My Father, the Architect
What would Jesus do? Listen to his father, the architect. That, at least, is the conclusion of a new book receiving some ink (the digital as well as the old-fashioned kind) that points out that “tekton,” the Greek word traditionally translated as “carpenter,” more closely designates a master builder or what we would call an architect. Jesus was therefore middle class, with access to learning, and this can explain why he was taken seriously when he started preaching.
I am not sure how the news that both Jesus’ heavenly father and his celestial one were architects is going to help current architects, other than helping them believe that their children can indeed walk on water. I am also not sure how much to believe the report, as I am troubled by the anachronistic assumptions about what an architect is or was, and what his status might have been. Just because our present-day profession is licensed, comes with a decent income (in decent times), and takes some learning, by no means indicate that is where things stood with the Israel Association of Architects under King Herod.
And that is what's interesting about the buzz this little bit of biblical re-exegesis has created; it reveals that we in our society think of architects as having considerable status and being closer to priests and scholars (which the new book says Joseph was) than to people with trades. It also means that we would like the design discipline to be associated with the Son of God, even if only as a kind of surrogate dad.
Let me put it in another way: we believe that architecture is the making of an artificial, human-made space that we hold to be of a higher order than what it replaces. We think of architecture as being allied with divine principles (harmony, proportion, social good) and only practicable after and through study. We also think of it as a middle-class profession, which is to say, as the manipulation of resources through abstract, knowledge-based mechanisms. And so now those of us who are Christians might have a little bit of validation-by-association-and-interpretation here.
Which raises a question for me: what would the Buddha do? What would an architecture allied with a completely different set of principles look like? Or, what would a profoundly atheist architecture be? I do not mean that in terms of either mannerisms or themes, but whether there is architecture that comes from another way of being in the world, a way in which its conceptualization, as well as its mode of operation as such, is non-Christian.
I think not. I think that architecture has, since the advent of our modern, technology-driven and international capitalist system a few centuries ago, been the way in which the middle classes have made a place for themselves in the world. It is the built reality of capitalism. It just so happens that capitalism has spread from a Christian base. But beyond Veblerian notions, I see no profound connections between the belief in Jesus and the worship of profit.
So that is why, in the end, it matters little if Joseph was a carpenter or an architect. Jesus was neither.