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.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I'm Glad Newt is a Catholic Convert and Not A Recommitted Protestant

I'm no huge fan of Newt Gingrich for all the reasons that have been said time and again in the last month. He has lots of baggage, both politically and personally, and it is hard to nail him down on exactly where he stands. It seems that he far prefers and excels at the role of the underdog, but has no idea how to succeed once he is the victor. For committed political conservatives, that's worrisome, and it explains why he has achieved so much with so modest expectations as a candidate, but could destroy his own presidency once he wins.

He may very well flame out in the coming weeks or days (so I better type fast!). But if he doesn't and if I feel compelled to vote for him in my Texas primary, I will take some heart that he is a Catholic convert and not a recommitted Protestant. I say that as a mainline Protestant, all too aware of the failings of both the mainline branch and the evangelical branch of my side of the aisle. The weaknesses of the Protestant movement do not help men like Mr. Gingrich: restless, intelligent and ambitious men who, in the end, find it hard to have much respect for Protestantism.

Protestantism, especially the American version of it, rarely offers a coherent understanding of man's bondage to sin, his need for forgiveness, and the Church’s role in proclaiming that forgiveness objectively. Therefore, Protestants often find themselves alone with their sin, with little framework and no real teaching authority shy of their pastor. Emotional highs and lows have become the norm for American evangelicals, and for men who are chronically undisciplined, the emotional high of recommitment fades quickly.

For men like Gingrich I suspect, there is also little respect for the historical and intellectual foundations of Protestantism. Sure, it has its giants like Luther, Calvin, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and on and on. But a book of America's Protestant heroes would be thin reading indeed. Even John Wesley was a failed American preacher before returning to England where he would found Methodism. Our history is more often filled with heretics or lone ranger types who stir up crowds, men who create discontent and leave no legacy of vale behind.

This American history finds its triumphant apex in today's Church Growth Movement, as the thin gruel of Joel Osteen and his many, many competitors can turn the most open-minded of men into the most hardened of cynics. “If this is Christianity,” they might say, “it must be for those incapable of complex thought. This is clearly a self-fulfilling, financially motivated operation that has virtually nothing in common with historical Christianity.” They would be right. At some point, I keep waiting for the veneer of this thinly veiled Christianity to wear off. Sadly for those who believe themselves to be in the fold of traditional Christianity, it remains a power.

But is Rome any better? Doesn't it offer the same thing, just with more formality? Certainly, one could quibble with Rome. Protestants and Catholics continue to have theological disagreements, and even Rome's cherished Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church) doesn't always get it right. (That is, if you ask a Protestant.) Indeed, I find myself frequently disappointed that Rome doesn't actually exercise its Magisterium on a more regular basis! So I am not saying that Rome is perfect, or that any expression of the Faith is capable of perfection

But Newt's conversion to Catholicism tells me more about him than it does about Rome. For a man as bright as Newt to consider such a conversion tells me that he did not merely recommit to the Christian principles he already knew he had to live by. It tells me he was willing to place himself under the authority of Rome. For the restless intellectual, Newt and countless men before him finally found his match, an institution he could deeply respect, an institution he was actually willing to repent to belong to. It tells me that for all of his bravado and his ego (which remains healthy), he is a man capable of some maturity, introspection and humility. He is not perfect by any means, but he has found an expression of the Faith that will speak to him in a way Protestantism never did, and never could. It simply didn't have the clout.

To see where a recommitted Protestant may end up, one may only need to look at Mr. Gingrich's former sparring partner, President Clinton. President Clinton no doubt recommitted to his Christian faith many times in the wake of his adulterous affairs. But there is little evidence any such commitment stuck. I suspect it is because there is little real fear of the Baptist Church among men as intelligent as President Clinton. They know its history and theology and techniques are thin, even as in every expression of Christianity resides very bright stars. But for some men like Mr. Gingrich and President Clinton, they will only listen to the authority of Rome. Newt seems to have placed himself under that authority, and for that, I can more easily support him.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Tyranny of the Story

Below is a sermon preached to a congregation December 4, 2011. Usually, I don't publish sermons, but this had enough commentary on society's embrace of subjective stories that I thought it would work in this medium as well. The picture is actually from a congregation, New Life Church in Colorado Springs, CO.

It seems that nothing is complete today without someone adding their personal story to it. Nothing has any value at all unless someone’s story accompanies it to give it that personal touch, a story that brings an event or an occasion down the personal level. So prevalent is the demand for personal stories, I am starting to see this demand as a kind of tyranny, a fruit of our relativistic age that tells us that nothing has intrinsic value unless someone feels that it has value.

