The Arts and the Built Environment

It is the purpose of this colloquium to explore avenues for research in the interrelation of theology and the spatial arts. The term 'spatial arts' refers to all those arts that contribute to the formation of our built environment, to the shaping of public and private space. They include, of course, architecture, engineering and urban planning-those endeavours concerned directly with the construction of buildings, roads, bridges etc., and their arrangement and combination in cities and towns. But they include too, a range of other arts that similarly shape our experience of the spaces we inhabit; sculpture, interior design, furniture design and so on. So, while we are concerned with something defined clearly enough as the built environment-the shaping of space for the facilitation of our human projects-the range of arts involved in the shaping of space is very broad indeed.

This is not to say that all aspects of the human project of shaping our built environment may be regarded as artistic. It is rather to acknowledge that there are artistic dimensions to this general project. It is toward an exploration of those dimensions and their bearing upon the theological task that this colloquium is directed.

It is not the intention of the project to treat the arts as the handmaid of theology. From theology's side it is a much more humble approach that is being made. TTA is born rather of the recognition that theology, for all its achievements, has been impoverished by its engagement with a rather narrow range of conversation partners. Much has been gained by seeking to articulate the Christian faith in conversation with western philosophy, for instance, but there is much yet to be gained by broadening the conversation, by recognising that other disciplines, and especially in this case, the arts, give rise to different ways of seeing and knowing that enrich our understanding of the subject matter with which we are concerned. TTA is essentially a heuristic endeavour. It does not aim to give good advice to artists, nor does it seek to impose upon them an obligation to fall in line with its view of the truth. It hopes rather to benefit from the conversation with the arts by discovering new ways of understanding and expressing its own particular subject matter.

Among architects, to take but one example, there is a keen sense that the multiple aims of architecture include the effort to give expression to particular visions about what it is to be a human being, to articulate meanings and values that transcend mere function, and to shape not just space but also the lives that we lead. Architecture, therefore, is already oriented in some measure to the questions with which theology is concerned. The same can be said of others of the spatial arts.

Something else too might be said about the potential fruitfulness of a research project in theology and the built environment. It is that, with very few exceptions, spatiality as a basic category of human existence and of our created reality has been strangely neglected in the theological tradition. This contrasts markedly with the attention given to time and history. The incarnation, however, was as much an event in space as an event in time. That would suggest, perhaps, that, just as the incarnation is thought to be the centre and meaning of history, thereby transforming our understanding of what it is to be a historical being, there might also be ways in which that same event bears upon and is transformative of our understanding of what it is to exist in space. Perhaps too the spatial language of the biblical witness might be discovered to offer a more direct rather than merely symbolic reference to the being and act of God.

Application of the 'forms' of engagement to the spatial arts.

The Chapel at Ronchamp by Le Corbusier

Jeremy Begbie identifies above a range of forms of 'theology through the arts'. Each of these may be applied to the spatial arts.

A focus on art that overtly engages theological matters - art with a relatively clear Christian content.

This applies most clearly, to sacred architecture, the building of churches. A great deal of work has already been done in considering the interface between theology and sacred architecture. Our purpose will be to ask how such architecture may shape and enable our discovery and articulation of the gospel.

Theological wisdom can be furthered by attention to the characteristic ways in which an art-form is structured and operates.

The orders of architecture produced by Claude Perault in 1676 with a modular scale from which the proportions of the various parts could be read and memorised.

Again, there are potential areas of exploration here in regard to the built environment. Jeremy Begbie has drawn on the practice of improvisation in music to show the patterns of freedom and obedience characteristic of the Christian life. One might develop the same theme in relation to the orders of architecture, for example. The classical orders have been likened to a language providing for the architect the means of expression. There is enormous freedom within the orders but one has to know the rules. One needs to have the law written on one's heart as it were, in order to be a good speaker of classical language.

The third and fourth forms of engagement are similar. They suggest that a theological engagement with the arts can serve to heighten our sensibility to the theological dimensions of cultural movements and to aspects of our human condition.

ecce homo
'Ecce Homo' by Mark Wallinger, Trafalgar Square 1999

There is little doubt that this will be true in the case of the spatial arts. To take but one example, Mark Wallinger's piece, 'Ecce Homo' placed on an empty plinth in Trafalgar Square in 1999 offers a telling critique of human monumentalism. A life size depiction of Christ is set on a plinth made for a monument, made, in other words, for a larger than life figure. The incongruity prompted one art critic to say that the artist had completely misunderstood the context for which the sculpture was commissioned. It is rather the case that Wallinger understood the context very well. The Son of God is given to us in the humble form of a mere man. His humility exposes the pretensions of human monumentalism. He is not a superhuman but truly human. In this case the direct lesson in Christology is at the same time a powerful critique of the sinful proclivities in our human nature.

Fifthly, there is much to be gained by a thorough engagement with the second-order disciplines of the arts.

Christ of Perpignan
'The Devout Christ of Perpignan' Chapel of St John the Baptist Cathedral Perpignan

That is as likely to be true of the spatial arts as of the other art forms. Critics like Ruskin, Mumford, Norberg-Schulz, Pevsner, Bachelard, Scruton, to name but a few, may readily be engaged in conversations about our built environment that lead on to matters of theological interest, even if not explicitly recognised by the critics themselves.

Sixthly, engagement with the arts may generate theological wisdom by providing a 'negative' print of theological truth.

In this case we are engaged in an exploration of theological truths or doctrines not in terms of what they are, but in terms of what they are not, a via negativa if you like. An example here might be the conception of truth and perfection offered by the classical architecture of Greece. The Greek seeks perfection in that which exists in itself - in static harmony. Perfection and harmony, it is supposed, cannot be found in changing events or in irregularity. The Parthenon in the Acropolis, for example, directs us through the apprehension of its perfection to contemplation of the heavenly realm of eternal forms.

Whatever else may be meritorious in Greek architecture, that vision of perfection is not. It is called into question by the incarnate Christ who was made perfect through suffering, even through the brokenness of the cross. The Christian gospel invites us to look upon Christ, there to see the glory of God.

The Parthenon, Athens

A final form in which the arts can contribute to theological wisdom is by shaping and forming the theologian. Just as theologians have been shaped by their conversations with philosophy and western cultural theory, so too a broadening of those conversations to include the spatial arts may be expected to impact upon the formation of the theologian.

Clarifying the Questions

At the final session of the colloquium Alan Torrance identified four questions that encompass the possibilities for conversation between theology and the spatial


1) In what ways in the past has theology influenced our shaping of the built environment?

2) In what ways in the past have our conceptions and experience of the built environment influenced theology?

3) (a) In what ways does theology now influence our shaping of the built environment?

(b) In what ways should theology now influence our shaping of the built environment? (i.e. what can theology bring to the enterprises associated with architecture and the built environment?)

4) (a) In what ways does our conception and experience of the built environment influence theology?

(b) In what ways might our engagement with the arts of the built environment afford new insight into and new ways of articulating the subject matter of theology

While it is recognised that there will always be an interplay between these questions - the conversation goes both ways - TTA is concerned primarily with question 4) - (a) and (b) - and draws on the answers to question 2).






University of Otago Theology and the Spatial Arts