Architecture speaks. There’s a famous building in New York that speaks loud and clear. The Sony Building created an enormous stir when it was first built, and with his design Philip Johnston has been described as a pioneer of Postmodern Architecture.
What has he done here? He’s taken the modern sky-scraper – all functionality, no wasted space and no wasted money – and had some fun. Inefficient use of space, tons of money spent on humour, ornament and all kinds of references to other eras. That’s where postmodernism departs from modernism: the functionality becomes just plain fun!
On top, where all the other skyscrapers had flat roofs, we see an ancient Greek Temple. Notice the triangular shape at the top (called a “pediment”), just like those of old where finely sculptured stonework told the stories of myths and ancient gods. That pediment is 7-storey’s high; a complete waste of hugely expensive New York real estate! And beneath that, the appearance of a facade of pillars completes the impression that he’s stuck a Greek Temple on top of a modern skyscraper
But he’s not finished playing yet. This pediment has a hole in it. Johnston is now referring back to the 18th century English furniture maker Chippendale, who took the Greek pediment idea and put it on top of his bookcases with an opening in the middle to make it more ornate. But what an outrageous idea – to waste money on a huge decorative hole on top of a New York sky-scraper!
The base of the building is equally disconcerting, where he has built a huge 7-storey-high entranceway modelled on the design of a medieval cathedral. Under the vast high ceiling are statues, as you would expect in a cathedral, except they celebrate technology rather than saints.
What is Johnston saying? It’s the post-modern message that there’s no one way to build a building. A collage of all kinds of styles is just great! Many buildings now proclaim the same message. Have fun. There’s no right way. Draw on all kinds of stories and metaphors.
And, by analogy, the philosophy says, “There’s no right way to build a life. Some modern technology may help to keep it upright; an ancient cathedral will make it feel grounded. Some Greek mythology will help it rise spiritually above the mundane functionality all around. And then brighten it up with a bit of fun, compliments of Mr Chippendale.”
Jesus talked about building a life as a kind of construction project. He said there are only two ways of building a life: a foolish way that leads to inevitable collapse, and a wise way, built on the foundation of what he has said. One way that works, one way that fails. His is the only way that works. He is how to build a life.
Ironically, and perhaps unintentionally, Philip Johnston made the same point. For all his attempts to present a multitude of expressions of reality, they are but facades. At heart he has relied on the solid absolutes of modern engineering that make it possible for a sky-scraper to stand. Jesus was right after all. There is just one way of building a life. His way. The Way that acknowledges the non-negotiable truth of His Word. Life lived Jesus’ way stands. Life lived any other way sooner or later crumbles.