Architecture is a major that is difficult to understand unless you are an architecture major yourself or have friends who are. To most people, architecture majors are members of a rare mysterious and masochistic species that choose to be chained to long hours in the studio in order to emerge victorious with beautiful drawings and models at the end of each semester.
It’s not surprising, then, that whenever I mention my major to others it’s often returned with an “ooooh I feel bad for you”—a response that’s half out of admiration and half out of pity. It’s almost as if majoring in architecture was a free ticket to excuse and empathy; whenever I mentioned the “A” word, I was guaranteed to be pardoned of cancelled plans and have my struggles top those of others at Princeton (which, I admit, I took advantage of several times). No one from inside or outside the major stepped in to tell me to stop or draw the line. Because of this it was easy for me to just accept, even embrace, the struggles of working overnight or nonstop model making as the norm.
The culture of comparison in architecture studios further encourages this type of work habit—more specifically, how final reviews are conducted. At the end of every semester, each student pins up their printed drawings and puts their models on stands in front of their drawings. Unlike final exams or papers where there is no way of comparing one’s performance to others until grades come out, studio final reviews are set up so that there is no way of avoiding comparison, as all students in the class are instructed to pin up their materials side by side. So even before the review begins, just from glancing around the room and judging the quality of the drawings and the number of models, there is already a general sense of who will excel and who will not. Not only that, teachers specify the order in which students should present. This is also an indicator of how interesting or good your project is, as some time slots are bound to have a panel of bored and drowsy reviewers whereas others are guaranteed to have a panel of fully conscious reviewers (i.e. the spot right before lunch break is the worst and right after the best). Because of this, studio was a perfect breeding ground for stress, insecurity, and helplessness. Panic inducers such as a broken printer and an unexpectedly slow laser cutter were the cherry on top.
The past two years was a struggle to wrench myself free from the whirlwind, but every time I tried I found myself almost willingly stepping back into the storm. I simultaneously felt the need to escape and the need to do more. Sometimes I even psyched myself into thinking that overworking was what God wanted me to do—that in order to become the renowned Christian architect that my parents and I expected, I had to not only be put together but perform above others in order attract attention to me and, somehow, the gospel. Large groups, small groups, and Quiet Times were pushed aside for the “more important” task of becoming closer to the person that I wanted to be. The person that God wanted me to be.
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”
I wanted to bring the gospel to the world, but not as a small pinch of salt or a glimmer of light. I wanted to establish the gospel as this secret and sole ingredient to creating the best architecture, where the architecture of those who were Christian towered above those who did not know Jesus. And in order to do this, I needed to stand out from others, which meant creating design that attracted the most attention and impressing the professors at every final review. I equated my recognition with God’s recognition, and my compliments with compliments to God. Building up a name for myself meant getting closer to the point where I would be able to stand at the top and announce my identity as a Christian, at which moment the architectural field will undergo a revolutionary conversion to Christianity. In my mind, I wasn’t building a tower of Babel. I was building a tower for God.
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
And so when I read the story of Martha and Mary, it was easy for me to side with Martha and even feel insulted that Jesus would respond to her in such a way. I mean, come on, Jesus, can’t you see that Martha’s doing this all for you? You should be calling out Mary, not Martha! But what Jesus points out—and what Martha and I have forgotten amidst our preoccupation with all the things we had to do—is that he only needed and wanted one thing: our undivided love. Although she was working to serve Jesus, her work was essentially stopping her from enjoying and being in the presence of the Lord. It was pressing the pause button in her relationship with Jesus, saying Lord, I will talk to you once I’m done with all these things I’m supposed to do for you.
Like Martha, I was putting God on hold when He was calling for me to live for Him in the now. Not some time in the future when I’m some amazing architect, but now, when I am in studio, when I am struggling, when I am broken. And sometimes, it meant letting go of the to-do list and just kneeling at Jesus’ feet. It meant being His child above His architect.
The blog posts following this will consist of studies of different works of architecture or architectural writing where I attempt to approach the material with the gospel worldview. This will range from exposing the brokenness in the work environment or works of architecture to how we can see a glimpse of God’s glory in an architectural project.
Isabelle is a senior at Princeton majoring in architecture.