Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A New Church for St. Agnes Parish, New York City

A Hypothetical Project by Matthew Alderman

Matthew Alderman. A New Church for St. Agnes Parish, New York. Principal Elevation.

St. Agnes Parish on 43rd Street, just one block east and one block up from the great pediment of Grand Central, is one of the comparative disappointments of the new classicism. While serving as a beacon of Christ in the city, architecturally it lacks the grasp of classical ornament displayed by similar projects by the likes of a Stroik, a Smith, a Marcantonio or a Mayernik, who might have cooked up an inviting little bit of Rome in the shadow of the Chrysler Building.

St. Agnes Church, New York, opened in 1998.

Perhaps I speak too harshly. I don't intend my comments to reflect on the congregation of this notable parish, with its fine Tridentine liturgies and enjoyable bookshop, and which several good friends of mine attend. The new building is not beyond help. I believe the current pastor wants to brighten up the place. The inside could be tidied up by inserting a few columns and half-columns into the gaps, a bit of color on the walls, a hanging baldachin, and doing something about the very obvious joints along the cornice, and the outside could be refaced. The fact they were able to put up anything at all in the wake of the infamous 1992 fire is astounding.

Otto Wagner. Kirche am Steinhof, Vienna.

The classic cruciform plan is continually worthy of reworking and adaption, but proved less successful on the relatively shallow site. Exploring other, less conventional precedents from the late Renaissance and early Baroque era might have resulted in something quite spectacular given that era's ability to squeeze the nave into the most wonderfully improbable ovals, circles and even hotdog-shaped crescents depending on the constraints of the site. Still, in age where liturgical orthodoxy is under fire, perhaps we architects must rein in our more extravagant flights of fancy for the greater good. Still, a suitable compromise might have been that of the Greek cross plan, preserving the processional aspect but providing it with a great central dome to mark the little church's place along the street and allowing a deeper sanctuary to set off the altar.

Borromini, the Rainaldis and others. Sant' Agnese, Rome. View from Piazza Navona.

While I dislike the way the classical language was used in the existing project, some reference to seventeenth century Rome seems very apt for a church dedicated to St. Agnes. Borromini was responsible in part for the church which marks the site of the little saint's martyrdom. (The whole thing was a group effort--Borromini planned out a good bit of the facade but the Rainaldis, father and son, also played important roles in the design, and I never can quite keep straight who did what.) Sant' Agnese in Agone is also apt to consider as it occupies an equally long, shallow and amazingly awkward site. Like several New York churches, the Roman Sant' Agnese is actually broader than it is wide, a fact carefully and cleverly disguised by the baroque modulation of its forms. Furthermore, St. Agnes's odd, broad facade with its stumpy towers is strongly reminiscent of the volumes of the lower register of its Roman cousin, and could be easily beautified using lessons learned from that splendid frontage. Baroque could offer us much to learn from, even in a comparatively simple classical design.

The former church, 1877-1992, with its baffling towers.

So, naturally, I decided to sketch up a hypothetical design inspired by Viennese art nouveau, which is a whole other can of worms. I'm being slightly flip here, but that's what I did. I think a budget baroque project, either from scratch or as a redesign of the existing conditions would make perfect sense and I may someday take a stab at it myself, but so far, I'd never had the opportunity to take on Otto Wagner and his pals before, and the mixture of muscular volumes and ornamental, vegetal delicacy that marks the Sezession struck me as equally able to represent the strength of little Agnes without forgetting her essential girlishness, and without lapsing into sentimentality. She was a virginal thirteen-year-old, which makes her perserverance even more astonishing, and that is worth recalling here.

Matthew Alderman. A New Church for St. Agnes Parish, New York. Principal Elevation.

The facade freely reimagines Borromini's Sant' Agnese along the lines of two Wagner works, his chapel at the Steinhof mental hospital and a proposed cathedral for Patras in Greece. The language is a classicized Austrian Art Nouveau inspired by the bold composition of his later works and the more traditional details of his earlier projects. The narthex consists of a single-story porch with glazed bronze-and-stained-glass openings brought forward between the two low towers; by pushing the main body of the nave back between them, it enlivens the oblique view visitors experience approaching the church from either side of the street, especially the view from the steps of the side entrances to Grand Central terminal and the subway. The front elevation is principally white stone, with the cornice, metalwork balustrades, triumphal palm-leaf crowns, and the images of St. Peter and St. Paul crowning the towers of verdigrissed copper; the upper portions of the facade are colored mosaic, predominantly gold and blue on the towers and the upper portions of the arch, with lighter shades predominating on the lower part of the arch. In addition to Sts. Peter and Paul, a large medallion of the Agnus Dei surrounded by angels decorates the top of the mosaic arch. Above the narthex is St. Agnes flanked by angels in the form of a polychrome statue.

Matthew Alderman. A New Church for St. Agnes Parish, New York. Section towards Altar.

The interior is a Greek cross plan with seating for 400. Its sail-vaulted dome is decorated in martyrial red and gold Art Nouveau motives recalling the cascading hair that miraculously and modestly covered the stripped martyr Agnes, with an oculus opening up into the dome's upper shell, lit by a stained-glass skylight of the Holy Ghost at its apex. I have been even freer in my interpretation here of Wagner's style, instead choosing an adapted Baroque with Sezession elements, though eschewing columns or pilasters in favor of paneling. The high altar is partially inset into a large arched liturgical east window, allowing for a slight dramatic backlighting without dazzling priest or congregants. Two transept doors lead (left) into the sacristy and (right) into the chapel of St. Emerentiana, St. Agnes's adoptive sister.

Matthew Alderman. A New Church for St. Agnes Parish, New York. Section towards transept.

The north and south transepts are occupied by side-altars dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St. Agnes's chronicler, St. Ambrose, while the inward-facing tribunes flanking the sanctuary house a small choirloft and organ chamber; while not the optimum arrangement, the comparatively small size of the church and the parish choir make such an arrangement, not unknown in liturgical history, workable in this context.

Matthew Alderman. A New Church for St. Agnes Parish, New York. Plan.

Most of the church's other functions would be housed in the existing parish house, which communicates with the church interior via the sacristy. A parish hall could be fitted into the church's lower level, and within the church interior, the baptistery stands in a chapel on the liturgical north side of the church, with confessionals built into the nave walls, while the parish bookstore is accessible via the narthex.

Those familiar with my previous work will notice some parallels with my last hypothetical city church project, Chicago's Our Lady Queen of the English Martyrs, and to some degree this is a tightening-up and shrinking down of a similar liturgical and practical parish program into a much more constrained site that nonetheless shared many of the same practical defects and similar solutions. While most suburban parishes sprawl on enormous campuses at present, the problem of the city church remains a potent challenge for would-be church architects, and as the real St. Agnes in New York has shown, constitutes a parochial and architectural issue which may well be as relevant today and in the future as our cities slowly reclaim the cultural, and, dare we hope spiritual, pre-eminence that they once possessed.

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