Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Holy Trinity Catholic Chapel, Washington Square

A Hypothetical Church Project by Matthew Alderman

A Proposal for Holy Trinity Catholic Chapel, New York City. Matthew Alderman. Elevation onto Washington Square.

Now, I believe, nobody can say any longer that Matthew Alderman doesn't do Gothic. Or at least a species of Gothic suitably esoteric to satisfy my curiosity. Despite being in favor of a properly dogmatic understanding of the Faith, I tend not to be particularly strict when it comes to architecture, so long as it falls under the big tent of what might be termed organic tradition by some or classicism by others (in the small-c sense); the broad variety of styles, manners and hybrids that lie within that vast sweep all are necessary in some way, as with the bewildering variety of the spiritualities and personalities of the saints, to express the multiplicity of charisms that lie within the unity of the Catholic Church. Certainly, there are levels of sophistication and refinement, hierarchies of decorum and propriety, as well as practical considerations such as site or budget that suggest the selection of one mode of design over the other, or the organic development or creation of a new style, or the mixing of several different ways of building.

In this instance, Gothic was the only truly workable and sensible aesthetic choice. Holy Trinity Chapel, the semi-obselescent Newman Center for NYU, overlooks the southern end of Washington Square Park in New York, occupying a choice if narrow lot (50 by 200 feet) directly across the street from the venerable Romanesque-Renaissance-Beaux Arts Judson Memorial Chapel by the equally famous belle epoque classical firm McKim, Meade and White. This startling juxtaposition of a broad, heavy, classical mass with the narrow slender shape that Holy Trinity's lot would most logically generate, not to mention the contrast of Catholic versus Protestant, would have made for a truly virtuoso essay in city church design. However, instead, what got built on the site was a sort of grubby Stalinist parody of Sainte-Chapelle. It's due to be torn down, as most of the student parish functions have gotten absorbed by St. Joseph's a few blocks over, a tastefully dull Greek Revival box from the days when that sort of thing was popular.

Holy Trinity Chapel, as it stands.

The actual loss of the building is not a big one, but the loss of the site is extremely unfortunate to say the least. The prominence of what might have been a living parish community showing the cross in public, especially contrasted with the comparative institutionalized redundancy of Judson, now largely reduced to a glorified school auditorium. Furthermore, the replacement of a fairly low, human-scale structure, even an ugly one, with another high-rise slab hardly seems a felicitous urban development.

So, naturally, I got my sketchpad out and decided I'd tackle the problem myself.

My first notion, and the one I'd probably pursue if I was magically given this entirely imaginary commission, was to essentially plop down a Manhattanized interpretation of Sainte-Chapelle on the site. Given the proportions of the site, the time-tested refinement of French Gothic, the totemic significance of collegiate medievalism, not to mention the significance of a Catholic French university, that of Paris, to the history of higher education, such a design would be the most conservative and probably the most striking option. Washington Square, with its gleaming white marble arch and urbane atmosphere, has an aura almost European in feel that would be complemented by a gesture to this most glorious of Christendom's temples.

Judson Memorial Church, across the street.

So, naturally, I did something completely different. That's the freedom of the esquisse, the sketch project, that it allows you to strike out in a direction you might not have the luxury to in a real-life situation. Furthermore, the elegant refimenents and minor changes that would make a Sainte-Chapelle design the architect's own, are not possible in the broad, quick format of an esquisse, designed for broader explorations. French Gothic is the creme brulee of architecture--remarkably beautiful but very difficult to truly improve on and make your own. That doesn't mean necessarily one ought to stop making it; except I felt like doing something more unique for my own benefit.

I was principally inspired by the Gothic of Germany and the German-influenced lands of the east, an area with a rich Gothic past mostly overlooked by past revivals. The round arch that graces the front facade of the chapel, as well as much of the westwerk's design was inspired by the curious St. Anne's Church in Vilnius, with its appropriately three Trinitarian pinnacles. Other aspects of the design, such as its scalloped and faintly Dutch gable outline and its Cram and Goodhue-inspired detailing are intended to harmonize with the broader spectrum of New York Gothic and Dutch Revival architecture, while the red-brown brick, buff stone trim, and brick-and-stone striping are intended to tie the radically different architecture of the church to the colors and materials of its Romanesque next-door neighbor.

The iconography of the front facade is thoroughly Trinitarian and represents in stone the gradual unfolding of Divine Revelation from the Old Testament to the New Covenant. The portals are conceived as a Tree of Jesse, with Our Lady and the Infant Jesus at its center as the Sedes Sapientiae. Above the portals are the holy ancestors of Our Lord, including Adam and Eve, Noah, Enoch, David and Solomon. This group in turn is flanked by figures of Moses and Elijah, representing the shift from the age of the patriarchs to those of the prophets. Moving upwards, above the window, is the Trinity as the Throne of Grace, with Mary and St. John the Baptist standing beneath the arms of the cross, and symbols of Faith, Hope and Charity, paralleling the three Persons of the Trinity. Peter and Paul bookend the composition, just as Enoch and Elijah do below. A triple-barred cross crowns the gable, with a sunbursted triangle topping the spire. Note the placement of the astronomical clock between the registers representing the Old and New Covenants, representing the end of time, the coming of the Eschaton and the promise of Heaven. This also serves as an important civic gesture to the park, as there is no public clock on the square of this size at present.

A Proposal for Holy Trinity Catholic Chapel, New York City. Matthew Alderman. Elevation onto side-street.

The side-elevation continues the themes of the front facade. The four evangelists stand in the niches on the upper register, with further Old Testament prophets below. There is an attached rear service building housing classrooms and parochial offices, entered off a small courtyard or light-well with an iron-grilled entrance opening onto the side-street. A statue of St. Catherine, patroness of students, stands next to the entrance and forms the base of an octagonal chimney that anchors the parish house to the courtyard archway sequence. The upper level of the chapel, with its small clerestory windows, is intended to allow a small assembly hall to be located above the chapel, reached by stairs or elevator from the narthex.

The exploration of such designs, while ultimately unrealizable in this instance, allows us to consider how such problems--a juxtaposition of Catholic and Protestant, religious and urban--might be handled in future, and when we consider the sorry state of the church that this hypothetical design replaces, justifies the traditional architect of today to both the art itself and its future practitioners in a happier and more sensitive age.

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