Giving soul to a building

Daily Reading for December 16 • Ralph Adams Cram, 1942, and Richard Upjohn, 1878, Architects, and John LaFarge, Artist, 1910

So what is this process of giving a soul to a building? Soul can incarnate progressively into a building as it progressively gains substance from wish, through idea, planning, constructional design, building and occupation. Each stage develops, deepens and extends that which had come before. They are not stages which alternate from aesthetic to practical but, with these aspects inseparable throughout, are stages of continuous process of incarnation into substance until we architects complete our task, leaving a shell for life which will continue to grow. . . .

If we are to bring anything new to a place and make it better, not worse, that new thing must have an artistic quality. Art starts when inspiration struggles with the constraints of matter. When the painter paints, any pre-formed idea has to give way to what is developing on the canvas; matter and spirit become interwoven into a single whole. The idea on its own existed outside the sphere of earthly reality or life—the painting process gives it reality and life.

This process applies as much in architecture as in any other art. First someone perceives a need, sometimes a set of needs; then comes the idea—how to satisfy this need; then an architectural concept; then a building plan, constructional design. . . . Making and building things is the stage at which idea meets material. They can either compromise each other or, through their fusion, reach a higher level. Sculpture in the mind is pointless. Without art, stone fresh from the quarry is little more than a pile of broken rock. . . .

Places give roots to people, anchors which we need so much in rootless times when one after another codes of behaviour, established institutions, ways of looking at the world are called into question. Personal identity, marriage stability, expectations of employment—all seem so much less certain than they did to our parents. Buildings threaten and destroy or add to and create places. Their first responsibility must be to add to places, to nurture the spirit of place—which in turn nurtures us.

From Places of the Soul: Architecture and Environmental Design as a Healing Art by Christopher Day (London: Aquarian/Thorsons, 1990).

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