Monday, July 21, 2008

A Second Hypothetical Proposal for Saskatoon Cathedral

Matthew Alderman. A variant counter-proposal, in a free Gothic style, for the Cathedral of the Holy Family, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Dominion of Canada. Principal elevation. July 2007.

Those of us who dabble in paper architecture, whether as students, dilletantes, or theorists trying to make a point, are always faced with the question of how realistic to make the outcome. The thesis projects of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris gave magnificent gardens and grand enfilades to everything from seaside casinos to the city houses of the bourgeois, and produced, as a consequence, an entire era of rigidly splendid if mildly pompous official architecture.

Such projects, if unrealistic, were at least able to be realized with sufficient cash, unlike some of the fanciful work by contemporary media darlings like Zaha Hadid, who was, for a time, billed as "the architect who could not be built." In the school where I learned my trade a few years back, such antics would have probably earned her a scathing review, but then good sense is in short supply these days. Of course, the question of whether or not to push paper architecture into the realm of the fantastic depends on the nature of the point trying to be made. Is it, as with Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago, to inspire men towards better things, or is it to show good design can be done on a dime? Both are necessary.

My previous counter-proposal for Saskatoon Cathedral was in the Burnham mode; it appeared to me, especially with such a large project with a comparatively small budget ($28 million Canadian), where proponents were likely to fall back on the stereotyped dichotomy of modernism equals "cheap," and classical, "costly," that a more pragmatic scheme might be in order.

Matthew Alderman. A variant counter-proposal, in a free Gothic style, for the Cathedral of the Holy Family, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Dominion of Canada. Side elevation. July 2007.

This design is, I think, fairly realistic, in that it offers to my eyes the bare minimum of ornament and grandeur necessary for a cathedral church, while it is somewhat experimental in configuration, attempting to find a middle ground between traditional church-plans and the endemic modern in-the-round that has been creaking around since the middle of the previous century. It is not ideal, in this regard--I would not like all churches or even all new cathedrals to adopt such an arrangement--but intended as a middle ground, to respond to the design brief without betraying a traditional understanding of liturgy, and also to give prominence to the Blessed Sacrament while retaining the customary cathedral practice of reserving it apart from the high altar. I see it as one of several possible transitional forms that ultimately could lead to a more traditional arrangement.

The vocabulary of the design is a variation on what might be termed the architecture of the middle period of the the twentieth-century Liturgical Movement, exemplified by such work as the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan, St. Thomas the Apostle in Chicago, and La Crosse Cathedral in Winsconsin. There is also a good bit taken, from a slightly different direction, from Giles Gilbert Scott's unexecuted--and perhaps slightly odd--proposal for Coventry Cathedral. (Scott also designed Downside Abbey's nave, several famous power-stations, and Britain's iconic red telephone box, whose peculiar dome appears to have been inspired by the tomb of Sir John Soane.) Massing and simple, well-executed stonework dominates the design, with small moments of delicacy and drama provided by ornament at portals and windows. The level of floreated Gothic ornament could be abstracted or reduced even further so long as good, well-formed moldings were used in their place, with the result looking rather like Lutyens's Campion Hall or Castle Drogo. Or, for that matter, the starker parts of La Crosse Cathedral. Costs could be reduced further by building the campanile at a later date, or constructing portions of the steeple in copper rather than stone from base to tip, as at La Crosse.

The design parti and liturgical layout requires somewhat more explanation, and is intended not as an ideal, but a response to the specific demands of the program and both the liturgical details of the original design and the requirements of traditional custom. I began with the octagon and pushed-forward altar of the accepted design, but, as some of our readers had pointed out, the baldachin would look very odd set against the flat slant of the conical coffered ceiling intended for the proposal. I then pushed the altar directly under the dome and placed it under a large hanging tester as at the Little Flower shrine. While generally such an arrangement is unsuitable for most churches, as in my previous proposal, it offered an interesting challenge to adapt such an arrangement to a more traditional understanding of liturgical hierarchy.

