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Can spirituality influence design?

In many parts of the world there seems to be an overriding atheistic belief that surrounds the creative industry. In the architectural sector, a bastion of such beliefs, the notion of God in design is something that is rarely, if ever, discussed. And when one does broach the subject, the response is either a somewhat aggressive opposition to the concept or a glazing over of the eyes, a shutting down of the brain and a crab-like scuttle to another topic. Yet I have heard it said in these same circles that their experience of a beautifully crafted space, like art and nature itself can bring about tears, evoking something akin to a spiritual experience that can be truly transformational.

In a moving scene shown on podcast, well-known interviewer, Charlie Rose was touring Bilbao’s world-famous Guggenheim Museum with the building’s architect, Frank Gehry. With them was the renowned, elderly designer Philip Johnson. As the three gentlemen stood in the foyer looking up at the breath-takingly beautiful interior, Charlie asked the 95 year old Johnson what he thought of the structure. With moisture in his eyes the great designer said, “Architecture is about tears, it is about love, it overwhelms”. The moment frozen in time, captured this man - who had devoted his entire life to creative expression - being completely overwhelmed by the very thing that still moved his soul; exceptional design.

If creativity can affect us so deeply that it moves some to ‘waste’ their life on it, others to be reduced to tears by it, and all of us to be changed by it, why is it that we as humans find it so hard to acknowledge, or better still, actually desire divine inspiration? Could it be that we just don’t know what spiritual inspiration feels like because of doubt? Is it because of the subjective nature of design i.e. to imply that one is receiving inspiration from God suggests that the design is perfect when to an onlooker it could be plain weird or even faulty?

Other issues may also arise in our minds such as; could the astronomical costs involved in building such creations be prudent spending for the kind of era we live in? And if not, why would God ever conceive of such things if the money should be spent on the poor and needy? Really, what are the values or spending agendas of the heart of God? Does He have a prioritised list of projects we should be investing our money and time into?

One place to look for answers to these and other ethical concerns surely must be the bible. If we look directly into its pages we immediately come across stories of heavenly directed projects. Tag along as we traverse the highlights:

  1. Solomon’s Temple
    "Then David gave his son Solomon the plans for the portico of the temple, its buildings, its storerooms, its upper parts, its inner rooms and the place of atonement. He gave him the plans of all that the Spirit had put in his mind for the courts of the temple of the Lord and all the surrounding rooms, for the treasuries of the temple of God and for the treasuries for the dedicated things…All this," David said, "I have in writing from the hand of the LORD upon me, and he gave me understanding in all the details of the [temple] plan." [i]

This extract depicts King David’s drive to honour his God by building a place of worship. It also suggests there was a literal meeting of minds between God and man who together conceived a layout for the temple plan; a building that is said to be the most astounding and costly structure to have ever been built! Did God know that in a matter of decades, it would become a war bounty, completely and utterly destroyed? Did that deter Him from marking it as a top priority for earthly expenditure? It seems not! Perhaps His desire for relationship and connection between Himself and His kids was worth it. Perhaps in His mind, He wanted to give humanity a tiny glimpse into His extravagant heart for relationship, to heck with the cost.

Upon completion of the temple, it is said huge nation-wide celebrations marked the opening where God Himself showed up in such intensity of Presence that the priests could not enter the temple because the glory of the Lord filled it. A whole nation of people fell on their faces and worshiped God saying, “He is good. His love endures forever.”[ii]

Is it possible that this same God could want to be involved in design and construction to this extent again where a whole nation might be changed, a whole culture transformed because His Presence was invited in and came?

  1. Noah’s Ark

“ So God said to Noah…make for yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high. Make a roof for it and finish the ark to within 18 inches of the top. Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks…I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark – you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you.”[iii]

Design can be critical to survival. In the story of Noah, like King David and his temple, God supposedly downloaded such specifics that the ark Noah built withstood a storm that destroyed every other man-made thing on the face of the earth. Could it be that the same God has designs for structures that will withstand the onslaught of the natural disasters the earth is experiencing? Could it be that He is yearning for someone to access these through intimacy with Him in order to stem the loss of life and devastation earthquakes, tsunami’s and cyclones bring?

