Monday, July 14, 2008

Further Thoughts on the Projected Saskatoon Cathedral

An early rendering of the proposal.

This post continues a discussion begun some weeks ago concerning the proposed Cathedral of the Holy Family, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Some of the details in the plans previously posted have been changed, though the overall design remains the same. I hope to post a hypothetical counter-proposal of my own devising sometime this week to round out our coverage of this story.

I have recently been engaged in a pleasantly cordial discussion with the associate pastor of Saskatoon's Holy Family parish (and soon to be cathedral), who is also himself a member of the project's building committee. I thank Fr. D-- for his willingness to listen to a contrarian voice, even if in the end we may agree to disagree in several key areas.

That the diocese would be willing to take on such a large project and treat it with such seriousness is to be commended even if I find much of the design problematic in view of two millenia of continual liturgical praxis. That being said, I have since discovered the floorplan we previously posted was a very early design. A fair amount has changed since then, or still remains in flux. A number of the troubling liturgical elements in the plan we released here some time ago--the undersized altar, for instance--appear to have been placeholders. Much about them remains to be finalized. Also, the strange three-sided tabernacle has been abandoned, and a more conventional one substituted. There is a strong desire to assure that the furnishings are of quality and craftsmanship and noble materials such as carven hardwood and natural stone, even if the style chosen is still likely to be some permutation of mid-twentieth-century modernism.

Two principal problems remain: the overall spatial and liturgical planning of the project, which has not changed, as well as the use of an architectural style unsuitable to ecclesiastical art.

The centralized plan would not necessarily be problematic as long as certain architectural precautions were taken to root it in a traditional understanding of liturgy. In addition to the standard reasons, the cathedral planners also adopted this arrangement due to to the peculiar physical constraints of the available plot of land. This is hardly a new problem. Many wonderful and unusual church plans originated in Rome during the Baroque era because of the irregular shape of a (more usually urban) site. I question, geographical difficulties aside, whether people must always be close to the altar. There are days when you simply want to sit behind a pillar; and there is much to be said about the rich history of veiling in our liturgy that represents a human response to the mysterious.

While the octagonal church-type was not unknown even in late antiquity, it is most commonly associated with early baptisteries, where the processional flow of liturgy was less necessary. It has since become common for votive or commemorative churches to be built in that form. It is a little unusual for a cathedral but not unprecedented. Indeed, the majestic classical-style St. Paul's Cathedral in St. Paul, Minnesota, adapts the plan quite successfully to the needs of a metropolitan diocese. However, if a circular or octagonal plan is used, some effort must be made to emphasize the 'processional' and 'directional' qualities of the liturgy within the architecture. One very easy way would be to erect as a baldachin or canopy over the altar, or to insert a large window behind the altar to reflect the solar imagery of the eastward position. Even when physical orientation is not possible, some architectural reminder of it does much to set the tone of the liturgy. While this may not always be possible for pastoral reasons, the symbolism still allows us to reconnect with a vital part of our early heritage, and one that, in an archetypal way, connects with the common heritage of all people, who have seen in light something ineffably heavenly. The new cathedral, I am glad to hear, will have a large window behind the altar and presbytery, though, not having seen any of the interior designs, I do not know how effectively this element will be exploited architecturally.

Another of our critiques touched on the large number of concelebrant chairs behind the altar. I have been told these are not likely to remain in place on a daily basis. I would suggest, though, that choirstalls along the sides, with the cathedra at the liturgical east wall of the sanctuary, would yield for a less messy and more permanent solution; additional benches or seats could be placed in front of the front rank of stalls, and would also provide for the singing of the Liturgy of the Hours if this were introduced at some point in the future. The Church's liturgy is more than just mass, and once again, even if it is not said, a $28 million cathedral will stand for some time and should at least allow the possibility of celebrating all the rites of the church with ease. I am pleased to say, however, that there is an intention to provide a generous amount of space in front of the altar as well as behind it, to provide for ceremonial circulation space, and also that the apparent confusion between cathedra and presider's seat was the result of a mistake.

Even if the size and position of the altar have not yet been determined, I would like to reiterate my concern about most modern freestanding altars. There is the natural tendency of a modern altar, often small, uncanopied and stranded in a large flat sanctuary, to be diminished by the simple laws of perspective or rendered altogether invisible by the head of the fellow-Christian in the pew ahead of you. In the design, some steps have been taken to prevent this, through the introduction of a slight slope in the nave floor. The pitch of the angle will not be enough to give the unfortunate theatrical effect common in some in-the-round churches, but a more successful, all-inclusive architectural response would have been to raise the chancel further, to place the altar on a broad predella, and crown it with a hanging canopy or baldachin.

It is not enough for the altar to be merely visible; but it must be the utter consummation, the crescendo of the design. It is possible to achieve this within the framework of a centralized plan; even, in this instance. when the altar straddles the mouth of the chancel rather than appearing at its apex. But it requires a great deal more than what is projected. Craftsmanship and fine materials require a responsive architectural setting, and cannot exist in a vacuum. Liturgical furniture cannot be placed like household furniture.

