This is the first summer I haven’t gone camping for at least 25 years, maybe my entire life. Since Tammy and I got married 23 years ago, our family holidays have focused on hiking, kayaking and sleeping in tents. Often in the rain. My family suggested we try something different this year, and I found myself connecting with God and nature in a new way—through architecture.
American architect Frank Lloyd Wright is famous for the development of what he called “organic architecture.” He believed architecture should study and honour nature, and be inspired by it. We do not live on nature, he proclaimed, we live in it. Therefore, our buildings should be built in, not on, nature. Using local materials and integrating what was already there, Wright created living spaces in which nature was amplified rather than ignored, and added to the beauty of the landscape.
I’ve visited a number of Wright’s buildings over the past decade, but this summer we visited his crowning architectural achievement, Fallingwater, a house in southwest Pennsylvania. One of the reasons I’m so fascinated with his work is I can’t find words to describe why they move me so deeply. Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger shares this sentiment. “Great architecture,” he says, “like any great art, ultimately takes you somewhere that words cannot take you. . . . Fallingwater does that the way Chartres Cathedral does that. There’s some experience that gets you in your gut and you just feel it, and you can’t quite even say it. My whole life is dealing with architecture and words, and at the end of the day, there is something that I can’t entirely say when it comes to what Fallingwater feels like.”
When something hits me this deeply, beyond words, I can only describe it as a spiritual experience. At Fallingwater, I was seeing nature and architecture with fresh eyes. It reminded me of a place in Portugal called the Convent of the Capuchos, or the Cork Monastery. It was built in 1560 by Franciscan monks committed to simplicity and poverty, with the intention of honouring the harmony between human and divine construction. Like Wright’s work, it was built into the landscape, not on it. The humble buildings are inseparable from the vegetation and enormous granite rocks on site, the interior consisting only of stone and cork from the surrounding property. It was an inspiring and sacred place for me.
Our family also visited the iconic Wrigley Field in Chicago this summer, to watch a Cubs baseball game with friends. One friend said it felt like church as we entered the ballpark and saw the field for the first time. I felt something too. There was a special vibe in this old building, with its rich history, traditions and community. It is the National League’s oldest ballpark and retains its historic character, with a hand-operated scoreboard, red brick walls and ivy-covered outfield fence. It is surrounded by an old neighbourhood, where people live right next door. There are old apartment buildings adjacent the ballpark with rooftop seats, where people sit and watch the games. Wrigley Field is part of the neighbourhood, integrated into its surroundings, and it brings people from the community together. It sounds strange, but being there and walking around the bustling neighbourhood felt like a spiritual experience.
I am prone to seek refuge in nature, away from people and the city, in order to recentre myself in God. To have my eyes opened to the spirituality of architecture, buildings, cities and ballparks, filled with people, felt like a significant awakening. For starters, I was struck by the potential for all occupations, like architecture, to become a calling. To serve a higher purpose, God, nature and others. I’m also seeing the city I live in, its buildings, including my own house, with new eyes. As wonderful as it would be for everyone to have houses and churches designed by “organic architects,” this often comes with a price tag that is also beyond words. Regardless, I find myself asking new questions about our homes and church buildings. How can we revision, remodel and renovate in ways that honour God’s creation and are inspired by nature? How can our buildings be more integrated with our surroundings and become places that bring people in our communities together? How can we create environments for others to have spiritual experiences, beyond words, when they visit the places we live and gather for worship?
Troy Watson is a pastor at Avon Church in Stratford, Ontario, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.