Monday, January 08, 2007

Some Remarks on a New Catholic University Chapel of Unfortunate Design

Alert reader Samuel informs me much celebratory hoopla has been made of late in certain circles over a chapel under construction at Sacred Heart U in Fairfield, Connecticut. The design is museum-piece pseudo-Corbusianism reheated in an unplugged microwave, and looks like it could have been built by a progressive liturgist in 1950, or for a mainstream parish at any point between '65 and the last ten years. While this strikes me as a particularly extreme example, the almost antiquarian nature of this design is a backhanded compliment to the inherent conservatism of Catholic culture. Has modernism, the architecture of the future, just become another historicist style? Perhaps. How the mighty have fallen. I don't know the ecclesiological politics that led to this design, and the plan itself seems rather liturgically mainstream, but it does point out that to equate '50s modernism with progressive ideals is, at this point, faintly amusing.

Whether or not one accepts the necessity of a more traditional and organic approach to church architecture, it is easy to recognize that the architectural mainstream has moved beyond Corbu and his offspring, into the tangled waters of post-modernism, deconstructivism and various regional schools, in addition to the varying gradations of classicism and traditionalism.

There are some signs of hope. The floorplan is, at least, not in the round, and some effort has been made towards iconography. The college has hired the artist of the Redemptoris Mater chapel in the Vatican to provide designs for the project. Unfortunately, while the photos of his work in situ in Rome struck me as somewhat impressive, up close they are rather crude imitations of Byzantine work, and neither terribly original nor imbibing of the spirit which they seek to imitate.

What is frustrating in this design is not just its modernism--it is not aggressively ugly, but strangely anonymous. It is unremarkable, undistinguished from its surroundings. The campus is largely modernist in design, and one can make an argument that a chapel on site would have to find at least some stylistic common ground with the context it stood against. But it could have at least stood out a little. Even if modernism of some stripe was called for, it still could have been interesting, if done with an eye towards coherent, clear volumes and liturgical hierarchy rather than the slanted, faintly squashed silhouette that the chapel displays against the sky and the run-of-the-mill, umemphasized island altar on the inside. Like much work being done today, it looks like modernism on autopilot, done without much concern about the problematic philosophical convictions behind the style. Perhaps I misjudge the architect's intentions, but I can only go on what I can see here.

I think that if we are to get anywhere regarding the future of Catholic architecture, dioceses, universities and parishes who undertake such projects should consider holding competitions rather than simply handing out the commission from the start. Such competitions would allow younger architects in other parts of the country to become known on a national stage. If only they'd thought to do that at Sacred Heart, they might have produced something truly new and original, but firmly anchored in tradition, rather than being neither novel nor particularly beautiful.

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