Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Churches Should Be Like Airports, But Not Like This!

I was greatly amused by a recent tweet from Fr Z.
It was attached to the following photograph:

In my opinion, Fr Z is dead on! Terminal 666, depicted here, is typical of the terrible church architecture that ignorant and callous bishops have inflicted upon the long-suffering faithful for decades. But in my opinion, it is even worse than that. This is not just an indictment of churches, it is also an indictment of the shocking state of municipal airport design.

One can imagine the general line of influence that produced this. The starting point is the whim of an architect who designs airports and other municipal and commercial buildings. This whim is removed from divine inspiration, having been cut loose from tradition during his formation at architecture school. Modern schools of architecture consciously reject all design principle that is rooted in a Christian understanding of the beauty of the cosmos and the beauty of God. This atheistic and materialistic secular culture then influences church architecture.

This is all the wrong way around. The way it should work is that the liturgy is the source of its own culture, inspired by an encounter with the person of Christ. The influence of this wellspring of worship works its way into all the liturgical forms: words, music, art, architecture and from there into secular culture. At each stage, it accommodates more and more the influences of the contemporary culture, but only in such a way that it magnifies and illumines what is Christ-like in what is beheld. In this template, all buildings, including municipal buildings, commercial buildings, homes and yes, even airport terminals and aircraft hangers, speak of Christ in a way that is appropriate to their purpose. This way, a beautiful and well-designed airport both maximizes its utility as an airport and its utility as a place where often disgruntled people sit and wait for hours in need of nourishment of the soul.

I can’t think of an airport to illustrate my point, but I can point to railway stations designed in the golden age of rail, in the 19th century. The train of influence, if you’ll forgive the pun, starts with AW Pugin, a British architect and Catholic convert who designed churches in what he called the “pointed” style of architecture in the early part of the century. He was referring to the Gothic cathedrals and churches of England and France. Many, including non-Catholics in England, were attracted to the beauty of his work, and it influenced not only church architecture of its day across the whole world, but also all other types of building.

So here we have the neo-gothic St Pancras station and hotel in London, inside and out, designed by George Gilbert Scott, who also designed many beautiful workhouses in Victorian England that are preserved buildings today. This is the properly ordained terminus of the 8th Day, if not a terminal!

And here is Mumbai Railway Station, completed in 1887 and now listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO:
I once showed this picture in a talk and someone in the audience suggested that this represented cultural imperialism. My response was that perhaps it does, but that doesn’t mean necessarily that its a bad thing. Certainly, India was part of the British Empire when it was built, and Indians probably didn’t have much say in the design at the time. However, India has been independent since 1947, and the Indians have certainly had the time and the means to replace it if they wanted to. They haven’t done so because it is a beautiful building that fulfills its purpose. Here is an interesting excerpt from the Wikipedia write-up on the station.
The terminus was designed by British architectural engineer Frederick William Stevens in the style of Victorian Italianate Gothic Revival architecture. Its construction began in 1878, in a location south of the old Bori Bunder railway station, and was completed in 1887, the year marking 50 years of Queen Victoria’s rule, the building being named, Victoria Terminus. The station’s name was changed to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (station code CST) in March 1996 to honor Shivaji, the 17th-century founder of the Maratha Empire, whose name is often preceded by Chhatrapati, a royal title. In 2017, the station was again renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (code CSTM), where Maharaj is also a royal title. However, both the former initials “VT” and the current, “CST” and “CSMT”, are commonly used. 
So, far from pulling it down as a relic of hated and now displaced rulers, it seems they admire the grandeur and universal beauty of it, and, if the names changes are an indicator, have adopted it as their own. If anyone is at fault here, under the modern dictates of political correctness, it is the Indians, who are guilty of cultural appropriation!

When India becomes Christian at some point in the future, I would wager that this building will have played an important, if an unsung part in the nation’s conversion. It doesn’t draw people to Christ by imposing values on them, but rather, by revealing to them that He is what they wanted all the time. This is a building, therefore, that increases human freedom through its beauty, it is not a symbol of the oppression at all. 

Contrary to what is commonly supposed, modern municipal airports through their banal ugliness, are not derived from freedom, but speak of the bondage of self-centredness and are symbols of oppression. 

I look forward to the day when both airports and, heaven help us, churches once again become symbols of cosmic beauty and human freedom!

If you want to know more about the mathematics of beauty, then my book The Way of Beauty has a section devoted to the subject; and for the most detailed exploration, there is a course, entitled The Mathematics of Beauty, a two-credit course offered as part of the Master of Sacred Arts offered by Pontifex.University

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