Thursday, October 04, 2007

Visitation Parish, Miami - A Pastor Renovates His Church

Readers may recall almost exactly a year ago I posted a few sketches for a new front elevation for Visitation Catholic Church in Miami, a low-slung 1950s structure in need of beautification. The pastor, Fr. Marino, a Shrine reader and friend of mine, recently undertook his own renovation of the interior; the result was called, by the archbishop, one of the "gems of the diocese." It's a really fine example of what good materials and a few cleverly-done bits of strategic re-designing can do to an otherwise nondescript space.

While I did doodle some hypothetical changes to the church's outside, the interior is all Fr. Marino's work--and to him and his architect goes all the credit. I'm just reporting on how it turned out.

(Though expect, in the next few weeks, some information on my extensive involvement as a liturgical designer and artist in the renovation of a different Catholic parish, one quite a long way away from Miami. You have no idea how far away.)

Before: Note the anemic, pale sanctuary, the lack of hierarchy in terms of both volume and color, the off-center cross, the lack of framing elements to emphasize the altar and the side-shrines.

In a situation like this, when the nave is low to the ground and money is scarce, it would be difficult to pull off a full-blown renovation in a highly-ornamented traditional style; however, Fr. Marino discretely inserted new elements of richer materials that, while working within the astylar vocabulary of this structure served to elevate it, within the budget, beyond the merely pragmatic. The result is quite striking.

After: What is amazing is that nearly everything he has done he has done with an intelligent use of color and material. The sanctuary stands out as a true oriens by a cladding of golden-hued onyx that also serves to define it as a distinct hierarchical space, while the statues stand out better against the wall within their simple rounded frames. While it is not possible in many parishes to conduct worship ad orientem it is essential at this point in time to at least create a sense of orientation towards the sanctuary in our churches, which I think this design achieves quite cleverly.

Rather than serving as mere supports, the structural columns have been given discrete capitals that add visual interest within the framework of the vocabulary of the existing building, while their red color, standing out against the white walls, also helps them to point perspectivally towards the altar. The added medallions on the floor add further depth to the room; while it is still low and broad it posesses a much more processional character. Even the minor change in lamp design helps give the nave the appearance of greater height.

Not every church can afford a the ideal--a full-blown classical (or Gothic) renovation--nor is it always possible to achieve physical verticality in some of our low-to-the-ground churches, whether they were so designed for pragmatic reasons or as the result of a deficient ecclesiology. But architecture is about intelligent problem-solving, and this is a splendid example of how to create a more traditional sacred space while at the same time thinking outside the box. It does not pretend to be what it is not, and yet by the importation of precious marble and a few touches of ornament and iconograhy, it elevates what it is to be a fit space for divine worship.

The Sanctuary, before and after.
There were plans to paint peacocks in the early Christian manner on the ceiling above the altar, to create a sort of built-in tester, but the project was abandoned after no specific models could be found to work from. Also--look, Ma, no more carpets!

The west end of the Nave, before and after.
Note in particular the wonderful addition of frescoes, in harmony with the existing structure while at the same time adding new life and dignity to it.

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