Friday, December 30, 2011

A Vapid Unbearable Lightness: Why Modern Architecture Struggles to Inspire Catholics

La Tourette Monastery by Le Corbusier  in
Eveux, France
Inspired by a recent visit to a Le Corbusier-designed Dominican monastery near the French city of Lyon, I've been thinking a lot about the interaction between Catholicism and modernist aesthetics.   It has little to do with whether the Church affects what designers create beyond filling the program.   Instead, I've tried to examine the architect's religion influences the Church's own self-image.  I've concluded that the Church, an institution that has been the guardian tradition and the patron artistic and architectural development in the West for almost two millennia, never could reconcile itself comfortably with Modernism. 

I was reminded of this when I shared with my brother news on the opening of a new convent and Visitor Center buried into the hill on which sits Le Corbusier's famous Notre Dame-du-Haut Chapel at Ronchamp.  The convent was but the latest creation of the contemporary master Renzo Piano, featuring architect's trademark manipulation of natural light, spatial simplicity, open views of nature and elegant detailing.  My brother seemed to shrug at these qualities, writing

 "Seems more like a fish tank with Ikea finishes than a cloister. I know natural light, rectangles, and windows are nice, but its openness and simplicity feel like some vapid unbearable lightness than a place of spiritual reflection. Zen monks might appreciate it more."

I replied that he seemed to have a very narrow idea of what constitutes a proper place for spiritual reflection, and that lightness and simplicity had a place Catholic doctrine.  I referred to him to a series of pictures  I had taken of Le Corbusier's monastery, wondering what he thought of his more 'Brutal' approach.  My brother elaborated:


"Ugh, these architects have no god. That thing (by Corbu) is hideous. Look, meditation takes place in the mind, but more in the soul. Christianity places the priority on man's soul transcending his surroundings, not blending with it (a la Zen). Man is large, not small. Churches should be ornamented and highly symbolic, teeming with life, not stark and barren. It all has to do with Being not Nonbeing. The church is a foundation, it's heavy, it imitates the eternal. It's not some flimsy plates of glass and concrete garnished with random primary colors here and there." 

Bedroom of Convent by Renzo Piano Workshop at
Ronchamp, France
Though there are indeed gaps in his argument that can be exploited, I think his overall opinion is respectable and shared by many of the Catholic faithful who possess a sophisticated understanding of their beliefs and how to translate them into sacred art.  Often such views completely contrast from many members of the clergy, who have more of an interest in revitalizing the church by embracing contemporary artistic trends than by responding to wishes of their flock.  The Dominican monastic order prizes scholasticism above all else, and finds it fully consistent to hire a leader at the forefront of architectural progress like Le Corbusier.  The nuns were probably thinking along the same lines, wondering less about how sacred life can transform architecture, but rather how architecture can transform sacred life.  Architecture in both instances is a stream of development independent of religion, part of an ongoing dialog on the nature of form, space and order.

Outside a few rare examples such as Ronchamp,  I sense that Modernism has failed to deliver an architecture  that connects with most Catholics and other traditional Christians.  Much of this has to do with fact that Modernism as a cultural movement is inherently atheistic as it is based on a secular materialist philosophy.  Even Renzo Piano admits as much, describing his client from the convent: "She has a profound love of architecture, of landscape, of sacred space – and even of people without religion, like me.  She wanted a place of silence and prayer. I said: 'I can't help you with prayer, but perhaps I can help with silence and a little joy."

Chapel at Convent by Renzo Piano Workshop,
Ronchamp, France 
And therein lies the crux of the problem: When one has done away with symbols, theology, and the act of worship, there's little else to inspire a credible work of sacred art or architecture.  Piano, like any committed Modernist, is left with little more than a preference for abstraction, technology  and  some vague nostrums about nature and  space.  For a Modernist, the point of architecture is to convey an image of maximum clarity, in which all elements are related by function and little else.  As long as a space is adequately sheltered and functions for the use of its occupants, there is no need for decorative flourish.  Piano is reduced to checking off boxes for the client's wish list, from the number of rooms, to furnishings, and to achieving a quality of 'silence'.  There's nothing all that particular about an architecture of silence--maybe  a dark room secluded from more socially active spaces.  Given the right palette of materials and details, any space can be turned into something contemplative.  But can this generic approach to design evoke much meaning beyond mere emotional states such as peace?

