Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Minimalism, Modernity and Monasticism

From a lecture on monastic architecture I have given to three different groups of monks and nuns:

The building of an abbey—even a Romanesque abbey, and especially because it is a Romanesque abbey—is a modern concern, even if perhaps our age does not realize it. By its very timelessness, it is a response to modern needs, much more so than the dated experiments which we are still recovering from today. The English wit John Betjeman had this to say about the distinction between modernity and modernism. In a modernistic church, of the sort we have become groaningly familiar with,

the effect is ‘unusual,’ but not truly modern, and is obtained by mouldings and shapes and colors which are the result of indigestion after a visit to Stockholm Town Hall, and the Neue Baukunst of Germany. Some young man has thought he would invent new moldings, new window shapes, new pews, new light-fittings, and in his anxiety to avoid the admittedly bad “churchliness” of ecclesiastical fittings, he has gone to the other extreme and produced an arrogant decoration of his own. […] The trouble is that a ‘modernistical’ as opposed to ‘modern’ architect, mistakes unusual detail for the truly modern. The thing that matters is the function of the church. […] Style is a side-issue.
There is a clear difference between this monastic modernity, developed in continuity with tradition, which has as one feature of it a contemplative simplicity, and the modernistic taste for pseudo-primitivism and mechanistic minimalism. One springs from a spirit of noble sacrifice, putting aside a created good for a greater good, while the other comes out of a misplaced sense of “spirituality” that is really a sort of attenuated mentalism—I am what I think, I am not the God-created union of a body and soul. The monk has a body—admittedly one tempered by work, self-discipline, and fasting, but it is a body and not a skeleton or a disembodied spirit. [It is useful to compare the] alien and disturbing starkness [of a modernistic building, as below] with the beautiful and timeless simplicity of the Romanesque.

One can see, simply by comparing these two images, above and below, that even the most austere Cistercian architecture had a sense of humanity and warmth that is lacking in its faddy modernistic--but not necessarily truly modern--counterpart. The purity of the monastic life is rather different from the sterility needed to produce microchips.

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