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Habitats for Humanity: Beauty Amid Junk and Bewilderment

Brent Hull, who is new to our Centurions Program, thinks a great deal about houses. Houses are, in fact, his business and they’re the subject of a book he is writing.

Over the years, he has observed three problems with American homebuilding. First, he says, homes are often poorly designed. That is, in part, because most are not designed by architects, but by builders. This saves homebuyers money, but can come at the cost of good design. Second, when architects are involved, most reflect the modernism and relativism they were taught in architecture school. Third, both good materials and good craftsmanship have become scarce and expensive.

Most homes prior to World War II were built around a distinctive architectural style, like federal, Victorian, and colonial revival. But after World War II, we began to mass-produce tract homes. Suburbs like Levittown, Long Island, bland and uninteresting, sprawled out with cookie-cutter sameness.

“Not coincidently,” says Hull, “the change in homebuilding happened at nearly the same time that relativism and modernity crept into the American psyche.”

My friend and a developer, Paul Cauwels, adds:  “During the McMansion era of the late 80s and 90s, the focus was on size and first impression the house gave, not on function and quality. Consumers with a post-modern and relativist mindset drove the problem as much as the design.”

Philip Bess is professor of architecture at Notre Dame, one of the few schools in the country that teaches traditional rather than modernist architecture. Bess notes, “Where once there was both a theoretical and practical agreement that buildings should be durable, comfortable, beautiful and related to each other in a proper hierarchical order, today we build everyday buildings [such as houses] for short-term economic gain and monumental buildings as exercises in novelty, self-expression, and advertising.”

The result, he says, is “junk and bewilderment” because “we lack a shared and reasonable understanding of the nature and purpose of architecture and building,” which are to make “good places for human beings.”

And he’s right. He’s also letting his Christian worldview show. Bess understands that everything we do, including building, reflects our core beliefs. For Christians, all we do should reflect the good, the true, and the beautiful. All three are necessary for a life that reflects our identity as creatures made in the image of God. Separate the good, the true, and the beautiful from the design and craftsmanship of our homes, and all you have left is “junk and bewilderment.”

Or as Bess so eloquently puts it, “The more architects and planners have turned their attention to building up the City of Man apart from some vision of the City of God, the meaner and uglier the City of Man has become.”  Well put, and worldviews do matter.

Regardless of where we live or what kind of homes we live in, we can use our Christian worldview — that is our vision of the City of God — to make our homes “good places for human beings.” Our homes — and our lives — can and should reflect the good, the true, and the beautiful to a world overwhelmed with “junk and bewilderment.”

Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

Publication date: August 5, 2011.

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