Sacred spaces achieve much of its effect by emphasizing mystery. This is at the core of any religion, in which divine truth is revealed beyond any logical or rational framework.  As is often said, God is revealed in mysterious ways, and the purpose of any sacred space is to embody this reality.  It is inherent that a secular space is completely  counter to this and thus adopts an architectural language devoid of mystery or even ambiguity.   Secular spaces instead embrace the language of the engineer, someone who works outside the world of art, poetry, and indeed of mystery, by solving problems with the most rational tools of math and science.  There is a lot of work that goes into making successful setting for secular activities, much of it having to do with the science of building, such as lighting, acoustics, and visibility.  There is also a tendency for generating phenomenological effect through technology, such as making walls highly transparent or reflective, surfaces either smooth or deliberately rough.  To the Modernist who puts its faith in technological progress, the more an effect can exceed what can be done by the human hand, the better.


La Tourette Monastery by Le Corbusier, Eveux, France
Such attention to a material's effects point to Modernism's essentially materialist philosophy on architecture. In sacred architecture, the building and the spaces within serve  to connect users to a deeper reality that transcends its walls. They function as a gateway from the material world to a spiritual realm--the focus is on the eternal, not the object that portends to represent it.  In a secular context like Modernism, the object is the thing itself, and all meaning is tied directly to that object.   Walking into a exemplary Modernist space, one is supposed to marvel at its lightness, smoothness and simplicity, attributes that are commonly summarized as 'machine-like'.  If one desires a more 'humanist' look and feel, the designer can instill a quality of 'roughness' by texturizing concrete, oxidizing steel,  and inserting warmth by using  natural materials such as wood and stone.  Industrialization gives us that much more control to generate a precise effect, and empowers the designers unlimited opportunities in experimenting.  At the same time, it diminishes the role of the craftsman, who throughout most of human history was the guardian in generating material effects, and in  many ways assumed the role of architectural detailing.  Machines take the human factor out of the art of making, thus producing something devoid of passion, feeling that imbues every man-made object.


Piano singles himself better than most of his contemporaries by his ability to reinsert the human touch in his design process. His architectural details are truly works of art and are usually the result of a distinct craftsman-like approach in generating them.  The name of his firm, The Renzo Piano Workshop, harkens back to the time when architecture was realized by stone masons, who would accumulate specialized design knowledge in the development of style details and templates.  Where Piano departs is the end result of his craftsman-like approach: highly refined, ultra-precise, machine-polished building systems and parts.  The structural connections in his projects are beautiful  and poetic pieces of engineering, much like Apple products, but like most industrial artifacts, they cannot express the ancient, primordial aspects of our humanity.  Is that necessary to fully immerse oneself the Catholic experience?
I believe so.  A fundamental assumption in Catholicism is that history is linear and that God was incarnated in the human form of Jesus Christ at a precise point in history to the point that the period before and after this event are neatly divided (BC vs. AD).  Its doctrines and liturgy are part of an evolutionary process that have taken place in the world for two thousand years, and followers actively partake in this history by participating in the mass.  For most Catholics, weekly mass is the only time that they are reminded that they are tied to humanity in throughout the ages, both in the past and the future.  This goes against 'modernity', or the idea that the times are so new and different that prior truths or solutions are irrelevant.  In Christianity, Truth is eternal, and the problems that afflict humanity are no different during the time of Christ than they do now. There is no 'new and improved'. Rather, the ideal was was established two-thousand years ago (the life of Christ) and no amount of social or technological advance (or regression) can change this. 
View of Crypt inside the La Tourette Monastery
by Le Corbusier