  1. Moses’ Snake

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”[iv]

In this chapter God literally used a piece of art to focus the attention of the people on Him. In a place of utter chaos, panic and death, God ordered Moses to erect a tangible symbol of His future sacrifice. This was to raise such a level of faith in those who believed and looked, that it actually attracted the healing power of God towards and into the person, defeating death and causing life to come rushing back into their bodies! If it happened then, what’s to stop it from happening again? Is God’s desire to heal any less? Is His ability any more subdued? Is His desire to use the arts any less impacting?

  1. Tabernacle of Moses

In my estimation, one of the most exciting reference in the Bible in relation to design is found in the account of a Jewish artisan named Bezelel.

“Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘See, I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship, to make artistic designs for work in gold, in silver, and in bronze, and in the cutting of stones for settings, and in the carving of wood, that he may work in all kinds of craftsmanship.’”[v]

It is extraordinary to think that God called and anointed Bezalel to complete exquisite works of industrial design. These pieces, remembered thousands of years after they graced the earth, have become yet another revelation of God’s delight in beauty and art. And to top it off, Bezalel was the first person ever mentioned in the scriptures of whom it was said was ‘filled with the Spirit’.

All the biblical characters mentioned in the above examples apparently received divine strategy to accomplish earthly projects. Their lives and experiences, their accomplishments and works were not just to service the people who lived in their generation, but were to declare God’s ability and desire to ‘do it again’. In spiritual terms this is the core goal of testimony…it is to glorify God again…and again…and again in every generation. The question then has to be asked, are these stories figurative or literal? Are there more level of inspiration beyond one's own creativity? Is there a God out there that wants to download new ideas, solutions and strategies that achieve more than just personal satisfaction, fame or status?

In the New Testament during the outpouring of Pentecost, Peter boldly declared “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.’”[vi] This seems to suggest that every person since that epic event has the capacity for divine inspiration, bringing about God's will through connecting with heaven, dreaming with Him and creating on the earth.

Around the world in the sphere of architecture, we see evidence of built form that has literally changed the dynamics of whole cities. In the city of Bilbao, Spain, it was said in the mid-nineties that the city’s struggling industrial port precinct was closing its ship yards and factories one after the other. The future of the local population was looking rather bleak and uninspiring[vii].

It was an unlikely site to be chosen by Thomas Krens, then director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Thomas, an international visitor to the city, spotted the industrial wasteland on his daily run. Despite the depressive scene, the director’s eyes saw things extraordinarily different to the reality confronting the locals. Following through with his vision, Thomas commissioned the highly awarded and somewhat unconventional architect Frank Gehry to design a master piece.

Disgruntled local citizens and council caused a ruckus in the planning stages declaring the building an ‘eye-sore’. But, almost 13 years on, the structure has been labelled a ‘miracle building’, single-handedly reversing the city’s financial woes. The museum became an instant tourism ‘gold mine’, now pouring an estimated 300 million Euros per year into the coffers of the city of Bilbao, completely shielding it from any downturn effect of the current Global Financial Crisis.

Hailed as a "signal moment in the architectural culture", because it represents "one of those rare moments when critics, academics, and the general public were all (ultimately) completely united about something,"[viii] the building has redefined the city not only through its housing of an iconic, world-famous structure, but by bringing about a cultural unity which has given the city a voice that is now heard around the globe.

I don’t know if Frank Gehry believes in a deity, but I would like to think that if a spiritual connection is possible, and as the bible suggests, God wants to pour out his Spirit on all flesh it means we all have the opportunity to be a conduit for the same or even greater revolution, renewal and regeneration on the earth.

The Guggenheim in Bilbao is obviously one immensely effective example of architecture on a large scale but what of the micro? What about the hand of God in design, say at the level of the family home?

