Friday, April 16, 2010

An Instance of Inculturated Traditional Architecture


I recently came across the wonderful Historic American Buildings Survey database at the Library of Congress, and, searching its contents, came across photographs of the Maryknoll Seminary at Cupertino, California, a structure located on the significantly-named Cristo Rey Drive. The complex was built in 1926 and added to in 1933, and it appears the work was done by the firm of Maginnis and Walsh. Charles Donagh Maginnis, an Irish immigrant and sometime employee and professional friend of Ralph Adams Cram, helmed another of those great churchbuilding firms that so transformed the American ecclesiological landscape at the beginning of the last century. Much of his work tends towards brick Romanesque and institutional Gothic, with the occasional dash of Mexican Baroque when the climate required it.

His work here is extremely interesting as it melds that Churrigueresque touch with Chinese traditional architecture, appropriate as Maryknoll was then famous for its missions in the Far East. It appears to still be standing and in the possession of the order, though I would love to obtain some good, up-to-date photos of the interior. Its east coast seminary, also built in the period, melds a rubbly-faced Romanesque reminiscent in some ways of the more dramatic constructions of the National Park Service with Chinese curl-eaved roofs, green tiles and bright vermilion columns, a wonderful bit of imagination. Here, the combination is even more unusual, though given the trade links between Spanish Manila and New Spain, not quite as fanciful as they might seem at first glance.



Such work is undeservedly ignored today. Given the emphasis the designers of Oakland Cathedral placed on their city's and diocese's Pacific Rim orientation and diverse ethnography, it is a pity that they did not seek to combine those riches rather than opt for something wholly alien to both the grandeur of the Spanish Baroque and the refined ornament and bright color of the East.

There is always the risk in such projects that inculturation can either be superficial, as it often is today. With East Asian architecture there is a particular problem given much of China's temples are wooden and this sort of stone and stucco work is alien to the highest and most ornate modes of their architecture. There is always the danger of appearing to wear an exotic "hat" while the body remains Western--more Chinoserie than truly Chinese--rather than producing an organic unity. But the results here are so delightful and striking it is impossible not to love them.