I was watching a competitive cooking show the other day, and the challenge was not only to cook a great dish, but to connect the dish to a story. The chefs, who are masters of their trade, were judged on their ability to connect a story to their dish as much as the dish itself. This wasn’t the first time I’ve noticed this. Indeed, the Food Network is constantly coaching its talent to partner their life story with their food. Somehow, they believe that if we know a TV cook learned a lasagna recipe sitting at the feet of Aunt Maria during summer vacations to Naples, the food will taste better.

Maybe it will. But in the end, the food should speak for itself. I don’t care what long-lost relative concocted the recipe…I just want to know if it’s tasty or not. So interested are we in the personal story, though, that the media demands the personal touch. News reporting is no better. An event is reported on, then a microphone is placed in the face of a bystander and they’re asked how they feel about the event.

And yet, perhaps no institution has become as corrupted by the tyranny of the story as the church. Starting as an American phenomenon in the mid-1800s, the testimonial came to be the way the Church validated its ministry. After all, what good is the Gospel or the Bible or even the Law if human beings don’t experience a changed life and live to tell the tale? The testimonial became the personal story that proved the good news of Jesus to be true. Never mind that the faith had been preserved for almost two millennia on the facts of Jesus’ ministry, death, resurrection and ascension. No, in America, we also had to have personal stories validate Jesus, or else, the Church would just be seen as another tired institution with nothing new or interesting to say.

Now I’m not saying that stories are bad! Stories are wonderful, they are truly the language of the human race. Stories help us make sense of the world, they entertain us, and they separate us from every other of God’s creatures. God has gifted us with the ability to tell stories, and that is a good thing. But stories have their limits, and in our narcissistic time and place, they can easily become a cheap substitute for the truth. The demand for stories to validate the truth cripples the church’s proclamation of the Gospel, because instead of proclaiming what is, we end up arguing who has the better story: you or the atheist, you or the secularist, you or the naturalist, you or the Buddhist.

That’s the difference between news and a story. News happens, whether we like it or not. News is not particularly personal, and news is equally true for all people. Stories are personal, and they may be true or false. News is objective; how we feel about it can’t make it untrue. Stories are often subjective, and they are often intended to change the way we feel.

We need to appreciate the difference between news and stories, so we can fully appreciate what Mark is saying the first sentence of his gospel. He writes, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The Gospel, according to Mark is not a story, but news of an event. The stories found in Mark or any other gospel reveal the Gospel. It is not the purpose of the Gospel to reveal a story.

The word Gospel actually derives from the Old English words, “good spell” or “glad tidings.” These are both literal translations from the Greek Word euangelion, from which we get also get the words “evangel” or “evangelism.” The Greek understanding of euangelion was good news, mostly in the wake of military battles. If a general or a king arrived home after being away in battle with euangelion, that meant the enemy had been defeated.

So when Mark begins his gospel by saying, “The beginning of the euangelion of Jesus Christ,” he is not only using military language, he is declaring victory from the outset. And he is saying that it is true, it is done, and we live in the wake of the news. It’s like hearing a paper boy on the street on August 15, 1945, when victory in World War II had become official. You hear the news, you rejoice, and you can’t change the news or lessen it. You can’t become the news or live the news. You can only hear it, rejoice in it, and retell it. The same is true of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. You can’t “live the Gospel or “be the Gospel”. It simply is. You can only hear it, rejoice in it, and retell it.

What Jesus Christ did on the cross, when he bore the sins of the world, and died, and was buried only to be raised from the dead…that’s good news. Too much teaching and preaching today is built around trying to connect that news to our personal stories. But that is a trap. What happens when our stories don’t turn out so well? What happens when we can’t live up to the standard of perfection that God’s demands?

Our personal stories, far from being heroic, are usually shameful or embarrassing. We selfishly act in our own interests instead of the interests of others. We idolize other men and women. We encourage and participate in a culture that is obsessed with sexuality and the superficial. We love to tell stories about ourselves that place us in a great light. But the truth is that the stories we don’t tell usually are not very impressive. Indeed, they are convicting of our constant falling short of God’s standards.

But the good news of Jesus Christ, that news is good, no matter the shortcomings of our own stories. And that is truly what makes it good! God intervened in our lives, not to partner in our own amazing stories, but to save us from our sins. While we are trying to figure out where our story fits into God’s story, Mark comes to us with news that transcends our stories, surpasses our stories, and exceeds our stories.

And that news is that in the person of Jesus Christ, God has come to you in the flesh. He has died for your sins. And he has been raised from the dead. And in your baptisms, your sin has been defeated, and you are given the promise that you too will be raised from the dead. The good news is true: Christ is the victorious king with euangelion, the savior who has won for you the war against sin, death and the devil. Amen.