The altar, in addition to being the table of the Last Supper, is the place where God and man commune, where sacrifice is offered. While certainly it would be legitimate here to make reference to the gathered, horizontal quality of the liturgy, the symbolism of the altar must also be mystically vertical as well. A long, deep altar with enough room for the sacred ministers to gather around would help, as would raising it on three or so broad steps from the floor of the chancel. A canopy of would also help to project it upward in space. This is not just a matter of liturgics but visual common-sense. The God-ward vision of liturgy can only be fully appreciated through some degree of vertical movement in space. People have always venerated upright objects, and this human urge finds its fulfillment at the foot of Christ on the cross; nobody ever venerated a "sacred bannister," as the semiotician Umberto Eco once joked, simply because it is impossible to see it in a crowd.

Then, there is the question of tabernacle placement. Presently, the proposed tabernacle is now ensconced properly within the Eucharistic Chapel and no longer straddles the intersection of three rooms. In and of itself, a Eucharistic chapel is not liturgically incorrect, and is indeed part of the identity of a cathedral in both pre- and post-Conciliar legislation. Indeed, in places where the choir offices are frequently celebrated, it has always been preferred--even required--that the Sanctissimum be reserved in a separate chapel. In the universe of Dr. Pangloss, I would not hesitate to encourage the continuation of such a traditional measure.

However, such an arrangement has in times past to have been honored more in the breach than the observance, which says something about the vital place of the Blessed Sacrament in the role of a cathedral community. People truly thirst for It, desire It, want It in their midst.

North American practice, for better or worse, treats the cathedral as a very large parish church, and as a model for other parish churches in the diocese. Many of the distinctive ceremonial and ritual elements of the European cathedral which were the original reasons behind the separate Sacrament chapel are absent in the United States and Canada. Nonetheless, the reserved Eucharist has been removed from the center of our churches in many places in the last 40 years and the result has been utterly disastrous for our faith in the Real Presence.

If the cathedral is to be a true model for parish churches and for Eucharist-centered faith it ought to either have the Reserved Sacrament at the heart of the sanctuary, or at least in a place where the tabernacle appears important and can be easily glimpsed from the main body of the church. Private prayer in a silent place before the Sacrament is most praiseworthy, but I am concerned the glass wall proposed in the design will also reduce the visual power of the tabernacle. The chapel ought to be opened up a bit more. It should be separate for the sake of dignity but also clearly connected to the nave and not screened off. A light ironwork screen could be used, but there ought to be visual and aural connection between the two; it needs to feel as if it is part of the church rather than a separate compartment. Glass vacuum-seals the Sacrament in a way that a simple pierced screen does not. It is not a secondary, "specialty" area.

The same is true for the confessional. Pennance is part of the life of the Church, both public and private. It should not be hidden away discretely. Father D-- has said that they might shift the entry door to the confessional from the Eucharistic chapel to the main body of the church, which would considerably help the design. I would encourage them to go even farther. A visible door is a start, but a door is still, psychologically, just a door, even with a red and green light over it. The booth confessional--so common in Europe, so unknown in America--is nonetheless still part of our cultural baggage, and so potently connected with Pennance that it cannot be mistaken for anything else. This is why it is so psychologically successful. It is always there as an unmistakable reminder of our call to constant conversion.

As to the baptistery, the practice of conducting baptisms during mass is still common in the Diocese of Saskatoon, which explains the placement of the baptismal font towards the rear of the church. Nonetheless, not everything that goes on during mass need be visible to all, and I would be surprised if private baptisms did not return in at least some small way in the future. While there is much to be said for the symbolism of moving past the font as we enter the church, the narthex in and of itself has historically represented such a point of transition. The font is usually somewhere else, sometimes in an entirely separate building, especially in cathedrals. It is much easier to create the tomb-like atmosphere that the sacrament's symbolism really requires, while avoiding the problem of blocking processions and traffic flow. If the font were truly treated as an important architectural element, it would be fitted into its own architectural setting rather than sitting alone in the middle of an aisle.

This brings us to a larger question about "reading" a building, how symbolism is conveyed, and the place of symmetry and order in design. The cathedral, by adopting a modernist architectural vocabulary, automatically eschews traditional ideas about symmetry; however, symmetry is still the way the human mind grasps architectural concepts of hierarchy and importance.

The human mind is most comfortable with order and balance in architecture, whether it is in exact symmetry or in an asymmetrical, though balanced composition. When something is placed on axis (exempli gratia, the altar), it appears more important. The various dependencies coming off the main body of the cathedral, by contrast, are not arranged in an axial fashion, but somewhat arbitrarily.

If you superimpose two crossed axes across the octagon, and placed the door at one and the altar at the other, we would have a primary axis indicating the most important aspect of the church, the sanctuary. The secondary cross-axis running left and right would logically contain the other important aspects of the design--the Sacrament Chapel and the Day Chapel, for instance. Placing them off-center weakens the composition's internal strength. Such moves, common in modernist architecture, are inherently psychologically self-defeating. It is not the way people usually understand buildings, and leads to disorientation and anxiety.

