Something about an architectural hymn

Something about an architectural hymn

There’s a particular ‘thock’ when an adjustable triangle bumps against a parallel ruler. Until June, I hadn’t heard it for almost ten years. Turns out, it sounds just the same; it sounds of early mornings in an architecture studio on Nedlands Campus. It sounds of Guild Coffee and chewing gum, Ben Lee and Britney – and joy.

I loved studying architecture. We make a lot of ‘analytical skills’ in the workplace – the ability to break things down into their component parts in order to understand them. Analysis is useful, I’ve done a lot of it in my time. We did a fair amount of it in architecture. But at its core, architecture is a synthetic discipline. ‘Synthetic’ in the sense that it’s about synthesis – bringing things together, even making them up out of thin air. I synthesized door handles and window frames, floor plans and foot traffic flows. I made them up, out of thin air, and in making them up, I imagined places of delight for imaginary people. I loved it, it was wonderful.

I wasn’t very good at it, though. One of the things you do when you’re studying architecture is present your work for critique. Early in my third year, I presented to a group crit. I told the story of my project, and stood beside my work, and a guest lecturer said a very true thing. He said, ‘When you tell me about this, I can see it all, and it sounds fantastic. But none of it is there on the page.’ And he was right. Other people? Their drawings had life to them. Compelling life, even when they couldn’t tell you why. My drawings had no life. They were limp, diminished things. They were dead on the page, and only made smaller and weaker by the contrast with my description of what I envisaged.

They say you should find something you love, and make that your work. I don’t know. I could never find any particular biblical support for that idea. For one thing, it’s too specific to our cultural moment. How could that principle apply to a subsistence farming community, or to people in a minority group who are barred – explicitly or not – from certain kinds of work?

On the other hand, I could find a specific biblical direction to learn to look at myself and my abilities in a clear-eyed kind of way (Romans 12:3). Not discounting my abilities and passions – because to do that would be to deny God’s creative work in me, but the reality was – and is – that there are other things I can do than work as an architect. And with some of those things, excellence is possible – and at the very least, basic competence isn’t so hard won.

I’ve never stopped designing. In lectures and sermons, in notebooks and pads, on quiet Saturday afternoons and busy Wednesday mornings, I’ve sketched and researched and imagined. Mostly I design houses. Mostly, I’m still not very good. And always, I’ve loved it.

Do you see what He did for me? He gave me an inexhaustible source of joy. Designing remains my most reliable source of ‘flow’ experiences. And I’ve never had to do it on a schedule, and I’ve never had to accommodate another person’s agenda. The reality is, both of those things would probably have made me a better designer. It’s a truism of architectural practice that constraints breed creativity. But excellence is not the only virtue. This way, I’ve had work, and play, and I’ve loved them both.

But more than that source of joy, He gave me the chance to see myself more clearly, and to see Him more clearly. In deciding not to chase down that particular dream, I got to practice finding my peace and hope and joy in Him and His ways, and not in myself.

In this Sabbath year of mine, I’ve leaned into rest, and into life-giving things. I pulled out my drawing board, dusted off the wires and replaced a couple of rusty screws. And I heard, for the first time in a long time, the ‘thock’ of a triangle against a ruler. And it sounded like another song of praise.

He’s so good.

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