The philosopher and writer Alain de Botton has a new book out on atheism, and some press reports suggest that he wants to build a ‘temple to atheism’ in the City of London. Some religious folk have then argued that this shows atheists have finally found a sense of awe and wonder in the world. I sent out a tweet saying that I thought the idea of a temple of atheism was a very silly idea. Alain then emailed me to say that he had been misreported in the press. I suggested that he wrote something to set the record straight, and he kindly sent me the following piece….
“ Beyond ‘Temples for Atheists’ – An explanation.
I am conscious that the phrase ‘temple for atheists’ has had the power to annoy a great many good and clever people – and because my idea is as I conceive it inherently non-contentious, it’s clear that I must have explained it extremely badly, for which I’m sorry. Let me start again.
My starting point is that a great many religious buildings are powerful works of architecture: even committed atheists like myself recognise that many cathedrals, mosques, temples and churches are extremely successful and beguiling as buildings. The religious explanation for this power has often invoked God in the creative process. Medieval Cathedral builders quite literally believed that the hand of God was guiding them in their extraordinary creations.
As an atheist, I can’t believe in the supernatural explanations for the greatness of religious architecture. I analyse the power in terms of such features as mass, scale, material, sound, air quality and so on.
My suggestion is that contemporary architecture look more closely at the examples of religious architecture, in order to give their buildings some of the qualities that are most appealling in religious buildings; to put it bluntly, in order that these effects not reside heretofore only in the cul-de-sac of religious architecture.
The architects I have come across who have already been at work on this, and very brilliantly, are Louis Kahn, Tadao Ando and Peter Zumthor. In the world of art, James Turrell has explored similar ground – as did Mark Rothko, with his astonishing Rothko Chapel in Texas.
What unites Kahn, Ando, Zumthor and Turrell is that they know how to create abstracted sonorous spaces that take us out of the everyday and encourage contemplation, perspective and (at times) a pleasing terror. Especially in the work of Turrell, science is not far from the surface as a tool for generating such effects. It’s about playing with scale, and confronting us with a new perspective on ourselves. The dividing line between museum, observatory and meditation chamber are blurred in fascinating ways.
My suggestion is that places like the Rothko chapel or Turrell’s Skyspace are valuable exercises. I wouldn’t mind if there were a few more of them in the world.
This idea has been greeted with complaints that these places already exist: there already are science museums and observatories and even religious buildings. Why do anything more? Why create anything new?
The answer has to be personal, it has to do with one’s appetite for taking on something unusual. As someone heavily involved professionally in the world of architecture, I look forward to a new generation continuing to build on the achievements of the past. I don’t have a set plan for what might be built. I am not architect, but I find it fascinating to see what architects might design. It’s a struggle to get any building off the ground, and Thomas Greenall’s idea began life as a piece of paper architecture to illustrate a point in a book. I’m not sure it will ever take off quite as it is, perhaps it will, but I feel that things like it should – even though I’m not personally entirely sure how.
Evidently the term ‘temple for atheists’ has set up uncomfortable associations. People have imagined I might be interested in worshipping an absent deity, or perhaps setting up a cult. Nothing as dramatic or as insane is on the cards. I’m simply arguing that contemporary architecture analyse the high points of religious architecture throughout history – and that we should allow a new generation of architects to tread in the footsteps of great secular creatives indebted to the ecclesiastical, people like Kahn, Ando and Zumthor.”
What do you think? Do you agree with Alain’s point of view?