Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Modernism and the Other Modern: A Cautionary Tale

Noble simplicity

Industrial austerity

A point Shawn and I have brought up a number of times before in our discussions of the Other Modern and its relationship to both traditional architecture and mainstream twentieth-century architectural Modernism is that there is a distinct difference between the Other Modern and the more deliberately iconoclastic work of most twentieth-century architects. (Please bear in mind there is no deliberate or conscious link between theological Modernism and architectural Modernism, though philosophically one could draw a number of analogies; below, I use the term "modernist" to refer to the architectural style and it should not be taken in a theological sense.) There is an excellent article on the blog Sancrucensis which, through a case study of Heilig-Kreuz parish church by the modernistic architect Dominikus Böhm in Dülmen, highlights this subtle but very important difference.

The continental Liturgical Movement is a good place to begin such a discussion. Looking through back issues of Liturgical Arts Quarterly it is fairly easy to see that even in the early stages of the movement a fairly significant gulf had opened up between the architectural tastes of the European clergy and their opposite numbers in America. At the time when the best of the Liturgical Movement in the U.S. was exemplified by structures such as St. Vincent Ferrer, a highly ornamented modern Gothic structure with a very traditional aesthetic, most European churches had embraced significant aspects of the industrial aesthetic of mainstream modernistic design. Böhm's work at Heilig-Kreuz is less overtly iconoclastic than some examples of industrial modernism, and has some connections with the historic past, but there is still clearly a very evident philosophical rupture with traditional architecture in his use of proportion and detail--his exaggerated proportions and his lack of detail. Even the most austere Cistercian church uses moldings to allow the eye to transition between the geometric elements of the interior; and the boxy, low-slung modernistic proportions have a novelty to them that create a sort of chilly discomfort in the viewer. The architect seems to be trying too hard, and the result is the interior and exterior lacks the sort of visual comfort that comes from a careful understanding of time-tested proportion, and which is indispensible to make a very austere structure work. The shade of white on the walls is also rather glacial, as well, showing how much even small differences in color can make to create a certain mood or feeling. Sancrucensis writes [my comments in brackets]:
At first it seems that Böhm uses austere simplicity for reasons very close to S. Bernard [i.e., a desire for monastic perfection and purity]. He wanted a complete lack of distraction, a complete concentration on the mystery of salvation that is made present on the altar. But Böhm does not see this austerity as tied to a particularly state in life [monasticism]—he wants it for all Christians. There is a kind of one-size-fits-all attitude to the 20th century Liturgical Movement, that is probably tied to modern egalitarianism, and perhaps also to attitude toward human life fostered by industrialism. And it is its roots in the industrial that is perhaps the chief aesthetic difference between Böhm’s architecture and Cistercian Romanesque. The huge expanses of featureless steel, glass, and concrete which Böhm uses have the kind of machine-like quality [...]. But this machine-aesthetic is very different from the Cistercian aesthetic. The Cistercian Romanesque is ordered to withdrawing from the beauties of the visible world to seek God alone, but it does not deny those beauties. Even in its plainness, Cistercian architecture has a human quality; the proportions, the workmanship, the few ornamental details—they all speak of a basically friendly world, one which it is a real sacrifice to give up. The machine aesthetic has a kind of Manichean contempt for the material world; its featureless expanses of industrial perfection speak of a world which is basically alien to man. Far from showing the visible as a world of sensible delight, from which one withdraws into the desert to be alone with God, it tries to de-mask the world as a basically ugly, strange place, in which there is no danger of our feeling at home anyway. Böhm does achieve a certain grandeur, but it is a grandeur (to quote Gill again) ‘ultimately incompatible with the nature of man’. For the “Other Modern” Böhm’s industrial austerity can serve as an example of what to avoid.

(You should really read the whole thing). There are a few pleasant features to the design, such as the tabernacle and the sanctuary light, which, while perhaps smacking of a touch of cloying pseudo-primitivism, are nonetheless rather appealing. Still, Heilig-Kreuz shows the dangers of lumping all sorts of simplicity together: God is, as one says, in the details.

(Photo credits at Sancrucensis).

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