Friday, October 30, 2015

Denis McNamara on Architecture, Part 4: the Importance of the Classical Tradition

And no, this does not mean that every building has to look like a Roman temple.

Here is the fourth in the series of short videos by Denis McNamara, Professor on the faculty of the Liturgical Institute, Mundelein; his book is Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy.

Before I sat in on some of his lectures this summer, I had been aware of Denis’ emphasis on the classical tradition in architecture. I have to admit, I did have half a suspicion that his ideal was a world of faux Roman temples - all domes and Doric columns.

As I found out, and as you can see in the video, he does not mean this at all - although it does include what most of us think of as classical style. He describes classical architecture as any style that is created out of a respect for tradition and which participates in the order of nature that “reveals the mind of God.”  This includes, for example, Gothic architecture.

Furthermore, he says that a respect for tradition does not mean that we look backwards. Rather, it provides a set of principles that will guide us as we go forward, employing forms that might echo the past closely, or creating styles previously unimagined. The potential range of styles is limitless.

Rather than painting a picture of people walking backwards, or walking reluctantly into the future while wishing they could head for the past, he is giving us one which is closer to the crew of a beautiful sloop that looks forward in optimism as it sails into the rising sun in the East, with tradition firmly at the tiller.

His reference to the mind of God is reminiscent of language used by Pope Benedict XVI in the Spirit of the Liturgy, in which he describes how the numerical description of the patterns of the cosmos give us a glimpse into the mind of the Creator. Even the beauty of this world as it is now does not reveal the divine beauty fully, for it is a fallen world. The question the good architect asks himself when designing a building is not so much, “How can I reflect the beauty of the cosmos as it is?”, but rather, “How can I reflect the beauty of the cosmos as it is meant to be?” For me, a critical point is that if we want beauty, we cannot escape this question, for there is no order outside the divine order, only disorder and ugliness. This is true of any building, or for that matter any aspect of the culture, that does not look forward to the heavenly ideal 

Onwards and Eastwards!

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