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|
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, |
|Church on the Water by Tadao Ando, Tomamu, Japan|