In addition, Christianity relies on communicating its ideas through allegories conveyed verbally in the Bible, musically in its music and visually illustrated in its art and architecture.  These are designed to make the message accessible to all people, as opposed to keeping revelations close to a self-selected elite.  The message has to be clear, the context must be provided and the characters believable.  Visually, this requires the use of lines and recognizable figures placed in a narrative relationship. These demands don't lend themselves well to abstraction, the modus operandi of the Modernist.   Abstraction is by nature open to individual interpretation; Christian revelation is not.  Abstraction is deliberately exercised by an individual, driven by their own desire to create original content; Christian subjects and themes are the content, with the artist sharing his visceral imaginings of truths he does not question (like most European art before the 19th Century).

This probably explains why many Catholics feel a certain frustration with the role played by modern music, art and design in today's church.  The music uses irregular folk beats, vulgar melodies and harmonies, and seem composed to bring attention to the songs themselves rather than acquainting singers to a more transcendent reality.  In contemporary Christian art, Christ is portrayed as a non-descript figure, and often times and rendered in an abstracted archaic style that is flat and lacks feeling.  The cross is abstracted to emphasize its iconic nature as a symbol, detached from any literal representation of what actually happened on the cross.  In most modern churches, seating is arranged as a theater in the round, focusing the parishioners' attention to the the priest, or the choir, rather than to God as manifested in an elaborately decorated apse wall or a ceiling pointed to heaven. This was vividly brought to my attention when watching the broadcast of Christmas mass from the Vatican--most of the camera shots showed details of the sanctuary's glorious interior and symbolic art, with the occasional view of the Pope.  Catholic worship is not about the mere men (priests) who help conduct its rituals but is instead is about how God is revealed in them by means of humanity's most outward expression of what lies within its soul: Art. When there is nothing meaningful or moving to look at, one is resigned to paying attention to a charismatic individual standing on a stage, tanscendent beauty is loss, and the Christian message takes on a banal delivery.

Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut by Le Corbusier,
Ronchamp, France
 Architects, a growing number of whom fall into agnosticism and atheism, often seem to forget this when visiting sacred yet Modern masterpieces.  Just because Le Corbusier's Ronchamp chapel makes some of my colleagues cry doesn't mean it fulfills its ecclesiastical responsibilities particularly well.  They are likely overwhelmed by the chapel's poetic mastery of form and light and how it provokes a profound yet undefinable emotional response.  I succumbed to this response myself when I went to Ronchamp as well when I toured  Le Corbusier's monastery of La Tourette.  I was taken aback by his buildings' abstract forms, its play with light, its vivid use of color, its sophisticated relationship to its site.  In the end, I didn't develop a more profound appreciation of Christian revelation, but a greater respect for mathematical proportion, abstract formal metaphors, primary colors and geometries--transcendent things nonetheless, but a bit too esoteric for most people.  La Tourette was clearly a more regulated composition compared to Ronchamp, which is probably why is probably why the latter provokes a more emotional response.  In  a sense, the chapel is Le Corbusier at his least 'modern' and more archaic, while his monastery is likely intended to feel more academicized due to that typology's tradition of being repositories for knowledge. Ronchamp's form sweeps up to heaven, its dark sanctuary enclosed in thick walls reminds one of a cave evocative of early Christianity, while its rounded towers mimick Mary in her veil, sheltering the church below. Though these moves aren't literal, there is just enough reference to the symbols and ideas of Catholic church that make this more approachable to average followers.

