Stewardship as Architectural Aesthetic

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Christianity as a Source

I have shown how several views of aesthetics could be adapted to focus on sustainability. In a positive postmodern approach, these various narratives can coexist simultaneously, perhaps without serious conflict. In fact, they can coexist with a more absolute acceptance of an underlying beauty which is common to all aesthetic experiences, and which stems from the recognition or approach to some absolute truth. (This would certainly make postmodernists nervous, but if viewed as an alternate narrative, it should not be fatal.)

Christianity holds a unique position in this discussion. Despite White’s criticism of Christianity for failing to end greed and exploitation, any careful examination of history concludes that both were present without Christianity.13 Thus they are part of the human condition, not results of Christianity. Greed is not a Christian invention. So the proper question might be, “Have we applied the principle of stewardship to architecture?” In fact, Christianity supports such a new aesthetic. Consider Genesis 2:15: “And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.”

The principle of stewardship appears in the earliest Judeo-Christian document, the first book of the Torah, or Genesis.

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

Some have misunderstood this verse (by removing it from it literary and historical context) to mean that God instructs humans to abuse the earth, sea, air, and all living things. Note the first four words of the verse; this was a blessing, not a command, per se. Yet what was the purpose of the blessing?

Let us also examine its literal context: “And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it” (Genesis 2:15). The second passage deals with the nature and purpose of man’s dominion. We are not here to despoil the planet. Rather, we are here as gardeners. What does it mean to dress it and keep it? “Dressing it” (in terms of plant life and landscape) means to tend it, trim it, fertilize it, manage it and make it prosper or bring forth fruit. “To keep it” means to conserve it for future generations. Does this sound like Gro Brundtland’s definition of sustainability?

The theme goes on throughout Genesis:

And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought [them] unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that [was] the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him. (Genesis 2:19-20)

Adam named all of the animals. The point of the verses is that Adam was on an intimate and friendly basis with all of the animals, not just sheep, dogs, and cows. Adam, here, (as a representative of mankind) was given a very direct responsibility to the animals, and a very direct individual relationship with them: they were not objects, they were not just food, they were entities.

In the modern world, we have lost this relationship with nature. Most people have no idea where food comes from, how animals live, or the fact that many animals have emotions and interact individually with people. I recently heard of a young person who thought that chickens had four legs, because that’s how many drumsticks came in a shrink-wrap pack. She had never made the connection between the picture of the chicken and the food she ate. I laud the 4H clubs of America, who recognize and foster the relationship between humans and animals. Even those who eventually sell an animal for slaughter recognize that the animal has a nature, personality, and physical value. It is often difficult for humans to recognize this, as perhaps it should be. Even in a “fallen” world, in which we eat animals, we should do so with the proper respect for life. Indeed these verses seem to emphasize the value of all levels of life.

Let us examine this theme in later passages:

And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth [upon] the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.” (Genesis 9:1-3)

Again, it is clear that this passage contains part command and part blessing/prophecy: Noah and his family are to be fruitful, multiply, and replenish the earth. It is in the very nature of the story that God took great pains to save all the animals. Indeed, God made Noah and his family tend, feed, and provide for all creatures. The command to replenish the earth is a positive instruction after a disaster. The prophecy that the animals will eventually be subject to humanity has come to pass. We forget that when this book was written, humanity was still comparatively weak against a whole range of animals. The concept that all animals would dread humans was not at all to be taken for granted. It is a prophecy, not a command to “make all animals fear you.” That would contradict the previous passages we just read. Taken in context, the intent is clear.

It is time for Christianity to take a lead in defining a new aesthetic, based on stewardship. The alternative is catastrophic both in the physical realm (e.g. global warming and pollution) and the spiritual realm. This principle of stewardship continues through the Old and New Testaments:

The time has come for judging the dead… and for destroying those who destroy the earth. (Revelation 11:18)

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)


There are many possible rationales for an aesthetic of sustainability, but for the Christian the concept of stewardship is clear. Unlike an entirely secular view of the problem, Christians have a fundamental motivation for stewardship: they believe that life is not just about getting whatever you can at the moment. Secularists have little motivation to change their personal behavior in order to save the environment. The core question is, “Why bother?” They have no responsibility to anything outside themselves. If, indeed, we are just a collection of chemicals without a soul, then why should we care about anything? Why do we care what happens to the planet? The only behavior that makes sense to the complete secularist is hedonism. Live for the moment, enjoy the moment to its fullest, and who cares about the environment?

The real issue becomes not whether we think that the physical world is all there is, but why we should personally care about it. Pollution and environmental degradation does not result from a conscious decision to destroy the environment, it comes from people who have no reason to modify their personal behavior away from complete selfishness.

As Christians, we have a reason to change our behavior because we are stewards of what we have been given. As Christians, we believe that we will be called to account for what we have done. Admittedly, our salvation does not depend on it—redemption and grace are free—but there is still accountability for stewardship and a fundamental instruction to protect and steward the world that God has given.

Let this particular approach to an aesthetic of sustainable architecture parallel other adaptations of historical aesthetics. We have more than enough basis for a new aesthetic that could make the way we build today more effective than the ways of the past.

Marc E. Schiler, IES, LC, is an Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Southern California. This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.