Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Matthew versus the Cathedral

I imagine some of our readers may remember the string of articles I wrote a little under a year ago concerning the proposed design for Saskatoon Cathedral, which also featured a number of counter-proposals. This massive project ($28 million Canadian) is being done in a somewhat old-fashioned modernistic style and on a liturgical plan that completely ignores the return to tradition so pithily encapsulated in the writings of Pope Benedict and made manifest in recent building projects too numerous to mention. Even some of the more disappointing cathedrals that have been built recently--Houston and Oakland come to mind, though for very different reasons--have at least made good-faith nods towards more a orthodox liturgical layout.

However, fundraising continues apace, and as a consequence, I was interviewed by the Saskatoon Star Phoenix to discuss my disappointment with the proposal. Even if the brevity of the article did not allow all my comments to make the cut, I am grateful for the opportunity to offer a dissenting opinion. An excerpt:

Four donations of $1 million and several $500,000 and $250,000 contributions have helped speed up the $28.5-million project through a fundraising campaign that began a little less than two years ago.

While one Catholic blogger has called the design "St. Jetson and All Rockets, or Our Lady of the Crashed Millenium Falcon," the project's chief fundraiser says the design was a result of "tireless" collaboration among members of the church community.

The design is reflective of where the Saskatoon diocese is culturally, said Don Gorsalitz, director of development for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon.

"We wanted to build a cathedral that was relevant to who we are as a faith community today," Gorsalitz said.

In 2008, Wisconsin-based writer and architect Matthew Alderman devised an alternate Gothic-style design on his Sacred Architecture blog at the Catholic website New Liturgical Movement.

Alderman believes younger Catholics are moving toward traditional design and cites the direction of Pope Benedict XVI, who advocates a return to tradition in art and liturgy.

"His vision is shared by an increasing number of architects, artists and clergy. Nearly all young adult Catholics I have encountered share this desire to reconnect with our common heritage. Here is the true cutting edge," Alderman said in an e-mail.

Gorsalitz said the "retro" design proposed by Alderman wouldn't be popular with the community in Saskatoon.

"If we built a cathedral that looked like that, we'd be criticized for building something that looked so backwards in time," Gorsalitz said.

"Some prefer a more Gothic-looking cathedral, but that's not who we are culturally."

Construction costs have doubled since the project was initially devised, with an anticipated budget now of $28.5 million.
(I am reminded of the Jubilee Church in Rome, a rather unimpressive postmodern structure whose costs were five times as much as the original budget. Modernism does not come cheap.)

I will simply comment there is a difference between "retro" and timeless, and that a design indebted to the work of a very small handful of twentieth-century European theorists (themselves largely superseded by the architectural crowd in favor today--postmodern, deconstructionist and whatever it is Zaha Hadid does) might be even more rightly called "retro" as well. And I suspect, based on emails I have received and blog postings that have appeared elsewhere, that in Saskatchewan there are at least a few folks who are equally dissatisfied as I am with the Cathedral's design. We can do better than this for God.

For more on my earlier counter-proposal, see here.

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