Church on the Water by Tadao Ando, Tomamu, Japan
This isn't to suggest that modern architecture can't achieve successful spaces for spriritual contemplation. Tadao Ando's Church by the Water is especially powerful, manipulating natural light and framing views that heightens the senses and fuses nature into the act of worship. The church is stripped of traditional Christian decoration, illustrations of bibical stories or saints, or any other reference to the history of the church. It works for those who wish to understand God through nature's primal elements and how they change through the passage of time. There is a sense of ignoring the human presence altogether, as it invites one to blend into the natural surrounding (as my brother's comment on zen indicates), which may work in more minimalist strains of Christianity and even Catholicism, but will leave many believers hungering for a place rich in narrative objects and a more fully enclosed communal response among people.   There is no altar to focus on, only a highly abstracted cross standing in a reflecting pond, which could have all sorts of meanings, but not one that concentrates the mind of the believer on Christ and his passion.

A truly inspiring space that uses a modern architectural language for catholic worship is extremely difficult to find.  While many architects simply choose to employ a historicist style for even newest churches, it is possible to address the particular characteristics of a catholic church while maintaining a modernist sensibility.  I submit a Cistercian chapel located not far from where I live in Irving outside of Dallas designed by Gary Cunningham. Long an admired designer in the area, Cunningham's work can be characterized as simple, straight-forward, and sensitive to materials. His award-winning residences follow a rather conventional contemporary style but he also is very accomplished in the art of adaptive reuse, in which he repurposes an existing building by carefully juxtaposing old and new elements.  This consciousness of how time plays a role in the way a building expresses itself is strongly manifested in the Cistercian chapel.  The space is enclosed in rough quaried limestone, cut in massive blocks and stacked in traditional running bond, which instantly strikes any visitor as reminiscent of the Catholic church's earliest Romanesque sanctuaries with their thick walls and small windows. Its wood roof floating above the nave takes the shape of a traditional ceilings found in these churches, while also resembling the underside of a ship (which is where the word 'nave' comes from). Spans are short, further emphasizing the weight of the stone, even as they maintain familiar rhythm suggestive of the old ambulatory aisles with the repetitive row of vertical windows.  It follows more of a classic basilica typology than the popular theatre-in-the round, which indicates a desire to focus on the liturgy as opposed to the priest. But more than merely echoing the churches of the past, this chapel appears as a direct architectural metaphor for the creation of the church itself: "And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church...(Matthew 16:18)"  While obviously an abstract design, Cunningham manages to endow the chapel with an important phrase from the Gospel and thus Christian revelation.  Sleek details and delicate connections between the roof and walls betray its contemporary origins, but the way it highlights the split-faced texture of the rock wed the chapel to the church's long institutional history, and the countless number of people who dedicated their lives in building structures fitting to God's glory.

Cistercian Chapel by Gary Cunningham, Irving, Texas
And that, to me, is what is necessary for a compelling Catholic worship space--a connection not only with the divine, but just as importantly with an institution comprised of people throughout the ages. Its walls should reveal human intent, either through a man-made texture or through an ornament that is the work of genuine human input. Machine-smooth de-personalizes this experience.  As any human institution that is an essential part of catholic identity, it carries a rich artistic and architectural heritage that brings with it a kind of unassailable authority not found in Protestantism, which devalues the human institution in favor of interpreting directly from the Bible.  The result of of relying on scripture, however justifiable from a theological standpoint, seems to lead towards a breaking down of a rich visual language and an embrace for abstraction.  A small cultural vacuum subsequently takes root, which grows to consume what's left of symbols, music, and eventually the walls.  The ultimate result is either a television studio black-box with no windows preferred by evangelicals or a zen-like meditation space with no walls and a subtle symbolic indication that it's even Christian (such as Ando's church).

I'm sure that Piano's and Le Corbusier's clerical clients were pleased with the result, and fans of high-design with no opinion on proper Catholic aesthetics are moved by their examples, too.  But I wonder if these exercises in abstraction, lightness, and trying to stay relevant in fast-changing contemporary culture win much in the way of converts. People who seek the church want their souls nourished by the church's message in as many forms as possible. When many of these forms are abstracted or simplified to an incomprehensible level, it leaves such people feeling unfulfilled, and causes many of them to leave the church for a place that offer a richer, more visually arresting environment of the older historic sanctuaries.  At least these modern ecclesiastical masterpieces continue to open their arms to the perennial pilgrimage of people most interested in them: architecture students.

