Theology & Spirituality

Cosmic Order and the Architecture Wars

There’s something primordially powerful about the idea of a house with infinite rooms, something that taps into the deepest recesses of childhood fear and wonder. All of us likely have some memory, however faint, of finding ourselves in a vast alien space that seems to go on forever. At least for me, the emotion that this thought stirs up lies somewhere at the nexus of both claustrophobia and agoraphobia—a flash of sublime awe and wonder, coupled with a visceral fear of being lost and trapped for all eternity.

What would it take to feel truly at home in such an environment—or, for that matter, within any other structure? In a year during which many of us have spent more time indoors than ever before, the question strikes me as an increasingly compelling one. What, in short, constitutes livable space? Most will probably be tempted to say this is simply a point of personal preference—that whether one prefers the hunting lodge look, or cozy hygge, or Marie Kondo-style minimalism, is simply a matter of indifference. But perhaps the truth is more complicated than that.

The question of the meaning of architecture is a notable theme of Susanna Clarke’s recent novel Piranesi, which manages to condense centuries of philosophical reflection into a relatively zippy two-hundred-and-ten-page fable. Piranesi unfolds as a series of journal entries penned by the eponymous protagonist—a somewhat unreliable figure who writes, like the narrator of Clarke’s previous work Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, with a distinctly seventeenth-century affect. Piranesi dwells, by himself, within a vast cosmic mansion he calls only the “House,” built in classical architectural style and filled with countless statues depicting mythological and realistic scenes that may or may not exist beyond the House’s walls. The House is not a strictly dead or static place, however: at periodic intervals, the House floods, sweeping rooms of debris before it in a predictable if alien manifestation of power. And Piranesi himself is not quite alone: a man he calls simply the “Other,” dedicated to rational investigation of the House’s mysteries, shows up at periodic intervals.

The Other, it soon becomes clear, is keen to enlist Piranesi in his exploratory work. At bottom, the Other sees the House as a kind of metaphysical dumping ground for the world’s lost enchantment, or the convergence of the ancient pagan powers that once gave meaning to an increasingly cold and scientific world. And what if that treasure might possibly be reclaimed? Piranesi explains that “the Other believes that there is a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World that will grant us enormous powers once we have discovered it.”

But the Other is wrong. The House is not a vault of numinous power, but something much subtler—something essentially Platonic. Its contents are not simply derivative representations of a world beyond itself, but the other way round: its statues are the perfect exemplars of items within the finite, time-bound world beyond the House. As Piranesi chastises the Other, “you make it sound as if the Statue was somehow inferior to the thing itself. I do not see that that is the case at all. I would argue that the Statue is superior to the thing itself, the Statue being perfect, eternal and not subject to decay.” In Piranesi, the “real world” is Plato’s torchlit cave, where the incorruptible Statues or Forms are only incompletely apprehended; the House, by contrast, is the essential reality that the world of everyday experience merely refracts. But crucially, this transcendence is not frozenness or sterility. Rather, it is characterized by the floodlike dynamism of what the Platonic tradition called the rhythm of exitus and reditus, the orderly going-out of all things from the absolute One and their inevitable return. The physical turning of the tides that Piranesi witnesses is simply a concrete expression of this principle.

Piranesi is, at its heart, a tale of coming to terms with this cosmological vision. By the end of the book, Piranesi leaves the House but nonetheless learns to glimpse what Plato would have described as the participation of things in their eternal forms—or, in more Christian terms, learns to see the objects of the universe raised from ignominy to glory through their correspondence with divine realities:

An old man passed me. He looked sad and tired. He had broken veins on his cheeks and a bristly white beard. As he screwed up his eyes against the falling snow, I realised I knew him. He is depicted on the northern wall of the forty-eighth western hall [of the House]. He is shown as a king with a little model of a walled city in one hand while the other hand he raises in blessing. I wanted to seize hold of him and say to him: In another world you are a king, noble and good! I have seen it! But I hesitated a moment too long and he disappeared into the crowd.

The fundamental truth of Piranesi is the insight that there is a profound continuity between the transcendent forms within the House and their immanent expressions outside it, and that this is the root of true beauty. Indeed, Piranesi’s love for the House itself leads him to wax positively theological, musing over and over again that “the Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.” When understood rightly, as a locus of continuity between enduring truth and fleeting representation, the House becomes a home.

Clarke leaves the wider-reaching implications of her novel for the reader to work out on their own. If Piranesi is right—if the beauty that makes life worth living emerges from a deep correspondence between things and their ideal representations—what does this mean for our built environments?

Unsurprisingly, attempts to answer that question have been fraught with controversy. In the waning weeks of his term, President Trump issued an executive order directing that new federal buildings be constructed in traditional styles—“such styles as Neoclassical, Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, Beaux-Arts, and Art Deco” rooted in “the architectural tradition derived from the forms, principles, and vocabulary of the architecture of Greek and Roman antiquity.” These styles tend to incorporate what University of Notre Dame architecture professor Philip Bess has described as fundamental features of a sacred architecture, including (among others) “the conscious use of mathematics and geometry as formal ordering devices,” “a compositional and artistic unity,” “a recognizable verticality, in either or both height and depth,” and “a concern for light and shadow.” Traditionally, these features have tended to draw the eye and mind in the direction of Piranesi’s central insight—toward an intuition of the overarching mathematical and aesthetic orders within which any given work of architecture participates, and within which all people live and move and have their being.

