Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ralph Adams Cram and Our False Inevitability

East Liberty Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, designed by Ralph Adams Cram (source)

Stuart Chessman has a great piece up on the St. Hugh of Cluny weblog about the great social critic Ralph Adams Cram, who is probably better known to our readers as the famous neo-Gothic architect Ralph Adams Cram. It is not a surprise that the builder of such masterworks as St. John the Divine and St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue, might hold that, "[i]n a way[,] the eleventh century may be considered one of the most marvelous centuries in all history," or that an Episcopalian of his Catholic leanings might consider the corruption of the Renaissance and the tumult of the Reformation to among history's great tragedies. Indeed, he describes it as a "weirdly assorted couple" in one instance--though later in life he came to appreciate the more contiguous and medievalizing glories of the Spanish Renaissance, if not its Italian cousin. And this was not mere table-talk among like-minded friends, but the substance of a stream of numerous and popular books and articles.

But what may startle you was this great traditional radical was on the cover of Time magazine in the late '30s, and considered at one point the pre-eminent architect and architectural theorist in the realm of academic and collegiate architecture, to the point he essentially invented the modern American college campus through his work at Princeton, Rice, and elsewhere. We're talking about a man who advocated a quasi-monastic organization for architecture schools, and yet was taken seriously by the faculty at MIT and was even made Vice-President of the American Institute of Architects at one point. (Today, still less than a century after his death, he seems almost unimaginable to most critics, and his cultural contributions are either ignored, elaborately reinterpreted, or thinly psychoanalyzed away.) While even within that milieu, he was defiantly counter-cultural, the fact the culture at large was willing to give him a listen, suggests that the cultural dominance of modernistic thought, art and architecture, was hardly as assured or as easy a progress as we have been led to believe. We often read in books of the Liturgical Movement era of the coming golden age of Gregorian chant and popular participation, with the same inevitable assurance one heard in subsequent decades of Jetsons-style flying cars, neither one of which has come to pass.

For a time, though, it looked like the future was going to get medieval all over the culture. Cram's introduction to the 1929 publication of American Church Architecture of Today, speaks of a return to "the best types of the pre-Reformation art of Christianity," and contrasts it not only with the "curious fad of modernism," which he seems largely to ignore, but, more intriguingly, with the banal carpenter Gothic and catalog art of nineteenth-century Christianity. In our occasional idolization of the period, his (admittedly snarky) aside that "the Roman Catholic Church [in America] remained impervious to any infiltration of beauty and propriety" until comparatively late in the Gothic revival, ought to be remembered. And this, from a man, who for all his northern tastes, was Catholic enough to passionately love the art and culture of the Mediterranean, and often recommended in southern climes, even to his Episcopal clients, the use of the Spanish mission or even Baroque styles. Cram was radical in his love of tradition--going to the root and the heart of it--and never reactionary or narrow in his appreciation of the past and its application to the problems of today. In some respects as a social critic and diagnostician, he has the nuance and range that Pugin, painting with a broader brush in a coarser era, was denied. Some, used to a straw-men traditionalism in architecture, may find this baffling, but even we classicists are capable of subtlety.

Cram's comment on the "pathetic impudence" of "modernism," that it will never "obtain a foothold" in the United States, may seem dismissively and shortsightedly triumphalist, but it does show us that the great divorce between the modern age and history was not nearly as inevitable or as relentless as it has been painted--nor, given the cultural wasteland that Cram himself emerged from, and helped himself make into a blooming garden, is its continued triumph quite as assured as one might think. If we work hard enough, his description of the progress of his own time might apply, in a century or two, to our own future:
Stained glass has made surprising progress during the last twenty-five years, while the last five have witnessed the advent of at least three very able sculptors, at least one of which finds no rival during the past three centuries. [...] If the various religions in America will recognize the indispensable nature of good art, the essential wickedness of bad, and will demand the best, accept only the best, then there is no reason why the "Great Recovery" begun just half a century ago, should not go on to its high fruition in another fifty years.
Admitted, when one turned on the television in 1979 one saw Bob Newhart ensconced in shag carpeting and plywood and not linenfold paneling, but the fact it might not have been, and was not supposed to be, is electrifying.

It is especially interesting to note that this "Great Recovery," while thoroughly Catholic in feeling, was a highly ecumenical venture. Cram the Anglican wrote numerous articles on art for Catholic publications and from a Catholic view, while congregations of Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists and even Unitarians often put up splendidly medieval edifices of a surprising (if under-utilized) liturgical purity. The revival of an authentically Jewish synagogue architecture was also an important facet of this movement. Cram once commented that the only thing that was lacking to render the vast chancel of his masterful East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh ready for a high mass was the addition of six candlesticks and a crucifix. There is an image of the Mother of God in its stained-glass windows, though it is not entirely clear to me that the clients actually realized this. (By way of apology, I will comment some of the most morally faithful Christians, and the most enthusiastic Gothicists I have met and worked for, were Presbyterians!)

Such stylistic unity may seem superficial to us today, rather like the curious fad of "Anglo-Catholic Congress Baroque" architecture in Britain around the same time, that sought reunion with Rome through the strategic deployment of Continentally-inspired roccoco curlicues, but both in the case of Cram's Gothicism and of the Congress Baroque school, there was a real and sincere passion for a healing of Christendom. Cram's clients may have opted for Gothic as a way of reconnecting with the past, or simply because it was fashionable, but it did re-establish visual continuity in a way that is almost impossible to fathom today. In America, a century ago, the stereotype of the church building was the clapboard Puritan meeting-house; today, for all our sins, it is the liturgical Gothic edifice, if at least Hollywood is to be believed.

Admitted, in some instances, this old architecture was often allied with a new and novel religion (as in the instance of Riverside Church in New York, or the various Unitarian or Universalist societies that opted for the Gothic) but it also introduced numerous, formerly-iconoclastic denominations to the Catholic arts, however tenuously. Today, when groups of Anglicans are rallying to Rome and often we find ourselves with more common moral ground with the Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterians and Baptists than certain fellow Catholics, there is a lesson and a precedent here worth remembering. The Great Recovery, cut short by the Depression and the Second World War, may yet be re-started, if we but try.