Mechanisms: The Role of Faith in Modern Architecture

The second core mechanism by which resolution of the post-war experience was achieved was faith. In the post-Darwinian world of the early 20th century, faith is not often considered to be a central issue. However, in the aftermath of the war, it seems to me to have occupied a central galvanising force which allowed people to move forward into the future. And the Modern Movement, in particular, provided a haven in which such a faith could crystallise.

In practical terms, if memories were to be processed and ‘de-toxified’, a faith-based structure was necessary which stopped fruitless rationalising of the past and allowed society to move ahead. However, it also had to allow people to move towards the subconscious goal of detoxification and, in spite of anxiety, towards resolution of the neurosis of the homely. 

At the outset, it needs to be said that my understanding of faith here is primarily as a neurobiological mechanism, a psychic tool found to be beneficial by both individuals and society. It is not at all concerned with the merits, or otherwise, of any religious faith. In this way, I see faith as a mechanism, acting almost like an on-off switch, by which the rationalising, conscious mind can be made to live with the often emotional needs of the intuitive, subconscious mind. Faith establishes new modes of thought, doctrines, but then calls a halt to further rationalising by making its teachings dogmatic. It’s like a self-limiting device for uncontrolled reason. In terms of neurobiology, I would suggest that faith inhabits the boundary between outer, neocortical areas, which excel at conscious rationalising, and the deeper, older limbic system which co-ordinates action on the basis of more unconscious, instinctual and emotional processes.

Post-Great War Britain is often, and rather loosely, described as suffering from ‘a great loss of faith’, both in terms of its religious constructs and in terms of a general confidence of its place on the world stage. This is usually, and convincingly, attributed to the collective experience of the war. The point I wish to make here, however, and one not often elaborated upon, is that there was a corresponding search, indeed relapse into, faith structures as the years went by. In particular, an attitude conducive to a faith forming in mind seems to have played a role in the processing of post-war trauma and, as an expressive means of that process, in the status afforded the Modern Movement.

Faith in general, however, even the word itself, is difficult to define. In standard dictionaries of psychology and philosophy, the word ‘faith’ often has no entry. Despite the subject attracting strong opinions, no one seems to be able to say what, precisely, it is. I’m not thinking here of the subject matter of a faith, its doctrines or narratives, but in terms of what the word faith represents as an iterative mental phenomenon. Some societies are often described as having people ‘of great faith’? But what is this thing, in general terms, that they have? And how do they come to have it in the first place, what sparks off the journey towards ‘having faith’. In the secular West of the 1920s, in particular, why would something like the Modern Movement, rather than the Modern Style, attract so much attention and confer such missionary, quasi-religious zeal on its followers?

To begin to speculate, I think it’s helpful to divide the question of the birth of a faith into three parts:
First – what are the pre-conditions necessary for a faith to begin?
Second – what means does the process of faith-formation use to proceed?
Third – what is the primary function of faith-formation?

Firstly, in my view, the necessary pre-condition for a faith to develop is an existential vacuum in terms of narrative, reason or values to explain sense experiences. Faiths are, in a sense, given permission by society to take hold when previous faiths have been found wanting.

Secondly, faith-formation proceeds through the attitude of certainty that faith itself conveys on its adherents in what will be uncertain times. This certainty precipitates out from unmediated knowledge and memories of the horrors that have been experienced, irreconciable sights that invalidate previous beliefs, and a subsequent surrender to the narratives, rationalisations and values of the new faith. The surrender to new principles allows the adherents to move forward confidently – con fides, with faith.

Thirdly, the function of this process of faith-formation is to control anxiety by providing a rational structure within which event experience and memory-processing can slowly occur.

I will now apply these general ideas to the aftermath of the First World War and subsequent developments in architecture.

First, the main condition for a faith-based response was present in the vacuum of understanding produced by the countless individual images of horror produced by trench warfare and the lack of any convincing causal link between the war and the era that preceded it. There was an absence in mind of any semantic connections between, for example, the killing fields of Passchendaele and pre-existing ethical constructs or mythic narratives.

Second, the attitude of certainty displayed by the Modern Movement was grounded in this mythic vacuum and the subsequent propagation of founding principles by its guru-figures. With no principles to guide survivors, any principles would do. A facade of certainty, that at other times would be perceived as arrogant, was acceptable in the circumstances. Certainty in new principles would also allow survivors to get on with present concerns, irrepsective of a traumatic past.

Third, the purpose of their faith-based response, in a sense the function of the Modern Movement’s functionalism, was to provide a substitute order for mind to apprehend a recent history of war whose parameters had destroyed the older mental order, and which would allow memories of the war to be processed.

