Friday, September 15, 2006

Is a New Style of Architecture Possible?

I was recently asked whether a contemporary vernacular style, beautiful but non-historical, would be fitting or even possible for church architecture. A lot of it comes down to semantics, at first. The vernacular suggests the architecture of the people, astylar, often associated with the countryside or the simple apartments and townhomes of a city, in opposition to "high-style" academic architecture.

The Nebraska State Capitol: stylistic originality within the bounds of tradition

Taken in that context, a "low-style" church, not dependent necessarily on the classical orders or one particular traditional style but reflecting some aspect of its ultimate form, would be appropriate in some contexts. Certainly a small parish church in a country location would be ideal for such a manner of design. However, the rustic nature inherent in vernacular style would more likely than not be prohibitive for a monumental structure, or even a fairly large church. The high level of detail and refinement required by a large city church, a cathedral or a basilica, suggests that a traditional form of classicism (in all its variant and wide-ranging forms--for I'd include the whole western tradition, and a good bit of the East and Mesoamerica inasmuch as they possess a high-style architecture, a sort of "natural law" classicism if you will) would be more appropriate than the simpler vernacular style.

Or, and this is an important distinction, what would also be appropriate would be something in a "new" style, but articulated and decorated in a manner equal in quality and level of detail, to the work of the past. The work of Louis Sullivan and the later designs of Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, both equally brilliant in both their articulation of massing and structure, and their differing but splendid sense of ornament, comes to mind in this regard. That sort of "vernacular" would be wholly appropriate. What it would look like is an open question, of course. It would be something, more likely than not, to evolved out of a pre-existing style as leaps into (or out of) the dark in matters of culture have been far rarer than people commonly suppose.

The emergence of such a post-postmodern non-classical style would not signal that the book was closed on classicism, as by its very nature, the classical tradition (and I include Gothic under that very large umbrella) is polyphonic. Indeed, I would view such a style as another permutation of the greater tradition, as the only way such a style could really emerge would be the careful study of past forms in some organic sense, in the same way that Gothic grew gradually from Romanesque, transmuted and attenuated through the lens of Dionysiac light-theology, or Art Nouveau from a mingling of natural forms and 19th century eclecticism.

Matt also made the comment asking whether the debate was between modernism/postmodernism (two very different things, but still dominated by a hermeneutic of rupture either in their rejection of classical modes or their ironic use of the same) and the organic classical tradition, or between the auditorium and more traditional models of church design. This is a good question, and one which might have had a slightly different answer before the Council. There were a few halting experiments combining Tridentine liturgical norms with a "modern" if not necessarily quite "modernistic" aesthetic. The results are interesting, even tolerable, if not approaching the brilliance of a Borromini or a Suger.

But the context was a bit different, too: the risks of modernity were lower then somewhat by the comparative standardization and hierarchical movements of the Tridentine liturgy would have made such a stark simplicity not nearly as damaging as such a parish church might be today. Some of these were stark and cold; some were merely ridiculous, such as Corbu's kitschy Rondschamp, while a very small number were rather appealing, in a semi-Cistercian sort of way.

However, unlike most modern churches, these are recognizably ecclesiastical in their shape and design. Often the small lessons they provide, though, might be better served when plugged back into the larger classical tradition--their individual sparks of genius were hindered somewhat by the crushing burden of having to be original throughout the whole design--the modern tendency to "try too hard," so to speak, and overstretch. Much recent work really isn't that original, when you get down to it--the entire oeuvre of Richard Meier is mostly '50s Corbusianism reheated in an unplugged microwave, for instance, while Zaha Hadid, Eisenman and the rest derive their pseudo-originality by going back, quite uncessarily, to square one, and can only take their stark visions so far without some sort of framework, no matter how vague or reworked.

Most great buildings have one or two good new ideas at their heart, supported by a framework of the tried and true which has been tweaked and tuned and subtly shifted to accomodate this single shining stroke of genius. Often they're very good ideas--but never before has it been demanded that the architect dream up every single good idea he puts into a building, in a spirit of false originality, which boils down to a frantic, bare and often featureless novelty. The opposite of trying to escape from history is not being in archaelogical thrall to it, but loving it, perhaps ignoring it occasionally, but always learning to live with it as an organic and growing presence.

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