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Architecture is Act of Optimism
An Essay by Jenny Spinner

audio Listen to Spinner's essay.

Nov. 8, 2001 -- When the world is too much, I have a place to go, and I've gone there often in the last month.

My journey to St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Decatur, Illinois, is not a literal one. I'm no longer Lutheran -- I converted to Catholicism several years ago. I don't even live in Decatur anymore. I'm now a thousand miles away in Connecticut. But no matter where I go, no matter the path I choose, this sanctuary of my youth calls me back.

I return there in my mind, taking refuge in the front pew where my grandmother sits every Sunday. The church is dark, save for the soft red light of the eternity candle that washes over me, staining my hands pink. It is the hushed dark of Christmas Eve and Good Friday, of sorrowful hymns and candle-flecked faces. I am alone, but I sense my family around me, five generations of them, their bodies molded into the curves of the walnut seats.

"Architecture can be an act of many things -- optimism, yes, but also defiance, arrogance, power. Architecture can also be an act of hope and an act of faith."

Jenny Spinner

My grandparents were married here, as were my parents. My mother was baptized from the heavy stone font in the front corner of the church, along with countless aunts, uncles and cousins. Twice I followed a casket down the long, gray, stone-stepped aisle, five years ago behind my grandfather, five months ago behind my father.

It's dangerous, I know, to love a building, to love something so much of this Earth, but I can't help myself. I find beauty not just in the cobalt light that spills from the stained-glass window above the altar, but in the familiarity of a light I know so well. A building is nothing without its people -- I understand that, too. It's why I love this red brick church in the middle of the prairie more than I love the great cathedrals in all of Europe. The problem comes when buildings outgrow and overshadow the people inside, towering over us no matter their size.

Two days after the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, Nikolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic for the LA Times, wrote: “Architecture is an act of optimism.” Architecture can be an act of many things -- optimism, yes, but also defiance, arrogance, power. Architecture can also be an act of hope and an act of faith.

Buildings are not simply symbols of these abstractions -- they physically contain them, giving shape to ideas too vast and unwieldy for our human minds. We understand power when we build to the sky. We understand hope when our steeples point us there. Somewhere in the familiar sanctuary of my childhood, now tucked away in my mind, I wait for that hope to take shape. With knees bent and hands clenched so hard my knuckles gleam white, I keep my eyes wide for peace.

Jenny Spinner runs the Creative Writing Program at the University of Connecticut.