The Imperative to Build

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם אֱלֹקִים וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹקִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁהָ וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם 

וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבְכָל חַיָּה הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל הָאָרֶץ. בראשית א:כח

And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living thing that creeps on the earth.” Bereshit 1:28

Hoover Dam (Photograph by Ansel Adams, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

After creation, God blessed mankind, telling them to multiply, replenish the earth, and subdue it (kivshua). This imperative is traditionally used as a divine mandate for humans to rule the world and use its resources.[1]

Ramban connects this verse with a dictate to build. He writes that God “granted man both strength and governance on earth, to impose his will on the other living creatures, as well as to build, to uproot and to mine copper.” By including permission to build, Ramban implies that building is part of man’s mission on earth. Why would building be so important?

There are two ways to explain the role that building plays in the human condition. On one level, building is a prerequisite for humans to be able to assert their control over the earth. Humans without fire, or language, or metallurgy, would not be in a position to rule the world. The same is true about the built environment; a minimum level of safety and comfort is needed for humanity to fulfill its role as steward. Therefore, people must build as a precondition for fulfilling the other clauses that appear in the verse.[2]

This viewpoint is emphasized by both Malbim and Ohr Hachayim who each point out that a desolate, unbuilt space is not hospitable to humans. Beyond the edges of civilization there exist many dangers, and only by building can we keep the wilderness at bay and assert our control over the world. R. S.R. Hirsch explains our verse similarly, writing that to conquer the earth means “the mastering, appropriating and transformation of the earth and its products for human purposes,” but calls this a preliminary duty.

On the other hand, the act of building is a fulfillment of man’s mastery of the world. While many species build homes and, in doing so, control nature, none can do so on the scale of the human race. Buildings do far more than provide shelter from rain; they regulate temperature, remove waste, and create a sense of wellbeing. Structures can cross rivers, withstand earthquakes, and change weather patterns. While modern buildings do this on a greater scale than in the past, these functions are not new. They demonstrate the extent to which mankind is dominant. Beyond physical control, architecture can also make a statement about our aspirations and values. Rather than a prerequisite of mankind’s sovereignty, building is a manifestation of that dominance. From this point of view, people build because building is part of what it means to be human.

What emerges is a dual view of the importance of architecture. On the one hand, architects design the built environment to help mankind function. There is great joy in helping a family build a home, in helping a business construct a headquarters, in designing a hospital or a university which will help mankind thrive. This is one of the great motivations that attracts people to the field.

On the other hand, architecture is a demonstration of human mastery over nature. Architects shape the world. They contend with gravity, leave a mark, take resources and shuffle them so that raw materials are shaped into foundations, walls, and roofs. The desire to make an artistic statement on such a large scale is also a part of what motivates architects.

Together, the two sides of architecture can serve as a metaphor for the human condition. The human race struggles to survive and to be comfortable, but also has a deep drive to change the world. Both are aspects of our biblical mandate to conquer the world.

[1] Ramban and Sforno.

[2] George Hersey writes that the impulse to build is an evolved necessity of the human species, that “we humans have ensured our survival by elaborating our territories into towns and cities, creating the adaptation that is architecture.” See George Hersey, The Monumental Impulse (MIT Press, 2001), 182.