Likewise, the use of open undefined, multi-purpose spaces elsewhere is equally problematic, such as the way the narthex blends into the parish hall. Leaving space undefined makes all spaces used special and thus nothing is special. Furthermore, a number of the support spaces are triangular or pentagonal, something always to be avoided in architecture due to the inherent psychological discomfort inherent in such spaces.

There is a strong desire amongst the project's planners to use fitting natural materials to provide noble beauty, and plans in the future to commission statuary to grace the interior. These are, of course, both very fine things. I would encourage the projectors not to bow to the conventional modern tendency to reduce beauty and ornament to mere material, nor to think of statuary and ornament as a secondary layer of design added at a later date. Ornament, as the minor cleric and great Renaissance theorist Leon Battista Alberti notes, "is the shining-forth of beauty." It is not optional. It helps smooth transitions between architectural planes, draws the eye to important points, and allows us to meditate and study a building beyond its mere basic form. We may appreciate the geometry of a pure Platonic shape, but after a while there is nothing to hold us. We may stare at the soothing vague shadows on a blank stucco wall, but we return to the fact that in the end, it is just a stucco wall, and does not challenge us.

Ornament and iconography allow us something to return to, Sunday after Sunday, to delight the people and teach them the beauty of holiness. It is not Zen but a challenging beauty that stirs us up and reminds us of the dazzling glory of God. It is not aromatherapy but Mozart. Art and architecture must work together to create a whole, what was called in times past the bel composto. Such an idea, if reintroduced, would be nothing short of revolutionary in the face of the conventionalized designs considered an article of faith in the modern architectural establishment.

There is a strong desire to commemorate in this vast project the faith of the varied peoples of Saskatchewan, and their love of the land. This is a noble aspiration, and certainly noble materials are a worthy place to start. But every traditional culture--English from French, Cree to Metis, Chinese to Ukrainian--has had its own heritage of decorative, "superfluous" folk ornament, that one finds even in relatively humble homes and simple cooking-utensils. The modernistic style of architecture rejects that, and the concept of heritage and the past. While we need not necessarily thoughtlessly imitate the past, to support a style of architecture that defines itself by the rejection of the accumulated wisdom of history, runs counter to the Church's practice of learning from Her treasury of tradition, and from the deeply-rooted heritage which the archdiocese seeks to express in this design.

There is a real thirst for a concrete link with the received customs of Catholicism among the Church's young people, which can be seen in many new church designs being undertaken, the proliferation of new firms dedicated to such work, the increased interest in liturgy and music, and the upswing of vocations to traditional orders. That has been my experience, and of many other young people who I know.

The architectural style that has been selected is, even in terms of modern design, not particularly contemporary, but seems to exemplify a late 1950s-60s attitude towards the future that is anachronistic, even by today's standards. While "international," it fails to express the warm, lived-in quality of the universal Church, and as an international style, it seems to me to contain nothing of the rustic warmth of the Praries. A cathedral should be built for all the ages, and not for a single moment in time. It may express some of its time but it need not be beholden to it. There is a wealth of local tradition in the peoples who have made Canada their home, and much they hold in common that is simply common of all traditional human cultures. To tap into that would result in a truly revolutionary design that would be remembered for ages to come. This is what is at stake here.

Postscript. I recently was looking for examples of hanging testers and baldachins, and I remembered the shrine-church of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan, a fascinating if somewhat peculiar fruit of the American Liturgical Movement. In many respects, the church's interior--radically centralized even by today's standards--nonetheless succeeds in articulating many of the Saskatoon project's less traditional elements within a more traditional framework. While I think there are strong theological and liturgical reasons for avoiding such a plan, if it is necessary that such an arrangement be adopted, this is is a good modern example to study.

Even the exterior, in comparison with the Saskatoon cathedral, achieves a greater sense of verticality with comparatively less height through its low nave and lofty tower. The altar, while placed at the very center of the polygonal nave, is nonetheless very clearly the most important liturgical location in the church. Set upon raised steps and marked by a massive, magnificent tester in colored glass and bronze, it could be nothing else. While not a preferred arrangement from a traditional perspective, it nonetheless is made intelligible here through the use of a traditional vocabulary of hierarchy and reverence. The tabernacle, while perhaps somewhat less visible than would be preferred, is nonetheless placed on a major axis, while the other side-chapels respond to a clear sense of bilateral symmetry. Even the architecture--standard Liturgical Movement moderne--fuses a modern feeling with traditional symbolism, and could easily be localized with a touch of abstracted Ukrainian or Cree folk-patterns. While the Shrine in some respects goes even farther than the Saskatoon proposal into uncharted liturgical waters with its central planning, it succeeds because it does so by incorporating it into an architectural framework informed by tradition. I would not want every church to look this way, but at the very least we must understand there is more than one form of modernistic architecture, if our patrons insist we must be modern.

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