Sunday, July 19, 2009

Architect Ethan Anthony on Neo-Gothic Architecture Today

The following article was originally published in the Spring 2001 edition of Sacred Architecture, the publication of the Institute for Sacred Architecture.

Neo-Gothic Architecture Today


by Ethan Anthony

Our firm is designing buildings today that most Americans would identify as “Gothic” architecture. Some, when shown the drawings, have asked if the building is an existing building we are restoring. When that happens, I admit I feel a glow of rebellious satisfaction, for in that statement they confirm that I have succeeded. The design task began simply enough with the request of my first client: to design a building that would be similar to another church our firm had designed in 1913. “Do it again, only bigger” was the charge. But how was I to go about doing it again? I could not simply enlarge the original but had to design a new larger building that would capture the same feeling the original had sought to capture. This new design had to respect the same origins, feelings and ideas. Together we set out to define what this meant for the new building. Our task was nothing less than to define anew the Gothic as a modern style and the essence of Christian architecture.



The model for the first church was a small country church that was a sonnet in stone. Walls, window frames and roof were all of New Hampshire Granite. Whatever the “style” was, it was a poem evocative and lovely in its simplicity. But what made it meaningful for my client was not only its country loveliness but also its essential Christianity. This, we eventually agreed, rested in a number of important features that definitively set it apart from secular architecture. The pointed arch, cruciform plan, elevated altar, wooden ceiling, hammer beams, wood wainscot, rough plastered walls, rood beam with its cross and figures, saints and angels, gargoyles and tortured souls, are together an immersion in the life of the spirit. For us the absence of these forms and linguistic elements, as well as many others, is the absence of the very essence of Christian space.

Architecture has the capability to define through formal language that we come to identify the activities that occur within by the form of the architecture. The activities and the forms become interdependent. To the extent that the architecture incorporates these forms and linguistic elements we feel at home and comfortable. Conversely, to the extent that these elements are missing we may feel less at home, less comfortable. Our sense of well-being is affected by the architecture. The result of a sense of negative affect—or lack of well-being—may be a tendency not to return to the space, i.e. a loss of interest.

The airline terminal, the casino, and the stadium each express their function through their architecture, and we find that correct and understandable. However, when the modern church descends to the level of a college lecture hall it can no longer project any meaning beyond mere assembly. The stadium wears its symbols proudly in the logos and emblems of soft drink and football team. It is public architecture because it makes a public statement about a private reality, and it is intended to do so. To the extent that the members are proud of their faith, the church building should proudly wear its faith and in so doing make a statement to the larger community about the activities that are ongoing inside the building.

In our modern society we must unlearn the toning down of the message that our churches have communicated to us through the language of architecture. In Germany in 1541 John of Muenster and his followers seized the Cathedral of Muenster, beheaded the statues of the saints, threw the illuminated manuscripts into the street and burned them. This has developed into the “modern” church of today, stripped of meaning, devoid of decoration, and mute about faith. We hear all about the eloquence of the play of light over large blank walls, or we must be content to see trees and be “connected” to nature. We see abstraction everywhere and hear how it allows our minds to expand and wander freely to connect with our own innermost thoughts.

When I was in the nave of Westminster Abbey this summer I spent some of my time in wonder at the space and the shadows that allowed my mind to wander freely. I spent the remainder of my time in awe of the art that surrounded me on every side. Yes, it was angels and saints and Doctors of the church on every side. No, I often did not know who they were exactly, but I am certain that as a parishioner there I would happily spend some years among these many symbols. I should never tire of the opportunity to fathom each one individually as I sat listening to the great organ or to an orator.

In like fashion, Our Lady of Walsingham, a new Catholic church to be built in Houston, Texas, does not attempt to fit itself into a picture of modern suburban corporate harmony. Instead, Our Lady of Walsingham hews to the true language of Christian faith. This new church is an exposition of the language and liturgy of Catholic faith. The medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan once said. And in this church the architecture is the liturgy. In the rafters built on the flat in the medieval manner, the true arched and traceried windows, the stone floor and the high altar, the liturgy is celebrated faithfully by the architecture. The power and awe and mystery of the architecture of faith comes again to the new world. This time it is all the more powerful and awe-inspiring for the inclusion of art and faith in the face of science and reason.

Ethan Anthony is the principal of Hoyle, Doran & Berry Architects in Boston, the successor firm to Ralph Adams Cram.