Wednesday, July 30, 2008

St. Michael's, Auburn: A Case-Study in Pseudo-Traditional Architecture

I was more than a little astonished by the proposed Saskatoon Cathedral, not because of its apparent futurity, but because on the whole its layout represents the pure form of a mid-sixties liturgical typology that one hardly sees, even in the more progressive new church designs. Instead, we are witnessing the genesis of another, perhaps less problematic, liturgical crisis, but one that nonetheless deserves redress. I speak of what I call pseudo-traditional architecture, the superficial imposition of conservative liturgical window-dressing over a primarily utilitarian and modernistic framework. It is not a calculated ideological statement, either traditionalist or modern, and in some ways represents a genuine if unconscious movement towards a hermeneutic of continuity. However, it is not enough: It is vaguely "church-y" rather than truly ecclesiastical, and even if sincere, its rapprochement with with tradition often falls short of the mark. One example of this contemporary approach to design is the proposed church and parish complex for St. Michael's in Auburn, Alabama, though it could be anywhere. In an age where every new church has the potential to be a test-case for architectural renewal, such architectural acedia is nothing short of a tragedy. And given the increasing numbers of churches built in this compromise style, some quite significant--Houston and Steubenville Cathedrals come to mind--this is not likely to change unless people seriously pay attention to what they are building.

Churches like St. Michael's are characterized, in varying degrees, by four problem areas in their design:

1. The altar and sanctuary. The sanctuary is insufficiently distinguished from the main volume of the church, and may take the form of a broad, low platform at the end of a short, stubby nave. The altar is small and undistinguished, and the general plan resembles a church-in-the-round that has been massaged into a rectilinear geography. It is important, though, to distinguish between church designs where the architect was forced to adopt a more liturgically modernist approach due to pastoral need or diocesan requirements, and projects where a lightly-adapted status quo became the model due to insufficient exposure to traditional models, or simple inertia. In the case of the former, an architect can use clever compositional tricks to overcome or neutralize such requirements, while the latter simply requires a bit more precedent research.

The plan of the church proper. Note the way the narthex, the threshhold of sacred space, has been replaced by an area which effectively serves as a lobby to other, more mundane functions or as overflow space for the parish hall. While the liturgical planning of the church maintains some traditional directionality, the nave is broad, short and roofed with a low ceiling, creating a distinctly horizontal orientation.

It is important to recall that sanctuaries require careful planning; a whole library could be filled with the books written on the subject during the first Liturgical Movement alone.

Even if diocesan requirements force a a quasi-in-the-round approach, there are numerous ways to overcome this. Architects might have recourse to centralized Baroque or Romanesque plans, or create a sense of directionality by other means. Ethan Anthony's proposed church for St. John Vianney parish in Lafayette, Indiana, overcomes this difficulty by extreme height and length, as well as setting the altar on the axes of the crossing, creating for it a distinct architectural setting. H.H. Menzies, in his beautification of St. Aloysius in New Canaan, Conneticut, added a prominent altar, tabernacle, crucifix and stained-glass reredos to a fan-shaped church, giving focus to an otherwise unfocused fan-shaped church.

In any case, it is important to recall that a church is not an auditorium, and that sacramental objects cannot be placed within it like a box. The architecture itself must enfold them and give them distinct homes within the framework of the design.

2. The dimensions of the nave. Many pseudo-traditional churches have a short, broad nave, sometimes disproportionally small in regards to parochial support spaces. Frequently, the ceiling is quite low, giving a strongly horizontal feeling to the church interior. The new cathedral in Steubenville--a large, low box with Gothic arches pasted onto it--exemplifies the trend, which probably has to do more with cost-effectiveness and packing the people in than any specific ideology. Wide-spaced side-aisles like those at Sir Ninian Comper's St. Philip's, Cosham, might do much to alleviate the dumpiness inherent in such plans. Columns could be slender enough to avoid blocking the altar, but nonetheless convey a sense of structure, plan and shelter to the interior.

Wide-open, broad spaces can often make the faithful feel small and ant-like, rather than the higher proportions of Gothic cathedrals and classical churches, which imply verticality much more literally, or at the very least, are articulated with a more human sense of proportion. The modern fixation with horizontality and vast broad spans--the result of technical prowess--runs counter to human instinct. Broad, long rectangles remind one of bodies lying down, of sleep or death, while the upright proportions of most traditional doorways and spaces convey the more active, normative quality of a standing man.

Church ceilings must be high, or at the very least convey a sense of upward movement. Whether this is through literal verticality or some more subtle trick, it is not sufficient to simply have a roof over the heads of the faithful.

3. Insufficient or inexpertly-handled historical quotations.. Pseudo-traditional architecture is, in some contexts, a welcome sign, in that it often represents a willingness of the parish or the architect to embrace tradition in some small way. However, this is usually in a highly superficial way. Designed by mainstream firms by architects with only a very hazy notion of classical decorum or traditional design, "churchiness" is conveyed by slapping on a cross, punching Gothic openings through a veneer brick wall, or other jumbled historical references. Such designs can run the gamut from very literal, if mishandled references, such as St. Agnes in New York--which The Classicist panned as "Agnes in agony"--to much more figurative or partial quotations.