At this point, it might be useful to compare the growth of the Modern Movement to the growth of early Christianity. For Christianity, the existential vacuum that allowed the faith to take firm hold was provided not by the death of Jesus, but by the destruction of the Temple and of the city of Jerusalem itself in 70AD, 37 years after his death. Similarly, the gospel texts were also only written after the Temple’s destruction and helped to place in perspective the loss of such a powerful social symbol by using the loss and resurrection of Jesus as a model. And the writings’ purpose was the same, to provide a mythic structure, a mythos, within which the experience of loss could be apprehended. As with other religions, the scriptures provided enough certainty for their adherents to move forward despite devastating loss. According to this perspective, it might be enlightening, or at least entertaining, to compare, say, Le Corbusier’s Vers Une Architecture with St John’s Gospel, or the Acts of the Apostles with CIAM’s Athens Charter (written in 1932 but not published until 1943).

With this analysis in mind, it may be possible to suggest a definition of faith as: a neurological potential (possibly akin to the action-potential of neurons and axons) to attach narrative, as myth, and reason, as philosophy, to emotions and experiences that are at first beyond reason. Again, there is a possible psychobiological explanation in that neocortical angst, produced by a rationally irreconcilable gap between experience and understanding, can be eased by resort to new boundaries to thought, new religions, so that overloaded limbic processes dealing with emotion and memory can proceed as normally as possible.

This theorising can now be applied to the particular subject of the Great War and the Modern Movement. It is axiomatic to suggest that Britain in the first half of the 20th century suffered a gross loss of faith, in itself as a nation, in its empire, in the identifying foundations of its society. In a nutshell, if 400 years of the Church of England, 300 years of successful empire-buildng, and 200 years of progressive, post-Enlightenment thought had led merely to the annihilation of the Somme and the muddy mass grave of Passchendaele then faith in anything related to these was surely bankrupt.

It is into this faith-challenged context that the principles of the Modern Movement, in texts such as Vers une Architecture and the Athens Charter, were put forward almost as doctrines of a faith. It was in this context that they came to be accepted and to command such great influence. The movement emphatically rejected the recent past. Victorian Britain in particular was anathema. Only the influence of ancient classical architecture was proferred as acceptable, as well as the most recent industrial forms. New principles of construction, even of healthy living, were formulated. This philosophising by intellectual groups, in itself, was not new; what was new was that such a movement tapped a vein of anguished existential searching among the general public.

This deeply insecure vacuum of faith pervaded the drive with which modern Britain was built on the remains of the old order. By the 1950s, confident Modernist architects such as the Smithsons exerted an inordinate, quasi-moral, influence over ideas about design. Although their practice was radical and often untried, they were given more credibility, or faith, than any architects of the old school because they so emphasised a radical break with the world that preceded August 1914.

However, their work and influence alone is not enough to explain how the landscape of the Western Front itself might come to have been rebuilt. This is where architectural history converges with the psychology of trauma.

The Modern Movement provided a clean break with the past. Bereft of ties, it could have taken off in any direction, and in many cases it did. But surrounding it in the society where it took root were millions of people with stories in their heads which could not be told, of countless young friends’ heads blown off, of bloody entrails rotting in the mud, of sons – hundreds of thousands of them – who did not come home.

Battalions of stiff upper lips were the silent force behind the Modern Movement in Britain. It was they who gave the quasi-faith of the Modern Movement its revelatory direction. Through their choices, they steered it back towards the Somme and Passchendaele.

The mistake of the discipline of architectural history has been to concentrate on the actors, the architects themselves, but they were only one half of a dialectical, creative relationship. It was the audience who directed them, who commissioned, approved and paid for their designs. And the precise point at which conventional architectural history meets the psychology of trauma was when one of those silent, stiff-upper-lip individuals, in one of countless selection committees, said yes.

This was the yes of recognition. The designers would have offered a variety of plans, but, more often than not, approval would have been given to those drawings which re-minded, which brought to consciousness, an image already held in mind, but which for all intents and purposes was otherwise irretrievable, certainly ignored as much as had been possible.

It was within this milieu that the four iconic architects of the Modern Movement, Gropius, Corbusier, Mies and Wright achieved a sort of priestly status, coming to resemble the four evangelists of 20th century architecture. Theirs’ was the task, albeit an unwitting one, of drawing out, in pencilled graphite, the poison of the past. It seems no coincidence that only Wright’s reputation has survived without a dark patina around it; as an American, he was the only one of the four not to have been schooled in a theatre of war.

And, to continue this analogy, if these four were evangelists of sorts, who would have been their Christ-figure? Could it have been the countless young soldiers of the Front, those who had made the supreme sacrifice? The unknown soldier?