Monday, January 03, 2011

Why the "Other Modern" is Important

Art Deco crucifixion in a church in New York City

Shawn and I hope to return soon to one of our favorite topics of discussion, the other twentieth-century architectural styles with traditional roots which have been overshadowed by the Bauhaus and all its pomps, what we have taken to calling "The Other Modern." Shawn in particular has expressed an interest in particular in exploring the concept of "Noble Simplicity" in its authentic form (such as in the Cistercian tradition) which overlaps not a little with this larger concept. Thinking about possible topics for this series made me consider why the subject at all is important--what makes "The Other Modern" important, beyond mere historiographical considerations, to the renewal of Christian culture?

The Other Modern often strays far from its classical and Gothic roots, especially when drawing upon the influences of Art Deco and Art Nouveau. However, it remains intelligible only within the context of architectural tradition, even at its most abstract. From the perspective of theory, studying such past masterworks show both how plastic traditional forms can be, and how development of historic styles can be attempted both at a large scale, and through the subtler manipulation of details. It offers a dizzyingly wide range of possibilities (much more so than orthodox modernism) as can be seen by the images accompanying this article, which range from highly-ornamented to almost minimalist, as in the case of the altar objects below--though in the former case, this is saved from banality by good materials and a certain imagination in design.

Perhaps unduly austere, but still showing care in design

The Other Modern also challenges those outside the profession to think beyond the strict definition of "style," a useful but comparatively novel concept, and to try to grasp the universal principles at the back of all styles potentially suitable for Christian art. If the restoration of Catholic art and life is simply carried out at a purely superficial level, based on imitating forms without understanding them, it will wither and die. While I abhor the modernistic cheat of claiming this or that classical masterwork as the deep "inspiration" of some mid-century box or sterile modern churchscape, the opposite danger of simple mimicry leads to mediocrity.

From a purely pragmatic perspective, we also realize most modern building projects do not always have the budget for traditional ornament. Rather than settling for simply cutting costs by slicing off moldings, we can discover ways to modify the building's architecture to compensate for such excisions. Architects with a traditional background can stretch their precedents as thickly or as thinly as they wish precisely because they understand what they are doing. It is not enough to punch a pointed arch in the wall without understanding all the elements that went into making that pointed arch real in 1170. While we may not be able to include every last molding (and do not necessarily have to), if we must peel them away, we can at least know what to prioritize. The masters of the Other Modern understood this. Furthermore, such simplified hybrids may make for better precedents for "re-enchanting" our beige sanctuaries in a way that draws out whatever latent good they may possess, however hard that might seem at first glance. Taking a plain white box and strewing it with plaster statues results in a disjointed museum-like feel; some mediation is required to make such a composition feel harmonious.

However, we understand that not everyone can make up that sort of education remedially. Instead, perhaps, it is helpful to review their conclusions, both from the perspective of stylistic imitation, but more importantly as a way of exploring strategies and methods for producing buildings: what proportions, what thicknesses, what materials look somehow more believable off the drawing board and in the field. Such things can only be learned by observation, and we hope our explorations in this area will encourage others to explore it further.

Otto Wagner's proposal for a new Kaisergruft, Vienna, 1898

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