30 comments:

Julio Touza said...

Dear friend,

I found your last post on modern architecture and christianity very interesting. As you explained is very difficult for modern architecture language to connect with the complexity of religion, specially with architects that are non-believers. However, I think there are interesting examples of how it can be possible. I reccomend you to study the work of a spanish master, note very well known outside Spain. Miguel Fisac, who was a firm believer, did several churches in the 40's and 50's in Spain, and I think he managed to accomplish some of the things that you miss in Le Corbusier's, Ando's or Piano's temples. You can check here:

http://www.arquitecturareligiosa.es/historial_congresos/congreso01_2007/documentos/08_eduardo_delgado_orusco.pdf

http://fundacionfisac.org/guia/index.php

or type "Miguel Fisac Iglesia" on Google Images

There's also another spanish architect, Francisco Javier Saenz de Oiza, who was Moneo's master, that did a couple of churches that might interest you, specially the Aranzazu Sanctuary, where he cooperated with Oteiza, a well-known spanish sculptor. See:

http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santuario_de_Ar%C3%A1nzazu

Or type "Saenz de Oiza Aranzazu" on google Images.

I hope you find it interesting.
Congratulations for your post

JTS

corbusier said...

Julio,

Thanks for enjoying the article! I took a look at the references you provided and can agree that that they show a bit more sensitivity to a catholic worship space than the examples I cited. Fisac's work seems to resemble Ronchamp, which I note is a bit more successful due to the sensuous play of forms and the allusions to past sanctuaries, with their manipulation of light, and sweeping roof. Saez de Oiza's piece takes getting used to, but there is no doubt that the back wall behind the altar is spectacular and definitely worth attracting the worshipers' gaze. The apostles depicted at the front of the Aranzazu sanctuary is consistent with clearly communicating the Christian story, but I fear their abstraction may remind people of other things none too Christian. That being said, I always enjoy viewing new sanctuaries that get published from to time. I am usually enamored by their architectural effects but I often have to ask myself whether it works as a compelling worship space. Thanks for introducing me to some neat designers!

Bernie said...

What about this one? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagrada_Fam%C3%ADlia

Sagrada Familia is a modern church, if not a (20th century) Modernist building stripped of ornamentation.

Otherwise, great post. Compelling.

corbusier said...

Bernie,

Thanks for taking the time to read my post. In response to your suggestion of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, you point to an example of a building that fully interalizes catholic teaching and the history of the church,especially during its medieval period. Still, despite being designed in the twentieth century, Sagrada Familia is not a 'modern' building under the definition that I tend to use. It does not incorporate a secular, machine-like, engineer based aesthetic that became popular beginning in the 1930's with the emergence of the Bauhaus and Corbusier's manifestos. Sagrada Familia is instead a highly imaginative yet very personal reworking of the traditional Gothic church. It fulfills the objectives of a successful catholic worhship space partly because it doesn't give in to modernist abstraction at all. Gaudi was truly one of the last standard bearers of a traditional approach to building and ornamentation, along with his other art-nouveau colleagues.

akeller said...

Hello,
While I found your overall post compelling, your glancing reference to "historicist styles" is sorely in need of more inspection, given its clear pre-eminence in church design. While your description of modernism doesn't veer much beyond "machine-age aesthetic", perhaps the aspect of "honesty of materials" could be considered as well, especially compared to those pseudo-historicist monstrosities that, well, fake it. Tissue-thin stone panels meant to represent stone blocks, gothic arches that hold up nothing - all of this, it could be argued, could just as easily disengage the laity for its essential dishonesty.

Rick DeLano said...

Thank you for the article. I looked at the pictures of the "spaces" you recommend as the best the Modernists can do.

