Many of us have the feeling that something is wrong.

When we look at McMansions lying weirdly out of place in farm fields. As we sit impatiently in a traffic jam and drive slowly past a sea of big box stores. When there is way too much air conditioning, and we long to remember and enjoy a hot summer day. Or a ski resort in an indoor mall in the middle of a desert in the United Arab Emirates.

Something jolts inside us.

Book cover for Architecture and Sacrament: a critical theory.

Professor David Wang in the School of Design and Construction has recently published a book, Architecture and Sacrament, that helps to shed light on the loss of community and lack of connection that many people feel in the modern world. In the book, Wang considers architectural ideas from a Christian theological perspective and the idea of sacrament, discussing the early Christian ideas that shaped European architecture and how they give meaning to buildings.

The book, which combines ideas from architecture, philosophy and theology, comes about from years of exploring ideas of participatory design, he said.

Wang says that part of the reason that our communities don’t feel right is because we no longer participate in them as we did in the past. True participation is not something that can be ordered online and bought. It takes time — years of living and dying over generations.

Instead, he says the modern architecture in our lives is comparable to the movie, The Truman Show — a stage set that looks like real life but isn’t. So, for instance, one might have a historical-looking new housing development that looks a bit like the richness of an 18th century community. What’s missing is the work and lives that went into building those communities.

“You can’t mass produce history,” he said. “It takes a long time to create and achieve it. Instead, you end up with a dressed up, flimsy reproduction. Once you lose that sense of participation, all you have are stage sets.”

Part of the way people find meaning in life is through sacrament or the feeling of being lost in something larger than oneself. Sacrament and authenticity provide a feeling of belonging and of sharing common goals of the heart. Architecture that is meaningful comes about when communities express their deep transcendental values in physical forms.

Picture of Dr. David Wang.

“Without authenticity and that sense of belonging, it’s just an institutional trick of the heart,” he said.

Wang, emeritus professor, has taught courses in history and theory, interdisciplinary ethics and practice, research methods, and foundation courses in design and construction for more than 20 years at WSU. He has authored or co-authored two other books, Architectural Research Methods and A Philosophy of Chinese Architecture Past, Present, Future. He has also published articles on architectural theory and research methods in numerous journals.

Story credit/contact: Tina Hilding, Communications Director, Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture