Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“The Stones of Babel” first appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of Touchstone.
The Stones of Babel
Modernist Sacred Architecture & the Mortification of the Senses
by Catesby Leigh
Everybody knows the earliest story in the Bible that has to do with architecture. It is the story of the Tower of Babel, which attributes the division of tongues among men to the vainglorious intentions behind that most ambitious of construction projects. Architecture makes a distinctly inauspicious debut in the Scriptures, and it is entirely understandable that certain pre-eminent figures in the Judeo-Christian tradition should have concluded that any quest for grandeur in the world that man builds can be pursued only at true faith’s expense.
And yet God prescribed the design of the Tabernacle to Moses in great detail. Though it was only a tent, the timeless architectural principle of hierarchy was implicit in the employment of bronze, silver, gold, fine wood, and a sumptuous array of woven fabrics, as well as exquisite craftsmanship, in its construction and decoration. This magnificence proclaimed the sanctuary’s centrality in the life of the people of Israel.
Built of stone, the Temple of Solomon took its plan from the Tabernacle, and was almost exactly twice its size. Its doors of olive wood and juniper and the cedar planks on its interior walls were carved with rosettes, palm trees, gourds, and cherubs (not the flying babies of Renaissance art, but probably winged lions with human heads), and plated with gold. The juniper planks on the floor were plated with gold, too. Before the vestibule stood the two great freestanding pillars, called Jachin and Boaz, with their extremely elaborate capitals. The pillars were wrought entirely in bronze by Hiram of Tyre, who crafted a prodigious array of liturgical artifacts for the Temple as well.
In the Temple’s boundless splendor, however, the prophet Jeremiah saw the very greatest danger. Or at least one must presume that had this building not been so beautiful, the people of Israel might not have fallen into the error of regarding it as a token of God’s automatic favor. In this light, the fact that sacred architecture has almost no place in the New Testament is very significant. There a church is a congregation of the faithful rather than a distinct architectural entity.
Small wonder, then, that Western Christianity should have grappled over many centuries with the question of whether the humble physical settings for worship characteristic of the primitive Church constitute a moral norm. For though the Church’s principal mission is to focus men’s minds on the life of the world to come, it is also an institution of the first importance to this world. And it is a deeply ingrained human instinct to establish an architectural hierarchy in the built world by endowing important institutions with grandeur.
Jerome & the Abbots
We encounter two fundamentally contradictory responses to this instinct where church architecture is concerned. The first comes to us from St. Jerome, who asserted that the splendor of the Temple of Solomon offered no justification for ornate churches. The Temple, no less than resort to the blood of sheep for the remission of sins, was part of the temporary dispensation the Passion rendered obsolete. “The true temple of Christ is in the believer’s soul,” Jerome declared. “Adorn this, clothe it, offer gifts to it, welcome Christ to it. What use are walls blazing with jewels when Christ in his poor is in danger of perishing from hunger?”
But more than seven hundred years later, a great French churchman, Abbot Suger, had very different thoughts when he contemplated the radiant beauty of the jewel-encrusted Cross of St. Eloy and the other objects adorning the main altar of the abbey church of Saint-Denis. This church he both enlarged and embellished. “Thus,” he wrote, “when—out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God—the loveliness of the many-colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven. . . .”
Suger recognized that man’s esthetic sense can serve to elevate his soul, and saw no reason why the architecture and decoration of churches should not reflect this aspect of human nature. St. Thomas Aquinas, moreover, found theological justification for generous expenditure on sacred architecture in the Aristotelian doctrine of megaloprepeia, or magnificence, and also in the fact that magnificence is associated with God and his sanctuary in the Old Testament. “Magnificence attempts to achieve great works,” Aquinas wrote. “Now works performed by men . . . have no end so great as giving honor to God. So magnificence achieves a great work above all when it is directed to God’s honor.”
From the time Constantine built his Basilica of St. Peter until the Renaissance popes built theirs, the view espoused by Suger and Aquinas was predominant. Surely common sense is on their side. Do not the impoverished faithful, so often condemned to spend their days in squalid physical environments, reap solace and delight from a beautiful church or cathedral? And do these emotional and spiritual benefits not represent a form of sustenance in themselves?
Nevertheless, Jerome had his partisans well before the Reformation, which propagated the functional concept of a church as an auditorium or meeting place for the preaching of the Word rather than the holy place wherein the faithful might encounter—in built, carved, and painted form—a vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Among these partisans a contemporary of Suger figures prominently. In overseeing new foundations, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux, St. Bernard, banished all elaborate ornament in stone, paint, and stained glass. Such ornament he regarded as a distraction from religious devotion. He even banned apses, which figure prominently in the basilican form the Church inherited from Imperial Rome, and which lend themselves to such a play of light and color as might greatly enhance the beauty of an altar. Moreover, there is a noticeable and, as the historian Christopher Brooke has noted, deliberate ungainliness to the columns lining the naves of Cistercian churches built during or shortly after Bernard’s lifetime.
Mortification Comes to L.A.
Such eccentricities, however, did not long survive Bernard, even in the Cistercians’ own architectural practice. And if he wished to impose the mortification of the senses as well as the mortification of the flesh upon his order—two very different things—he hardly succeeded. Even in the most austere Cistercian monasteries, the architecture pleases the eye because of the way the dimensions and contours of its spaces are grounded in our own embodied state, and because of the high quality of the masonry work, with its simple ornamental detailing. Alas, it remained for our own century to produce esthetically mortifying sacred architecture, as the design for a new Roman Catholic cathedral in Los Angeles by the Spanish architect José Rafael Moneo reminds us.
The concrete, copper-roofed Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, whose pews will seat 3,000 worshipers, will be set diagonally at one end of a very prominent, 5.6-acre site at the intersection of the Hollywood Freeway and Grand Avenue. This site also will accommodate a campanile, a rectory, an office building/conference center, underground parking for 600 cars, a large plaza, and a reflecting pool and sunken cloister garden situated alongside the cathedral. Budgeted at $163 million and scheduled for completion in 2001, this represents the most significant architectural project the Catholic Church has undertaken in the United States in decades.
Moneo’s scheme for the cathedral itself is very odd in both plan and elevation. The exterior model amounts to a bewildering, seemingly haphazard agglomeration. The so-called transepts, which are configured differently from one another, are all but unrecognizable as such. The main entrance is from a covered walkway to one side of the sanctuary. An ambulatory with an uninterrupted, 160-foot-long wall, which will be decorated with a mural depicting the history of the Catholic Church in Los Angeles, leads to the pews.
In the nave, double-glazed curtain walls with inner panels of alabaster open onto deep, sloping reveals situated at “clerestory” level. These curtain walls also illuminate the chapels, which are situated beneath the reveals, and are approached from the ambulatories rather than the nave. On one side, openings between chapels offer views of the cloister garden from the pews. The cross in the sanctuary is set off-axis in a splayed recess, and serves as the focus of a double-glazed, abstract geometric volume that protrudes out from and above the building mass. The cross appears in the interior model of the cathedral as a sort of planar extrusion of perpendicular mullions. In a corner of the sanctuary, the choir is situated at an oblique angle under a low ceiling, with organ pipes arrayed above. Even the arrangement of the ranks of pews is somewhat askew.
Certainly it will be interesting to see how the decoration of the cathedral is managed, starting with the very long ambulatory wall. The alabaster, however, will boast nothing more than its natural markings, akin to the veins in marble. This may be a poor substitute for the figurative artistic treatment of stained glass, but at least it is consistent with the relentlessly abstract character of the architecture.
Beauty, Churches & the Classical Canon
Is Moneo’s deconstructionist design beautiful? Let me answer that question by quoting an apostle of deconstructionist architecture, Peter Eisenmann. A few years back Eisenmann wrote that the ferociously iconoclastic Monastery of Ste. Marie de La Tourette near Lyons, which Le Corbusier designed during the fifties, “maintains its sense of dislocation today precisely because it disturbs the enclosed and rooted nature of the typology of the monastery, a disturbance that has not been reabsorbed into architecture’s culture.” Loose translation: La Tourette has shock value, so who cares if it’s beautiful? The truth is that esthetics are peripheral, if not irrelevant, to rationales for the design of buildings like the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
The $52 million Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, now under construction in Washington, D.C., will share the same emphasis on abstractness and asymmetry as Moneo’s cathedral. Underwritten by a foundation whose head is the archbishop of Detroit, Adam Cardinal Maida, the cultural center is intended, like the cathedral, to celebrate the new millennium’s advent. But there isn’t much to celebrate in the architectural scheme the Washington office of Leo A. Daly has produced for the center. In essence, it is modeled as an awkward synthesis of rudimentary rationalist geometries and bizarre expressionistic gestures culled from Le Corbusier’s oeuvre.
In architecture, as an increasing number of young practitioners are becoming aware, all roads lead to Rome, for here the quintessential—that is, the classical—idiom of Western civilization has revealed its expressive possibilities to the fullest degree. The classical represents the dominant artistic polarity, the normative artistic instinct in the West: the formal, idealizing, and humanizing instinct. The English classical tradition in church-building, tailored to Anglican requirements by the likes of Wren and James Gibbs, itself has its origins in the forms of Rome. And it has served America’s Protestant denominations admirably since the colonial era.
But the gorgeous domed Chapel of St. Paul at Columbia University, with its exquisite and inventive massing, exterior detailing, and interior juxtaposition of materials and color tones, is but one American example of the vital catholicity of the Roman tradition in sacred architecture. And it serves as a reminder of a time, around the turn of this century, when the powers of architecture and its allied arts were more effectively marshaled in the design of American churches, Catholic and Protestant alike, than has been the case before or since.
Over the centuries, the Catholic Church has set the standard in architectural patronage in the West. But so far as the new millennium is concerned, it seems to be getting off on the wrong foot. In this light, it is encouraging that American Catholic publications have devoted considerable space of late to sound criticism of modernist church design, indicating that this is a live issue among the faithful. Duncan Stroik, a young architecture professor at Notre Dame, has produced a considerable amount of this criticism, and is one of those advocating the classical canon as the appropriate medium for contemporary sacred architecture. Insofar as the mortification of the senses is not just a Catholic phenomenon, let alone one confined to churches, both the affliction and its remedy warrant the consideration of all Christians.
The Overshadowing of Instinct
Until the French Revolution, the aims of architecture and its allied arts tended to be broadly compatible throughout the Western world. After that, however, art increasingly could be seen not as one thing, but as any number of things, at a given point in time. The flow of esthetic taste, which was grounded in instinct rather than theory, was disrupted by the new historical consciousness the Enlightenment ushered in, as well as a tendency to impose “scientific” analysis on realms of human endeavor, such as architectural design, in which it merely served to sow confusion. Darwin’s theory of evolution, for its part, has not only saturated but also completely distorted the teaching of art history, a discipline that is itself a child of the Enlightenment. The flow of taste was disrupted, too, by a sentimental fascination with things remote in time or space, a fascination romanticism nurtured along with a moralistic puritanism closely allied to the advocacy of naturalism, and eventually primitivism, in art.
The flow of taste thus gave way to the notion of artistic styles as historical phenomena, and the ensuing debate over which “historical style” was preferable to another, and indeed over what art should be, was shaped increasingly by non-esthetic criteria, such as the literary, religious, ethical, or political connotations pinned on a given style. Insofar as modernist art eventually sprang from the maelstrom of rationalist theory and romantic sensibility, making its stupendously successful debut in the painting of the impressionists, its increasingly anti-sensual character comes as no surprise.
Many people know they like very little of what modernism has to offer these days, but since its partisans have erected a Tower of Babel of their own—a tower of theoretical babble—those who prefer art grounded in ancient conventions are left at a distinct disadvantage. And perhaps it is only fitting that the Tower of Babble should have cast a very long shadow over architecture. Indeed, when a cutting-edge architect proclaims that his work must express its time, many of us are left speechless, although his declaration is perfectly useless as an artistic principle.
On the other hand, the instincts in which the classical canon is grounded, and the way in which those instincts reflect the essential, abiding terms of human existence, are seldom articulated. And if it is not the case that all of our civilization’s great architecture is classical, that which is not ultimately derives from the canon even so. In Gothic architecture, we thus find the anthropomorphic forms of the classical transformed by that arboreal naturalism which is a secondary, though immensely significant, tendency in Western design. Let us focus our attention, then, on the Roman road.
The Pattern of Nature & Eros
The humanist instinct lies at the heart of classical artistic arrangement, as opposed to representation, insofar as the human figure and its proportions serve as the basis of all such arrangement, as the painter and critic Pierce Rice has noted. While visiting France in 1665, Bernini was recorded as commenting “that the beauty of all things in the world, as well as in architecture, consists of proportion; that one might say it is a divine element, because it has its origin in the body of Adam, who not only was made by God’s hands, but was formed in his image and likeness.”
In classical buildings, moreover, we find the human body’s favorable states of movement and repose transcribed into stone, as Geoffrey Scott so brilliantly observed. The arrangement of architectural forms in relation to one another therefore not only reflects human proportions, but also is attuned, no less than the configuration of space itself, to the way the eye’s perception of masses and spaces evokes subconscious memories of those favorable states. For example, the expansion of our lungs when we breathe would appear to lie at the root of the subtle bodily thrill we experience when we enter a domed enclosure. Moreover, certain elements of the canon—such as console brackets and the rounded torus moldings that appear on column bases, as well as columns themselves—are abstractions of the human body or parts thereof. As anthropomorphic forms, classical columns are capable of evoking in us a sympathetic sensation of delicate support or massive strength, depending on their proportions.
The humanist instinct also guides artistic representation, inspiring the artist to bring order out of the infinite variety of forms he encounters in nature. The artist humanizes natural forms by idealizing them, focusing on common rather than individual, particular characteristics. In classical architecture, such idealized, generalized forms serve as the basis of all decoration, however pictorial or abstract, and whether serving a symbolic, iconic, or narrative purpose—or merely as embellishment for embellishment’s sake. The artistic pattern that results is known as the pattern of nature, and insofar as it contributes to the intelligibility of a decorative scheme, it enhances its esthetic effect, helping to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
So far as pictorial art is concerned, the approach to representation characteristic of the West is “the least conventionalized of all the cultures of the world,” as Pierce Rice has written. But at the same time, he notes, it is from the “degree to which that naturalism is restrained that all the beauty of our historic style derives.” A close kinship to nature that nevertheless steers clear of naturalism, not to speak of primitivism, is the key to the nobility and emotional resonance of the work of artists ranging across space and time from Phidias to Winslow Homer.
The humanist instinct, and especially the tendency to idealize natural forms, is driven, in turn, by one of man’s most profound, and most ancient, apprehensions: the sense of his radical incompleteness. Eros is the daemon Plato identified in his Symposium as the force that propels man’s struggle to attain an ideal, his quest for wholeness through union with someone, or something, outside himself and higher than himself. Plato portrayed the contemplation of beautiful physical forms as a step on a ladder, a ladder that might lead man out of the world of the flesh and into the realm of pure disembodied contemplation. Suger’s remarks on the altar cross at Saint-Denis serve as a case in point.
The stirring effect of a magnificent sculpture of an athlete, the steps taken on the path to wisdom and virtue under a lover’s guidance, a great act of heroism carried out in the quest for immortal fame, the philosophic quest for the “absolute beauty” of the ultimate metaphysical unity from which all truth derives: for Plato, all these manifestations of the life of the soul are also manifestations of man’s passionate nature. They reflect the human desire for fulfillment in beauty. And their root cause lies in man’s natural sense of his incompleteness.
Ancient Remembrances of Heaven
Not only is the idealization of nature the fruit of man’s instinctive quest for beauty, it is also his instinctive response to one of the greatest mysteries of existence: that latent in nature, as in man himself, is a higher intention which remains unfulfilled. No one has ever put this mystery into words more concisely than a Christian who, though schooled in the Jewish priestly tradition, was also well versed in Greek philosophy, and expressed admiration for the beauty of the pagan temples of Athens when he visited that city. “Creation was subjected to futility,” this learned Christian wrote in his Epistle to the Romans. “This was not its own fault but the work of him who so subjected it; but creation still retains the hope of being freed, like us, from its slavery to decadence, to enjoy the same freedom and glory as the children of God.”
St. Paul thus grounded the Christian faith in man’s fundamental sense of the world, and in the deep yearning that has impelled him to project his perfected image in sculpture and painting, while seeking compensation in the monumental anthropomorphism of architecture for his acute sense of his impermanence in nature. To be sure, the humanist instinct that leads man to recreate the world on his own terms is universal, and has inspired countless architectural masterpieces around the globe. But it has very possibly found supreme expression through the classical canon. How else can we account for the canon’s persistence over 2,500 years, or for the cosmopolitan rather than national or racial appeal that is the signal factor in its phenomenal longevity?
Classical design’s profound engagement with the physical and emotional dimensions of our being, along with the insights offered by St. Paul’s epistle and Plato’s dialogue, help us understand why Christian artists have empathized so deeply with the work of their pagan predecessors, while making so enormous a contribution to the tradition in their own right. For the doctrine of fallen man, of man’s finding wholeness only in communion with his Savior, is by no means incompatible with the Platonic notion of eros, as the greatest Christian artist of all well knew. The esthetic continuum Plato detected is a leitmotif in Michelangelo’s sonnets, in which “all the lovely things we find on earth” are portrayed as “first-fruits or remembrances of heaven.”
Indeed, art historians have observed that the magnificent male nudes Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel not only epitomize physical beauty but are arranged so as to mediate, precisely in the manner of Plato’s daemon, between an earthly domain inhabited by great visionaries—the Hebrew prophets and pagan sibyls who foretold the coming of the Messiah—and a celestial sphere, spanning the chapel’s vault, of divine revelation. In this sphere the great stories from Genesis, from the Creation to Noah, are depicted. And while the male nudes embody a neo-Platonic understanding of art as the fruit of passion’s etherialization, their various moods of repose, fatalistic languor, and agitation also bear witness to Michelangelo’s awareness of the changefulness, of the unstable passionate states, bound up within our mortal coil. The most celebrated work of religious art in the annals of mankind thus reminds us that for all his mastery of the human form, Michelangelo was attuned, first and foremost, to the measure of things. It is a profoundly classical trait.
For this great master, art’s relationship to nature was grounded in God’s command that man “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and conquer it.” In Michelangelo’s words, “beauteous art, . . . brought with us from heaven,/will conquer nature;—so divine a power belongs to him who strives with every nerve.” Likewise, the revelation that when Adam fell all nature fell with him clearly underlies Bernini’s insistence, in the famous talk he gave at the French Academy of Painting, on the fundamental importance of the student’s learning to draw from plaster casts of great works of ancient sculpture rather than from nature.
New Jerusalem or Modern Machine?
All this would have been heresy, of course, to the prophet of the “return to nature.” And yet the conception of the artist’s relationship to nature that Michelangelo and Bernini shared is deeply imbedded in Western thought, and the poet and thinker who has been called the last star of the first magnitude to rise in the sky of Europe subscribed to it. Goethe was a great admirer of Rousseau, but Goethe’s study of nature led him to a wholly classical outlook. For Goethe, the great artist, having perceived the esthetic intentions that were latent rather than apparent in nature, brought forth “a second nature” whose ideal, objective forms served as a symbolic language for the expression of feeling. Such an artist thus rose above naturalism without straying into mannerism, or an excessive detachment from nature that would reduce his endeavors to inconsequentiality. The central importance of great art, moreover, lay in its elevation and enhancement of the emotional life of mankind. Goethe thus fathomed both the timeless artistic criterion in Western art and its reason for being.
Insofar as the passions that drive the architect and artist seek noble expression, then, they are doing something good in bringing forth that second nature. As Allan Bloom would say, the lower seeks a channel to the higher, and never is this more true than when the designer strives to create an exalted setting for religious worship. Indeed, it seems fair to say that the classical ideal is not only eminently compatible with the liturgy conceived in terms of the self reaching out to the Author of creation, but also eminently compatible with the hope Christians have of the redemption of fallen man and fallen nature alike, and entirely appropriate to the representation of the Godhead, the saints, and the great episodes in the story of salvation. For this artistic tradition is inextricably bound up with the ancient notion—challenged first by Christian ascetics, then by the Reformation, and now by modernism—that in a church the arts of form might bring forth that vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem.
The tradition is eminently incompatible, on the other hand, with the modernist tendency to make the inwardly focused, autonomous self—the “impious mirror-image of God,” in Bloom’s words—the wholly subjective and hopelessly capricious measure of things. And indeed the quest for communion with nature and the quest for communion with the self are flip sides of the same romantic coin whose progressive debasement has been a central theme in the story of modernist art and architecture.
It certainly seems senseless (in more ways than one) for the Catholic Church to ignore the classical tradition in sacred architecture, whose greatest legacies to mankind are to be found within the Vatican’s very confines. But in fact church authorities have tended of late to resort to modernist design to emphasize the Church’s relevance to the modern age. This tendency, however, amounts to putting the cart before the horse, for art’s symbolic power derives very largely from its esthetic qualities. Small wonder the results have been so depressing. What’s more, the radical architectural experiments of this century point to a very simple lesson: while a new architecture might be invented, it can hardly qualify as a normative architecture.
Far from being grounded in human instinct, modernist design arose as the rationalized expression of the titanic project which got underway during the Enlightenment, but whose scope and ambitions increased enormously with the advent of large-scale industrialization. This is the project Walter Gropius had in mind when he wrote back in the thirties that the Bauhaus was training “the architects of a new civilization,” itself founded on the “new world order of the machine.”
The Fall of Grace & the New Cosmic Man
The origins of this outlook lie in a holistic concept of culture—the idea of culture as a great organism whose various components, ranging from art to politics to technology, undergo a more or less unitary evolution as creatures of the zeitgeist. This paradigm has its modern roots in Winckelmann, the founder of the academic discipline of art history, in Herder, and—ironically enough, given its radically anti-classical implications—in Goethe. Over the last two centuries, it has contributed mightily to the suppression of the deeply rooted instincts at the heart of the classical tradition in the fine arts, while nurturing a fateful shift from idealism and logocentrism in Western thought to biocentric, relativistic, and deterministic dogmas.
For Gropius and the other modernist pioneers of his generation, moreover, the frontiers of man’s knowledge had so vastly expanded and the material conditions of his existence so dramatically improved that traditional assumptions about the imperfection of human nature rang hollow. Divine grace no longer seemed necessary for man’s redemption. Science would attend to the matter. In architecture, the classical Orders (i.e., Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns and the entablatures they support) had enjoyed a status akin to the revelations of Scripture for many centuries. But now the “new world order of the machine” appeared to have deprived the Orders themselves of cosmic support.
The steel I-beam thus assumed the role of the classical column in Mies van der Rohe’s hyper-reductive architecture. In accordance with the Teutonic notion of kultur, Mies proclaimed that just as the industrialized production of the automobile had done away with the handcrafted horse-carriage, just so must the traditional building crafts be supplanted by a formally as well as technologically industrialized architecture.
And because this new architecture was based upon the supremely functional and economical machine rather than the human body, it must conform, no less than the design of industrial machinery, to the law of economy. Le Corbusier accordingly proclaimed that in the new civilization, “culture has taken a step forward and hierarchical decoration is crushed.” The architectural styles to which such decoration was essential he branded “a lie.” Moreover, the new mechanical paradigm led the pioneers to discount what Gropius called “the hollow sham of axial symmetry.” Even that arch-romantic, Frank Lloyd Wright, maintained that the machine had redefined the terms of modern design, including the “organic” architecture he advocated. After all, he was no less convinced than his rationalist European counterparts that its advent had forced a breach in history from which a new man had emerged—an “entity even more cosmic,” Wright emphatically asserted, than the ancient builders of the Incan citadel of Machu Picchu or the Meso-American city of Teotihuacán.
It did not matter to the pioneers, any more than it matters to the architect of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, that hierarchical decoration and axial symmetry, both cardinal elements of classical architecture, arise from deeply ingrained human preferences. After all, we are ourselves symmetrical creatures. And it is only natural that the existence of hierarchy in nature should be reflected in the world that man builds. This sense of hierarchy, as we’ve seen, was evident in the Tabernacle’s design, and it lies at the heart of traditional urbanism the world over.
Modernism’s Descent to Nihilism & Novelty
Modernism’s dehumanization of architecture, however, has its origins not only in theoretical babble propounded with puritanical fervor, but also in a coercive, Nietzschean mentality. To the “commanding brains” in the architectural profession, as Gropius was pleased to call them, had fallen the task of bringing forth a new canon tailored to the new civilization’s supposedly objective requirements. The mass of humanity, on the other hand, was simply a mound of clay to be cast in a new cultural mold conforming to the Epochal Will as divined by a new breed of Übermenschen.
Delusions of the new architecture’s utopian significance could hardly have been more profound, or more contagious. But in the United States these delusions lasted only a few decades, for by the seventies it had become obvious that modernism, in its broad impact on the nation’s built environment, was nothing but a plague. The law of economy had succeeded only in ravaging the building trades through the propagation of a utilitarian, bottom-line ethos that decimated the practice of the traditional decorative arts and crafts. The historic preservation movement, for its part, had emerged as an immunization campaign against the dreadful scourge of “urban renewal,” whose germs can be traced to the Radiant City scheme Le Corbusier conceived during the twenties.
Rather than a normative architecture, the pioneers’ disciples were left with nothing more than a Tower of Babble and an infinitesimal number of modernist buildings that have served as objects of their iconic devotion. If some of these buildings manage to testify to the persistence of the instinct for proportion and symmetry, none of them suggest that anathematizing architecture’s traditional means of expression led to an even remotely satisfactory substitute. Hence Robert Venturi’s famous reply to Mies’s pronouncement that “Less is more”: “Less is a bore.”
The disciples, needless to say, wished to come to terms with this decidedly un-utopian situation without renouncing their “creative” prerogatives. Starting in the sixties, Venturi laid the foundations for a postmodernist “architecture of meaning” whose literary, as opposed to artistic, premises are evident enough. In this architecture, traditional forms have been simplified and flattened for employment in “dumb,” emphatically two-dimensional decorative schemes intended to provide a few crumbs of visual relief for the average Joe while offering the illuminati (i.e., architects, art historians, and critics) whimsical commentary on the condition of architecture in the age of mass production. Whatever amusement the work of Venturi and his confederates affords, it is above all a factual architecture that spurns the “heroic” modernist aspiration to idealize the zeitgeist.
Of late, however, many of the pioneers’ disciples have preferred to take modernism to new extremes of expressionistic self-parody, whether opting for a deliberately disjointed architecture inspired by patently nihilistic literary concepts, or seeking to attain something of the crude sculptural effect of Le Corbusier’s later work. They often wind up concocting strange abstract forms, such as Moneo’s cathedral, whose contorted massing would scarcely be feasible without the use of computers. These late modernists look to the zeitgeist for justification of their work, but here again it is generally justification of a factual, ephemeral sort. And to their empty quest for novelty, the esthetic qualities with which classical architects seek to endow their work, qualities engaged with the deeper emotional wellsprings of our being, are simply irrelevant.
The Form the Builders Reject
From the Tower of Babble, Moneo’s praises have thus been sung on account of the “rawness” of his cathedral’s weird physiognomy, along with its supposed symbolic embodiment of randomness in quantum mechanics as in the human events of our day. And because modernists worship at History’s altar, the fact that his cathedral-dominated plaza can be linked—in an evolutionary sense, of course—to a traditional urbanistic arrangement is joyfully cited by the tower’s denizens. But here, too, the substance of the matter is ignored, for Moneo’s cathedral betrays not the slightest interest in the idea of the historic city, which by definition manifests an architectural hierarchy. After all, little more than the cathedral’s bulk and location will testify to its institutional significance. Self-referential to the core, its design is engaged instead with a factual city, a city composed, to a very significant degree, of other self-referential architectural objects.
Moneo’s expensive grand projet, in sum, will have the shades of St. Jerome and Abbot Suger alike shaking their heads in astonishment and dismay. The same goes for the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center.
Our Nietzschean demigods have forgotten that architecture exists to make us lesser mortals at home in the world. Moreover, the overwhelming weight of the evidence suggests that this art, like the arts of painting and sculpture, which are properly subordinate to it, should be understood not in terms of evolution or progress but in terms of recollection. For in the greatest works of the past, rather than a handful of eminent oddities erected during the last half century or so, the architect can find inexhaustible sources of inspiration for sound creative endeavor, as well as the standards by which all such endeavor must be measured.
