It’s probably safe to assume that all of us, on any given day, are inevitably caught in the thick of wondering what the hell we’re even doing. We’re staring at the cursor blinking mid-sentence in an email that seemed really important twenty seconds ago, and suddenly we can’t even remember who we’re sending it to. Or we can’t remember why we opened the web browser, or we can’t remember what kind of music we like, or we can’t remember what we think is interesting, and it’s all just so banal and painful and meaningless. And then the gears grind and shift and we’re not asking what anymore, we’re asking why.
“We live in an extraordinarily debauched, interesting, savage world,” David Mamet writes, “where things really don't come out even” (Three Uses of the Knife). Which is true, right? I suppose that living where we live, it’s sometimes hard to remember. But we live in a world that’s falling apart all of the time—it’s unraveling, really—and nothing is fair, and anything beautiful or meaningful or worthwhile starts decaying before its conception. So what’s the point? Even if we knew what we were doing—or at least, what we wanted to do—why bother? What can we actually do about the injustice and futility and decay?
One of the singular advantages of working at an architecture firm is that every day, I am surrounded by people who are in the business of beauty-making. And it’s not just some haphazard, flailing attempt at beauty. It’s slow and thoughtful and purposeful, and it requires skill, and patience, and undoing and redoing, and collaboration, and ingenuity, and the ability to look at things from more than one angle. It is, from what I can tell, rewarding work; but it is also hard work, and even here there are murmurs of “What am I doing here? And why am I doing this?”
Of course, as David Foster Wallace points out, I is at the center of these queries, and we’re hardwired to instinctively see the world and its people first (and sometimes only) as it relates to ourselves (This Is Water). Reality as I know it is only reality as I see it, and if I don’t choose to consciously fight this hardwired way of thinking about things, I won’t be able to, as Wallace says, “consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying.”
Wallace submits that the value of education is, at its best, learning “[h]ow to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.” In other words, education does what it is supposed to do when it equips you first with the knowledge that your hardwired settings are haywire, and second with the tools to consciously resist those settings. I would argue that this is also the real value of art.
Humanity and its Earth are constantly slipping back into a state of chaos, but they’re also always straining against it. And I think maybe that’s what good art should be telling us over and over and over—that things are bad, broken, ugly; but not hopeless, and not irredeemable.
So a few weeks ago when my boss and I had a conversation about the firm’s philosophy on architecture, and how we’re always either adding to decay or restoring beauty, it made sense to me. Everything tells a story, and what we have to decide every morning when we get out of bed (whether we’re architects or stock brokers or baristas) is what story we’re going to tell, and how. We have to decide if we’re going to add to the decay, or restore beauty.
Robert Schumann says that it is “the duty of the artist” to “send light into the darkness of men’s hearts.” To consider an architect being charged with such a task might inspire a heavy dose of eye-rolling, but I could name several buildings on my alma mater’s campus in Oklahoma—let alone those scattered all over Europe—that accomplish just such a feat. They restore order in a world of chaos, they embrace light in a universe crushed by darkness, they inspire peace in a time defined by violence. We are quieted by them, we are delighted by them, we are even comforted by them. They are the places we go when we need to feel ourselves—safe and whole and unafraid.
SHM has many projects that do this in one way or another, but currently, my favorite project is also the one that I happen to think does it best. St. Francis Chapel in Breckenridge, Texas, is indeed sacred. Not just because it’s a chapel, but because it says something about the world and it says something about human nature.
It admits to the imperial loneliness of human existence. Nestled on top of a hillside overlooking the surrounding landscape, everything—even the visible homestead—feels far away. It’s pretty much just land for miles, and that is simultaneously calming and terrifying. And seeing all of that space makes us ask ourselves some intensely uncomfortable questions. Where would we go if we had nowhere to turn? What would we do when we realized we were alone? So the chapel makes us ask the questions, right, but it also provides answers. “You’d come here,” it says. “You wouldn’t be alone here.”
It repurposes what is old and heavy and cast aside into something beautiful and unmovable and whole. It takes pieces of its surroundings—things that wouldn’t otherwise fit together, like organic stone and indigenous timber—and it puts it all together in a magnificent puzzle. Nothing is forced or shimmied or jammed. Rather, everything appears to be restored to where it originally belonged. It’s a new structure, but only in the sense that it didn’t exist and now it does. Really, though, it’s as old as the country it’s built on. It’s made up of old things, discarded things, unnoticed things—things that were always functional and durable and beautiful, but were waiting to be restored.
So, in a world where we don’t belong—where we, too, feel discarded and unnoticed and worn and thin and tired and forced and shimmied and jammed—St. Francis Chapel provides a space that we fit into, that we belong in. And at sunset, as the last rays pierce through the stained glass in the raised mesquite chancel, perhaps a little light really does make its way into the dark cavity where our hearts are defiantly pumping blood.
Which is why we can get out of bed in the morning and choose to consciously fight what feels like ubiquitous pointlessness. Because somewhere, maybe even everywhere, there is light, and we belong, and that is the story we’re going to tell.
—Emma Hamblen, Executive Assistant