They are pathetically inadequate.

I suppose it probably boils down to the fact that they have gone insane, like most modernists, and cannot avoid confessing this in their attempts to express themselves in the realm of the Sane.

But these monstrous expressions of ugliness serve approximately the same function as, say, Berg's "Lulu" serves for the art of music:

Such monuments to ugliness for the sake of evil ugliness will, I hope, inspire future members of the catholic Church Militant, to pray ever so much more for those of us, please God, blessed to be in Purgatory.

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Anonymous said...

Dear Author:

I am directed to consider the emerging identity of the 21st Century Craftsman upon learning from your article.

The Eternal, Invisible Church continues to look like something here on earth. Temporal, Visible.

It looked like something before Christianity formed (Basilica, Temples, Mausoleums). It existed before Michelangelo set forth the final design for St. Peter's. It existed before Secularism overtook nature, in such Modern appearances as Ronchamp.

What does the Invisible Church "look like" now? What can it look like? What aught it look like?

I look forward to more input from your insight.

Matthew Reeves

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Zeke Balan said...

Good post, but you let a good idea exceed your limits. I get the impression you're not Catholic? You make some significant assumptions that are, in fact, incorrect. What about use of materials? The pred-modernist industrialization of liturgical art? Context and place(which you understood so well in the O'neil Ford piece (and where were his examples - ditto Otto Wagner, Sigurd Lewerentz or William Schickel?)? The protestant roots of modernist architecture? What about the different types of sacred space - the needs of a monastic community over those of a parish church or cathedral? It makes perfect sense that the casual Catholic would dislike paucity of decoration- it would be wrong for a cathedral, but right for mendicants. What about medieval Cistercian minimalism? I agree with your piece, in general, but you weaken your argument and mislead your readers by drawing some inaccurate conclusions because and speaking outside of your scope.

zekebalan said...

You might also tie this better to the larger problem of the failures of the modernist movement in general, the limitations of abstraction and modernist art and architecture to act in a civic role, the humanist purpose of architecture, and the role of ornament. But also it's important to be clear that the movement took hold in the Church (as everywhere?) in response to the failures of 19th century industrialism and imperialism - in art and architecture. Without the caveat, you're just cheerleading the return to vacuous traditionalism.

zekebalan said...

You might also tie this better to the larger problem of the failures of the modernist movement in general, the limitations of abstraction and modernist art and architecture to act in a civic role, the humanist purpose of architecture, and the role of ornament. But also it's important to be clear that the movement took hold in the Church (as everywhere?) in response to the failures of 19th century industrialism and imperialism - in art and architecture. Without the caveat, you're just cheerleading the return to vacuous traditionalism.

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xero said...

Dear Corb,

Thank you for your blog and presenting arguments and comments on the relationship between architecture and wider ideas on the nature of reality. While I am not a modernist, I would defend the position of certain modernists in your oversimplification of the machine aesthetic. I would avoid talking about abstraction in architecture as Art (especially in the context of buildings) always involves some form of abstraction.

Much of what you highlight in the somber architecture of modernity can be explained in the split between Symbolic and Instrumental forms of representations. The former concerned with meaning, value and purpose and the later with technique and the ability to understand and reconfigure the natural world. Many of the more thoughtful modernists such as Corbusier and Mies were attempting to unify the two following the radical secularisation of Western society. Granted neither of these men were Christians, they nevertheless saw something greater behind nature. This was however often elaborated in esoteric philosophies.

Mies for instance was good friends with the Catholic and modernist (so-called) church builder Rudolph Schwarz. Mies in fact was very much taken by Schwarz's treatise on church building and even incorporated some of Schwarz's ideas in his scheme for the MIT campus and chapel. (I'd be interested to know what you think of Schwarz's architecture, especially his later work). Mies' later texts take on a very mystical tone, even Transcendentalist, hence the focus on nature, specialisation, utility and function.

At any rate, thanks for the thoughts and keep it up.

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