Saturday, October 21, 2006

Who is Tradition?

The Inconsistencies of Richard Vosko (Revised and Expanded)

A recent article on Fr. Richard Vosko made much of the liturgical designer's penchant for the rejection of what his clients consider traditional liturgical forms--"spires, bell towers and stained-glass windows," in the words of the piece. To detractors, the Albany diocesan priest and full-time design consultant has taken to responding, in light of the domestic styles of his projects, "I tell them to go home. Look around their house. That's the most traditional building in our society."

In spite of this rather meaningless bit of verbal embroidery, he considers his work modern--"If churches aren't modern, they aren't reflecting today's worshipers very well." Such a statement betrays one of the bigger problems looming in the traditionalist versus modernist debate in the realm of church architecture, the great chronological preoccupation. Some may criticize traditionalists for claiming everything old to be automatically beautiful, but the modernist fallacy is far more dangerous, which is to replace the canons of orthodoxy and beauty with that of modernity for its own sake, the zeitgeist.

It's easy to be frustrated with the man, to respond with a rant, but that's been done before. Perhaps it is worthwhile to try and take apart Vosko's own comments, and examine his attempt to claim tradition--or a tradition, anyway, for himself. There is the additional problem of his co-opting of apparent domestic architectural forms for use in institutional ecclesiastical architecture, of course, though we will come to that in the fulness of time.

What constitutes tradition? Or rather, what constitutes the tradition of the Church in the realm of art and architecture? Pius IX, in a moment of verbally extravagant pique, exclaimed "I am tradition!" rather in the manner of the Sun-King's "L'etat, c'est moi." Of course, one can chalk such a bit of grandiloquence to the nineteenth century's more ultramontane tendencies, both for better and for worse, but it does strike an important chord in that tradition is embodied in a person--or rather, is the gift of a Person, Jesus Christ, a gift which comes forth from Him and draws us back up to Him. Tradition is not found through the homey, everyday sharing of a visit to grandma's that Vosko seems to assume, but a radical encounter with the crucified and risen Lord.

The encounter we experience in the Mass is not one merely of re-presentation, but an unbloody participation in the actual Sacrifice on Calvary. It is directional, straight as an arrow, rather than inward-turning and solely communitarian as Vosko's closed circle of chairs round an altar might assume. Compare this with Vosko's description of worship: "Think of your home, where stories are told, memorabilia is displayed, meals are shared." This is passive, and the actions he uses as examples are only of rememberance and memorialization, while the Mass as the Church has always understood it is active and very much a real participation in the Sacrifice of the Cross. This element of participation and interaction--between God and His people, between the saints in heaven and those on earth--is the dynamic which has driven the whole heritage of Catholic art and architecture, and what makes the exchange between God and man both ever-active and ineffably vertical. It is the difference between the arresting physical presence of a crucifix and the high altar, and the vague blank blandness of the bare cross and the barer table with its circle of chairs.

This, then, is the font from which we draw our tradition. This source is crucial to recall, as it is what makes or breaks liturgical art, and its incompatibility with Vosko's work is what I find so deeply disconcerting about it. There is room in Catholicism for the pruning of tradition, but there is not room for the wholesale reimagining of the sort that Vosko has undertaken in many of his designs, which exemplify the typical fan-church of post-Conciliar Catholicism.

A typical Vosko design

Vosko also appears to fall on his own grounds. He calls himself an updator and innovator, yet he has essentially restricted himself to fine-tuning a typology which has its roots in the ninteen-seventies, and has not shown itself to have aged well in its remarkably brief lifespan. Furthermore, his fixation with creating a "homey" atmosphere in his churches is equally problematic. Setting aside the question of whether a church should really be so domestic, his designs are characteristic not by their coziness but their odd sterility. This is unsurprising as Vosko's fan-church typology has its roots, ultimately, in the writings of the Lutheran theorist Edward Sovik, whose ideal appears not to have been the home but a sort of void-like all-purpose meeting space which he saw as the completion of the iconoclastic work of the reformers.

(It is interesting to note that Luther, at the very least, still had a certain sentimental attachment to images and vestments and didn't forbid them even he didn't use or promote them with any real consistency.)

One must avoid sounding like a conspiracy theorist, of course. I don't know what Vosko thinks of Sovik; but the results of their work, whatever the inspiration, are very similar. Sovik's 1973 Architecture for Worship displays distinct similarities to the later Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, and most post-conciliar work in the United States. What Sovik trumpeted was not the familial, familiar grandeur of the ideal parish church but the creation of what was literally a non-church, in his own words, a space to define its meaning and sacrality from the meeting of the community present within its walls. When not in use, the space would be quite literally devoid of purpose. Both Sovik and Vosko's work share many similar principles--a reliance on a centralized plan, a use of movable chairs rather than pews, and a tendency to ignore or minimize the reserved Eucharist for a variety of somewhat conflicting reasons. Nonetheless, Vosko's realistic appraisal of parish costs seems to indicate he rejects to some degree Sovik's desire for a cheap "throw-away" aesthetic, so I will grant him that.

A traditional altar

I am inclined to believe Vosko thinks his work is indeed homey and inviting, but the problem is, the stylistic heritage he is clearly indebted to, has nothing to do with that familiarity. It is no wonder that many find his work strangely sterile, institutional, auditorium-like. His work seems problematically troubled even based on his own arguments; while the whole notion of familiarity and homeliness which he has made the cornerstone of his business is rather peculiar. The traditional churches facing closure he mentions as examples of places where the parishioners feel at home are exemplified by a distinctly monumental, vertical and anti-domestic sensibility, proving that one need not build a split-level ranch for people to feel at home in the House of God.

It is easy to gripe and complain about such problems. However, the proliferation of these designs, and the whole concept of the liturgical consultant should move us to reconsider what it is that makes traditional church architecture traditional. High quality of materials and even some aspects of traditional design can be found occasionally in churches of liturgically modernistic arrangement. Certainly a good budget and a scholarly sense of the past help immensely when doing a properly liturgical church, but in the end, it comes down to an overarching ethos of the way we encounter Christ--vertical, horizontal, in a vague memory or through the vivid sacramental time-travel of the Mass. Will we have the pale, facelss cross, or shall we have the embrace of the Crucified Christ who draws all men up to Him only when he has been raised up on high?

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