Thursday, January 06, 2011

Not All Gothic is Created Equal

The current church of St. Vincent Ferrer, New York City, majestic and lofty

My recent post on "Why the Other Modern is Important" seems to have gotten your attention, and I appreciate the spirited debate that has ensued. I was particularly glad to read this comment, by reader JXAlayo:

"The Other Modern also challenges those outside the profession to think beyond the strict definition of "style," a useful but comparatively novel concept, and to try to grasp the universal principles at the back of all styles potentially suitable for Christian art."

I find the proposition of understanding "The Other Modern" an intriguing thesis in light of Mr. Alderman's statement above. Here is where a careful analysis of Wagner makes sense-a modern architecture that builds on both the sacred traditions and recognizes a unique, cultural craftsmanship that influenced his work and the work of the Wagnershule. Unlike other "modernists" he did not rebel against ornament, and I think here is where the dilemma for contemporary designers lies. Modern Architecture, especially liturgical architecture were experiments in how far one could convey the sacred through abstraction, devoid of ornament or literal representation and especially detached from classical architectural language (Ronchamp, St. Paul's in Collegeville, MIT Chapel, etc.). This is as much an aesthetic attitude as it was a philosophical attitude. So Mr. Alderman's statement is important to consider when trying to understand say Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, which I would consider an example of The Other Modern attempting to draw on the "universal principles."
Others of our readers seem to assume that I am positing a binary choice between modernistic 1950s mock-Jetsons churches and Winchester Cathedral. It is important to distinguish between a modern church, and a modernistic church. The first is merely a chronological descriptor (a Gothic church built tomorrow will be modern--or perhaps I should say contemporary to avoid the whole problem posed by the invention of a 'post-modern' era, which has always struck me as a syntactical gimmick--in a way that a glass box built in 1960 is not), the other suggests an entire art-historical movement characterized by a lot of concrete, i-beams, and that funny contortionist known as Modular Man. "Modern Gothic" might be fittingly applied to anything from deco with incidental pointy arches to works like Bertram Goodhue's sublime St. Vincent Ferrer in New York City, a structure that drinks deep of both the mystery of the cathedral age and the vigor and energy of the skyscraper. Yet, nobody would call St. Vincent Ferrer "modernistic." It is the best example of what the "modern" ought to have been, and should have been.

Modern, not modernistic: A French example of "the Other Modern"

The late Gothic revival, of which St. Vincent Ferrer is a prime example, is, however, something a bit different from "the Other Modern," though Gothic's more simplified and austere varieties stray into its border marches. However, they are certainly allied movements in that they both learned from past and present in differing proportions. This is in sharp distinction from the curious twentieth-century habit to treat the past as a sort of nature preserve, cut off from all contact (save, in the case of the postmodernists, as a source for winking, campy quotation) which characterizes our age's twin heresies of preservationism and modernism. The first allows us no way of enriching the past with the present, while the latter forbids us from enriching the present with the past.

A former seminary building in Washington, D.C., in an exuberant and very symbolically articulate Catholic interpretation of Art Deco

I have focused on "the Other Modern" because it represents a way to learn from the past while whittling its ornament down to a shoestring budget, hardly ideal, but a design challenge we will all have to face soon enough. If we must have simplicity, I'd rather it was done right rather than simply applying a superficial level of badly-done 'churchiness' over an essentially modern core. But this debate also brings up what seems to me a bigger problem as we consider the future restoration of Christian culture. It is the problem of precedents and context--many observers and enthusiasts seem to have trouble distinguishing between the past's various ups and downs. Our ancestors had lapses in taste just as we do today.

The original 19th century church of St. Vincent Ferrer, not bad, but more charming and quaint than truly beautiful. Somewhat low and barnlike.

To take the example of Gothic revival, not all Gothic is created equal. My railing against the gilded gingerbread that characterizes many nineteenth century churches is not to condemn all ornament and polychromy, but to suggest there are better models to learn from than items that were copies of copies of copies. Such things are often quaint, and certainly superior to much being done today, and may even be appropriate to imitate in smaller churches, or rural parishes where the decorum of the site permits a more rustic approach to architectural style (not unlike the classical difference between the refined but muscular Doric, and its country cousin the more rugged Tuscan column.) But a cathedral should not be modeled on a mission chapel, nor should a 1,500-seat church be confused with a roadside shrine.

Cram's majestic East Liberty Presbyterian in Pittsburgh shows the inventiveness of the later Gothic revival

Architectural historians recognize that around the last decade of the nineteenth century American architecture suddenly got a lot more sophisticated. A few architects, like Richardson and Halsey Wood, had gotten the memo a generation earlier, but they were the exception rather than the rule. The exuberant but often rather cluttered structures of the Boss Tweed era were replaced by great civic shrines and cathedrals just as ornate as their predecessors but designed with considerably more integrity, serenity and compositional unity. Proportions grew more lofty and serene. Gothic grew both more archaeological and more free to develop and forge ahead to become something uniquely American. My point is not to throw out the Gothic baby with the ticky-tacky bathwater, but rather to urge us to examine the Gothic revival with a more critical eye, and to understand its various phases and movements, and hopefully to draw on its best and most sophisticated precedents rather than simply blindingly following the dictum that the pointed arch, ex opere operato, confirms beatitude on any building it graces.

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