A broad raised predella, altar rail, and other details would ensure some measure of hierarchy in the arrangement, and the celebration of traditional liturgy in both forms, as well as preventing to some degree the usual problems of the in-the-round design. The next question was how the traditional choirstalls of a cathedral should be placed in relation to the central altar. Clergy seats for the celebrant would, of course, be placed on the sides of the altar, built into the rail, but a more conventional space would be required for the elaborate quire ceremonial distinctive to a cathedral.

A variant counter-proposal, in a free Gothic style, for the Cathedral of the Holy Family, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Dominion of Canada. Section through quire, altar, and Blessed Sacrament Chapel. July 2007.

I considered briefly placing the stalls around the altar, but this presented a number of difficulties. A few unbuilt examples from Sir Ninian Comper's career also suggested themselves. Comper's striking late-in-life design for St. John of Jerusalem, Clerkenwell, consisted of a centralized Romanesque-Gothic hybrid with the stalls for the Hospitalier chapter arranged in two ranks along the outer walls of the octagon. Comper also used a somewhat unconventional choir arrangement in an early version of St. Andrew's Cathedral, Aberdeen, before the project scope was changed from a new building to a sanctuary refit of an older parish church. Comper drew upon the traditional Spanish arrangement for cathedrals, in which the quire was placed in an enclosure within the central nave, or, as he developed it in Aberdeen, entirely west of the nave, behind a screen, with presbytery and nave on the east side, and congregation between. It is unclear to me whether in Comper's design this was intended for clergy seated in choro--as was the original Spanish arrangement--or just for vested lay singers. Here, I envision either exclusively clergy seats, or a two-tiered arrangement where the seats closer to the cathedra are for clerics, and the lower level for choristers, as at Mary Our Queen in Baltimore.

A variant counter-proposal, in a free Gothic style, for the Cathedral of the Holy Family, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Dominion of Canada. Plan. July 2007.

The arrangement poses a number of problems as adapted here, primarily the integration of quire and liturgical ritual between these two ceremonial loci, usually united, as well as whether the bishop's cathedra is more suitably placed near the altar, or in the quire. Presumably, in cases when the bishop pontificated, the ceremonial distance would be no more difficult than, say, the placement of the pope's cathedra in the apse of St. Peter's or the Lateran Arch-Basilica, and the design appears to have worked fairly successfully within numerous Spanish and Spanish-American metropolitan churches.

Placing the quire, somewhat unexpectedly, to the liturgical west of the altar allows the pragmatic placement of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel to the east, easily visible from the nartheces, but at a discrete remove from the altar and quire as required by both the ritual of the modern Roman use, and its more ancient forms. Normally, the bishop, represented by the cathedra, should be seen as the sacramental font of the diocese, hence the Tridentine requirement that the Sacrament be removed from the altar at pontifical masses, and the prominence of the episcopal seat in cathedrals. However, given local North American practices of cathedral-design, as well as the deleterious effect of the removal of the reserved Sacrament from our chancels, a more prominent, axial location is more prudent at present. Even Charles Borromeo, the great legalist, placed the tabernacle on the high altar in Milan for similar reasons five hundred years ago. A certain interesting tension might be achieved by a more light-filled, luminous scheme of decoration in the Sacrament Chapel, visible beyond a pulpitum supporting the organ, in contrast to the darker, dressed-stone of the octagonal nave. The pulpitum continues along the other walls of the octagon, serving as epistle and Gospel ambos on liturgical north and south, and as a choir-screen on the west.

There are a number of difficulties posed by this design, liturgically, but I think it explores several under-utilized historic options in cathedral design (if not necessarily conclusively providing a solution), and also places the modern fad for centralized altar placement within the broader stream of architectural continuity with the Catholic past. While not the most ideal setup for a church, it nonetheless is possible and could serve as an example for new or post-conciliar cathedrals and parishes not ready to advance to a more traditional ordering of their chancels. Furthermore, the simplicity of the design indicates that in-the-round churches, even with relatively low profiles, need not appear so horizontal both in physical and ideological outlook, through a clever use of design elements, good materials, and a willingness to learn from the past. While my previous design was somewhat fanciful, this (imaginary) proposal could be easily adapted--and even could survive further simplification, if handled cleverly--for the needs of a new diocese wishing to begin an ongoing rapprochement with tradition.

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