by Ross Selmeier

Alan Shepard died this year. While the press praised the life and sheer guts of the man who gave America its first manned space flight, one reporter wrote that those born after 1959 probably would not know who he was, and certainly would have no concept of what he did. Space flight to them is routine technology — predictable — and if something goes wrong, it is because someone didn’t do his or her job correctly. Lost is the miracle of that first space shot and the sense that the Mercury capsule was the uncertain work of men and men’s hands, as much the work of intuition as calculation. It was, at its most essential, the workmanship of risk; from moment to moment (from the machining of the first part until Shepard’s first step onto the aircraft carrier), no one really knew how it was going to end, or if he would even survive. Those born after 1959 (on the other side of the paradigm shift) cannot experience that moment’s hope, faith, spirit, and meaning.

Today, as I ponder Maybeck’s contribution to future ages, I sit with more computing power on my desk than went with the Apollo capsule carrying the first man to the moon. I can design a building accurate to four decimal places and virtually experience the structure from any angle without actually having to build it. In the same sense that those born after 1959 are unable to comprehend fully Shepard’s struggle against the unknown, so today theory and computation have distanced us from fully experiencing and understanding the miracle of the act of building.

It is questionable whether we still have the mental acuity to comprehend fully the raw faith and spiritual power of those who preceded us. So strong is our faith in the body of knowledge built not by man but through “scientific objective analysis” (which is said to have made all other methods quaint, misleading, or obsolete), that the spiritual foundation of work is not merely devalued but rendered null and void.

It is significant, then, that Maybeck’s aspiration was to build in the spirit of those he saw as simple, honest twelfth-century workmen. By expressing the same virtues, only using modern materials, Maybeck believed he could create as revealing and transcendent a work as did his predecessors. And who with eyes to see can doubt his success in creating a moment in which, in his words, he might grasp even a glimpse of the “undiscovered beauty, divine excellence, and just beyond us” in his masterwork, First Church of Christ, Scientist, Berkeley? It is, of course, not only the work itself but the qualities expressed in it that make it transcend the extraordinary commonness of the materials. The spirit of truth evident there, for instance, can be understood only as the practice of unrelenting honesty.

Will young architects at the turn of the third millennium draw the same inspiration from viewing Maybeck’s work (should it survive), that Maybeck himself drew from the work of the craftsmen at the turn of the first millennium? I can only hope so, for his is a legacy of love for mankind and faith in man’s enduring spirit that is a legacy too precious to lose.

Ross Selmeier practices architecture in Ohio. He received his Masters in Architecture from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, and wrote his thesis on Maybeck’s First Church of Christ, Scientist, Berkeley.