A view of the architectural precedents cited for the sanctuary and its furnishings. No precedents from the past have been cited, just other modern work in the same tepid style. Once again, tradition is only encountered at a considerable remove.

Traditional architecture of all sorts is rooted in a systematic vocabulary with its own accompanying rules and grammars; certainly it can be rearranged, shaped and molded much like language can, but once it is removed from that context and treated in a superficial manner, rather like the vaunted "decorated sheds" of the postmodern architect Robert Venturi, it loses much of its seriousness and may almost become a parody rather than a quotation. Most of the precedents shown in the pdf detailing the plan (and available here) are uninteresting spaces with cursory ornamentation; even a simple well-proportioned sanctuary with the barest of details would be more appealing than these, so long as the design made an effort to link organically with the past rather than vaguely copying it.

Parishes must be willing to make good design a priority. The Church has never settled for the merely okay. Most classical designers, especially those away from the big cities, are eager and sometimes even starving for work. They understand budgets are tight and can work around them, though any sort of building is going to be expensive, whatever style is chosen. But it is better to spend money on beauty than waste it on mediocrity. A little bit of legwork in finding a traditional architect--either an autodidact, or someone trained in the classical schools at Notre Dame, Miami or abroad--will pay off in the long run. Alternately, local designers must force themselves to set aside their modernist schooling for a little while and come to grips with traditional architecture not as a historic fact but as a living reality that is more than just a cut-and-paste operation. Only then will good design truly flourish.

The floor-plan of the proposed St. Michael's Catholic Church, Auburn, showing the typical jumbled, hierarchically confused plan of most contemporary parish complexes. Whatever pseudo-traditional windowdressing is applied to the design, it is a veneer stretched over modern spatial planning. Note that the entire plant sits in the middle of a vast parking-lot (not shown, but believe me, it's huge); while a necessary evil, such necessities could be handled far more cleverly.

4. Lack of spatial and design hierarchy. The modernist movement largely destroyed our understanding of spatial and compositional hierarchy by allowing technology and materials to guide aesthetic choice. It is indeed possible to create free-flowing, open plans with multiple uses, but one is faced with a very vicious sort of freedom. The Argentine fantasist Jorge Luis Borges once wrote a very short story about a king condemned to wander in a labyrinth, except the labyrinth was in truth the vast emptiness of a desert. When all spaces are special, nothing is special. This is why, as I have said above, the stubby naves and low sanctuaries of both modern and pseudo-traditional parishes fail to impress their sacrality on the viewer. The differing functions of the church interior are not clearly defined by the architecture, and instead feel a bit like furniture scattered arbitrarily in a room.

The same confusion comes with the overall design of a building. Many new churches also include an extensive range of parochial and social services under the same roof. Certainly a parish hall, some bathrooms, and some relatively simple offices for staff are important, though often they are incorporated into the plan in such a way that they dominate the design. The church building is beating swallowed alive by its dependents.

This happens in two ways. First, the church often has a low ceiling and a broad nave; coupling it with a warren of offices of about the same height and breadth turns it into one amorphous mess. If the church had been given a lofty ceiling and vertical profile, this might have not been such a problem. Secondly, the integrity of the narthex or vestibule is usually compromised. What was for almost 2,000 years a sacred space of preparation, a reflective pause before entering into the nave proper, has been turned into a "gathering space," a sort of ajunct parish hall, that often also serves as circulation space for parish offices. The sacred has become simply the ordinary, or even the social.

The endless parade of student outreach centers, cafes, parish halls, meeting rooms, adult ministries, multiple children's theaters, children's welcome centers, youth theaters, resource rooms, children's classrooms, that attach themselves to the church building in such designs are astonishing. In most cases, such parishes don't even include a school. It would seem to me a better use would be a few simple multi-purpose spaces that could be added to as necessary, unless this is a particularly active parish.

Better to spend the ten to fourteen million slated for this church, and others like it, on a beautiful edifice that will stand the test of time than redundant multiple theaters and assembly rooms which may well stand empty for great stretches of the week. How many auditoria do you need? And why two separate theaters for youth and children? Surely they will not be in use at the same time. A parish could get a very nice classical church for the same price, if you were willing to concentrate on the essential features of the church proper than auxiliary features which will not fire the imagination in the same way a beautiful church will. Even if simplifications in the ornamentation are required, an architect immersed in the past will be able to undertake such alterations with greater sensitivity than someone who has not been exposed to traditional design.

Another view, showing the belltower, which combines Romanesque and Gothic forms in a way that is less than harmonious. The design gives vent to a laudable, if semi-conscious impulse towards tradition, but does not follow through successfully.

Priorities must be re-examined if any progress is to be made.

The solution here is easy--range the parochial buildings around a courtyard in front of the church, or place the parish hall in the basement, down a discrete but easily accessible staircase. Study the past in great detail. Simplify, but only after you have grasped the substance of traditional design. Look beyond modern prototypes. Prioritize the beautiful, and be willing to build something that will stir hearts in 1,000 years. Build the church first and put the staff in temporary housing, reversing the stereotyped paradigm of building the gymn first. So many parishes that did that are, fifty years later, still lacking a real church and holding the holy mass in a place better suited to shooting baskets. The Catholic Church is not a social club--certainly all those functions are good and well and useful, but they are not the reason we come on Sunday, which is to worship the living God. We can do better than this.

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