“The Stones of Babel: Modernist Sacred Architecture and the Mortification of the Senses” by Catesby Leigh (Touchstone, May/June 1999)
Catesby Leigh, an architectural design critic in Washington, D.C., writes: “Everybody knows the earliest story in the Bible that has to do with architecture. It is the story of the Tower of Babel, which attributes the division of tongues among men to the vain-glorious intentions behind that most ambitious of construction projects. Architecture makes a distinctly inauspicious debut in the Scriptures, and…yet God prescribed the design of the Tabernacle to Moses in great detail.”
Conflicting attitudes toward church architecture can be traced among Christians from the earliest centuries, when “St. Jerome—asserted that the splendor of the Temple of Solomon offered no justification for ornate churches.” The Temple was part of a temporary dispensation that had now become obsolete.
“But more than seven hundred years later, a great French churchman, Abbot Suger, had very different thoughts, when he described the impact of beautiful religious architecture on him: ‘— then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven.’”
Though it was the Reformation “which propagated the functional concept of a church as an auditorium or meeting place for the preaching of the Word rather than the holy place wherein the faithful might encounter—in built, carved and painted form—a vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem,” earlier ascetics like St. Bernard had “banished all elaborate ornament in stone, paint, and stained glass. Such ornament he regarded as a distraction from religious devotion.”
But “even in the most austere Cistercian monasteries, the architecture pleases the eye because of the way the dimensions and contours of its spaces are grounded in our own embodied state, and because of the high quality of the masonry work, with its simple ornamental detailing. Alas, it remained for our own century to produce esthetically mortifying sacred architecture, as the design for a new Roman Catholic cathedral in Los Angeles by the Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo reminds us.
“Many people know they like very little of what modernism has to offer these days, but since its partisans have erected a Tower of Babel of their own—a tower of theoretical babble—those who prefer art grounded in ancient conventions are left at a distinct disadvantage.” Leigh explains the basis of some of these likes and dislikes by describing the ways in which classical architecture draws from and satisfies humanist instincts for symmetry, and for abstractions of the human body or its parts—as in columns, for example.
Western artists and architects operating out of the classical tradition are thus attempting to bring forth a kind of second version of nature, one that is true to the original while it also strains forward to a new vision of nature as it would be in an unfallen state. This Western approach does not delight in perverse twists and distortions of the natural creation. That is why “this artistic tradition is inextricably bound up with the ancient notion—challenged first by Christian ascetics, then by the Reformation, and now by modernism—that in a church the arts of form might bring forth that vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem.”
There is no way this vision of the religious architect's mission can easily coexist with “the modernist design to emphasize the Church's relevance to the modern age.” Modernist architecture, with its attempt to incorporate “the supremely functional and economic machine rather than the human body” as a basis for design, dehumanizes architecture. “Our Nietzschean demigods have forgotten that architecture exists to make us lesser mortals at home in the world.—[But] a growing number of young architects are spurning the Tower of Babble and the mortification of the senses for sound artistic principles.”
“[A] church conceived as a symbol of the Church that is Christ's body should stand apart from the other buildings the faithful encounter in their daily life.…[S]urely it is just a question of time before the Church of Rome rethinks the matter, along with other Christian denominations. For the ugliness modernism has propagated in our midst is no coincidence. It simply affirms the truth about false prophets: ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ ”
Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidson, Maryland.
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