Australian architect, Peter Stutchbury, is a multi-award winning designer whose renown has attracted international residential design commissions. It’s not however for that fact that he is mentioned here, but for my sheer amazement that so few of his houses have ever been sold[ix]. The owners are so delighted with their homes that they are not willing to move, because to move would be to compromise.

Stutchbury’s appreciation of, and design for place coupled with his understanding of the need for sustainability has refined an uncanny ability to sense the desires of his clients and to design homes for them in a way that brings joy in living. He acknowledges that this ‘gift’ is largely to do with the spirituality of his mother Gwenda[x].

I once heard another Australian based architect, Sean Godsell speak about designing with ‘compassion’ in mind. He states, “Architecture is about creating the incidental moment through spatial configuration. It should cater for a strong and deliberately precision which results in journey, discovery and reward”.  In Sean’s description of good design, he paints a picture in which the configuration of a space facilitates and even anticipates memories. His unique ability to ’design for place’ creates houses that intimately interact with their landscape, offering the occupant guided perspectives through the veil of architecture, creating opportunities for connection and communication both within and without.

As a designer I find myself incredibly moved by works that enhance the surrounding environment, intimately working with it, not against it. There is a sense of humility in an architecture that is continually pointing toward things other than itself. A humble yet carefully considered home entices one into an experience rather than trying to bring glory to itself. And that experience is all the more glorious when it interacts with the fabric of nature. An outstanding example of this is the Fallingwater house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, an accomplished American architect that was well beyond his time. Out of the many potential house sites available on the owner’s land, he chose to build the house directly over a waterfall creating a ‘close, yet noisy dialog with the rushing water and the steep site’[xi].

For the creationist, nature provides us with the most refined example of God’s creative expression. All over the globe, due to advancements in biology and engineering, we are witnessing the emergence of what is an entirely new movement in design thinking. ‘Biomimicry’ involves the examination of nature, its models, systems, processes and elements to emulate or take inspiration from in order to solve human problems[xii].

Janine Benyus, a spear-head in this movement states, “We have approached fabrication in the past with a heat, beat and treat method while nature on the other hand always creates conditions conducive to life itself”. It is a very exciting model for the future of creative expression as it plumbs the depths of the mind and heart of The Great Designer. Already we are being impacted by its affects with companies employing discoveries found in nature to solve major issues. In architecture, structures like Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV building in China adopt similar engineering principles to the way a tree is arranged in terms of molecular density. The structure of the building increases in solidity around areas where it needs strength and minimizes its bulk were it doesn’t.

Another more industrial example is The Shinkansen Bullet Train of the West Japan Railway Company. This is the fastest train in the world, traveling up to 275km per hour. A problem occurred when the train would emerge from a tunnel causing air pressure changes to produce large thunder claps, a sonic boom of sorts, causing residents one-quarter a mile away to complain. Eiji Nakatsu, the train's chief engineer and an avid bird-watcher, asked himself the question, "Is there something in nature that travels quickly and smoothly between two very different mediums?"

His reflections led him to the kingfisher, a bird which can dive from the air into water with hardly a ripple. Modelling the front-end of the train after the beak of the kingfisher resulted not only in solving the noise problem, but unexpectedly saved 15% on electricity and caused the train to travel 10% faster”[xiii].

While I have highlighted two such examples it has been suggested that that biomimicry can offer in excess of 30 million well adapted solutions to human design issues. To me, it would make perfect sense that if there is a God out there He would point man toward the very thing that depicts his own creativity; the best design guide for the 21st century and beyond, Nature.

Ephesians 5:27 talks about Jesus coming back for a bride that is without spot or wrinkle. I like to think that this could go beyond just the spiritual experience and into the physical surroundings of our earth. After all Christ did teach us to pray while as residents on this planet, ‘…on earth as it is in heaven’.

Author: Anthony Rigg

[i] 1 Chronicles 28:11, 12, 1

[ii] 2 Chronicles 7:3

[iii] Genesis 6:13, 14-16, 18

[iv] Numbers 21:8

[v] Exodus 31:1-5

[vi] Acts 2:16-21





[xiv] Isaiah 60:1




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