Nevertheless, critics have (perhaps unsurprisingly) described the President’s architectural mandate as borderline fascistic. And there is at least one grain of truth beneath this overheated rhetoric: it is undeniable that there exists a reactionary strain of right-wing thought that glimpses, in the architecture and built structures of ages past, a pagan ideal of merciless power and cosmic hierarchy. For certain traditionalist thinkers like René Guénon and Julius Evola, the “ancient wisdom” or “Western civilization” of millennia past is little more than a weapon to be wielded against modernity’s pathologies. On this view, returning to tradition is less a matter of the heart and virtues than a matter of throwing down the hollow ideals of Enlightenment rationality and restoring the exhilarating madness of the past, in all its glory and horror alike.

And yet it is that precise impulse that Piranesi, for all its embrace of classicism and celebration of the traditional built environment, anticipates and rebuts. The central conflict in Piranesi surrounds an effort to penetrate the House by deviant anthropologist Laurence Arne-Sayles and his malignant apprentice, Valentine Kettering. Like the reactionary traditionalists of the present, both men are bent on treating the essential harmony of reality—the recognition that all things subsist in a higher, interlocking order beyond themselves—as merely a technology of power, a source of magic capable of conferring powers like “snuffing out and reigniting the Sun and Stars” and “dominating lesser intellects and bending them to [one’s] will.” In so doing, they misunderstand what the House itself, in all its architectural splendor, stands for.

The House, for its part, will have none of it, and these Guénonesque figures come to bad ends. Arne-Sayles’s personal vices leave him broken and ruined, and Kettering’s own hubris leaves him unable—in a sequence that evokes the story of Moses and the Red Sea—to master the House’s tidal rhythms. Yet crucially, it is not the idea of metaphysical order as such that Piranesi indicts, but the idea that such order exists for a principally instrumental political purpose—such as the advance of totalizing political power. Quite the contrary: the beautiful House is its own reason for being.

And paradoxically, to abandon the possibility that architecture is capable of harmonizing the earthly and the ideal risks doubling down on the very totalitarian instincts that critics of the architecture executive order deplore. One need only consider a much darker vision of the “infinite house” concept around which Piranesi turns: the setting of Remedy Entertainment’s 2019 video game Control.

Control recounts the story of Jesse Faden, a X-Files-style paranormal investigator recruited by the enigmatic “Federal Bureau of Control” to battle an invasive extradimensional force known only as the Hiss. Like Piranesi, Control centers on a lone outsider suddenly thrust into an infinite cosmological labyrinth, a space rife with unpredictable strangers and eldritch threats. But where Piranesi depicts a world resembling an abandoned Oxford or Cambridge library, Control instead offers a vast complex of intersecting halls and rooms designed in the Brutalist style—a midcentury American movement that focused on crafting structures out of exposed concrete and eschewing ornamentation. To wander the stark hallways of Control is to feel the suffocating weight of authoritarian power pressing in from all sides.

Altogether absent is any trace of Piranesi’s Platonism, or any possibility of consonance between the built environment and the realities that intersect with it. Indeed, that is exactly the possibility that Control wishes to exclude from the outset. A key focus of Control is Jesse’s attempt to cleanse a series of “altered objects”—everyday household items unexpectedly charged with otherworldly Hiss energies. In Piranesi’s cosmology, such objects might be understood as icons of a sort, sites of participatory contact between the eternal and the mundane; in Control’s much grimmer vision, they are merely portals through which destructive forces strive to enter. For the Federal Bureau of Control, there is no potential for wonder in the contemplation of alternate worlds or their relationship to ordinary experience; there is only the dialectic of threat and reaction.

And that, in the end, is precisely what Brutalism as a style stands for. For those who built such structures in the name of authoritarian communism, the eliminative-materialist “truthfulness” of unadorned concrete, coupled with the felt experience of individual smallness in the face of stark state authority, was precisely the point. By contrast, to speak of the otherworldly order toward which the Platonic heritage points—the divine order of Piranesi’s House—is to affirm a set of transcendent principles that must call any finite sovereign to account, a criterion against which the legitimacy of power is evaluated. There can be no stronger bulwark against ideological tyranny than this.t

In short, it seems to me that the architectural wisdom of Piranesi (and, in backhanded fashion, of Control also) is that an environment worth living in, worth calling home, ought to be one that reflects the essential continuities of the created order. On the individual level, this means that the homes we choose to buy, and the objects with which we fill them, should draw the mind outward and upward, toward reflection on those realities which are “perfect, eternal and not subject to decay”—but which are exemplified, albeit in imperfect fashion, here below. And that is likely an insight that architects, irrespective of political alignment, would do well to similarly take to heart.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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