Corbusier's Dominican monastery of La Tourette, one of seventeen UNESCO World Heritage sites he designed. Photo by Michael Matlon.
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