Nor does working within a great tradition amount to an archeological exercise, for the practical requirements of modern life that architecture must satisfy, no less than the talented designer’s natural tendency to put his own vital imprint upon his work, nurture invention. At the same time, however, the classical architect finds his personal impulses sanely counterbalanced by the demands of an ideal art.
The tower’s denizens, alas, will not allow themselves to be bound by such standards or demands, nor will they condescend to rely on a timeless vocabulary of natural forms re-created by the humanist instinct. Rather, they propose to create form, period. Their revulsion at the very idea of a return to tradition is rooted in the fear that their notions of divine self-sufficiency are themselves “a lie.” And so, even as the esthetic poverty of their achievements testifies poignantly to the vanity of their superstitions, they resolutely ignore the evidence of the senses.
But as noted above, a growing number of young architects are spurning the Tower of Babble and the mortification of the senses for sound artistic principles. And the return to traditional, pedestrian-scale communities with high residential densities by a new generation of designers and developers is a trend whose potential esthetic benefits, on the broad scale modernism forsook after the “urban renewal” catastrophe, are obvious.
The Rejection of Babel
Those who claim that inspiration for Catholic sacred art and architecture must be sought in the world at large would do very well to take stock of traditional urbanism’s resurgence. This so-called “new urbanism” serves as a useful reminder that modernism has signally failed to generate widely accepted paradigms for the place where most Americans spend most of their time: home. It also confounds the notion of unitary progress or evolution-in-lockstep involving design and other realms of human endeavor. Indeed, those Catholic Church authorities who assume that the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council must find modernist architectural expression have succumbed to the same sort of fallacious parallel construction that led Mies to conclude that the assembly line’s advent dictated the industrialization of architecture.
By the same token, a church conceived as a symbol of the Church that is Christ’s body should stand apart from the other buildings the faithful encounter in their daily life. Such has been the usual Judeo-Christian practice, going back to the Tabernacle. But as with urbanism, a return to tradition in sacred architecture could itself have a broad impact on our built environment, not least by furthering the resurgence of architecture’s allied arts. This resurgence is already underway. But there is still a pressing need to direct institutional architectural patronage, both religious and civic, away from arcane exercises in abstract sculptural massing and towards an anthropomorphic architecture that serves as the mother art rather than an end in itself. Such a reorientation is the foremost practical task facing American design, for it is upon “hierarchical decoration” that the beauty of the buildings and public spaces in town or city has always depended, and always will.
Catholic advocates of modernism gently chide those who prefer traditional design for their “fear of the imagination,” as if the latter were children scared of sitting through a horror movie. And in accepting the premise that sacred art and architecture are under some mysterious mandate to reflect secular trends when those trends are certifiably inartistic and even repellent, these advocates succumb to a truly insidious determinism.
At the same time, they assure us that one cannot generalize about modernist art, that it is a heterogeneous phenomenon. But we can say that modernist painting, sculpture, and architecture largely represent the culmination of the esthetic sense’s gradual displacement by rationalist dogmas and romantic sensibilities since the late eighteenth century. And we can say that the classical forms, and the conventions that sustain them, were themselves finally abandoned not because they were trite and exhausted of meaning, let alone unchallenging to the designer and consequently devoid of life for the viewer. Rather, these forms and conventions have arisen from a sense of life, and a closely related understanding of the nature of artistic endeavor, from which modernist architects and artists and their more ardent sympathizers have tended to recoil. But it so happens that that sense of life, and of art, is firmly rooted in the human condition not as it was, but as it is.
One is left to wonder how Catholic authorities could consider the Church well served by a profoundly unnatural architecture whose origins lie in the lowering of Western art’s emotional horizons, quack science, and the delusion of a new man’s epiphany. But surely it is just a question of time before the Church of Rome rethinks the matter, along with other Christian denominations. For the ugliness modernism has propagated in our midst is no coincidence. It simply confirms the truth about false prophets: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”
Catesby Leigh, a member of the Anglican Province of Christ the King, is a design critic in Washington, D.C. He recently reviewed the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center project for the first issue of Sacred Architecture. His essay on what German thought has done to Western art and art criticism is forthcoming in The Classicist, the annual of the Institute for the Study of Classical Architecture at New York University.
“The Stones of Babel” first appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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