Beyond Buildings


My Father, the Architect

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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.


Comments (2 Total)

  • Posted by: nammitt | Time: 12:56 PM Wednesday, April 14, 2010

    Fascinating idea. I always thought of God the father as "architect of the universe" and it's interesting to assume the parallel in Joseph, Jesus' father. As an architecture student, I can't help wondering if Jesus grew up in a studio atmosphere.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 11:47 AM Tuesday, April 13, 2010

    An academic scholarly role might explain why Jesus was never dismissed by the authorities as uneducated or side-lined as irrelevant. I checked this out and there is an mp3 link to a lecture the guy gave on this at Slightly different take to the traditional chair maker line...

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.