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Frank Gehry and the Quest for Transcendence

The Church ought to sing the transcendence of God to Gehry as it once sang it to Giotto, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Dante, Gaudí, and the architect of Chartres Cathedral.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was designed by Frank Gehry and opened in October 2003. [Carol M. Highsmith/Wikipedia]

Though I reside in Santa Barbara, I am in Los Angeles a good deal for meetings and other events. When I’m in the city, I like to walk the downtown neighborhood. My favorite building to look at while I’m on these strolls is the Disney Theatre, home base of the LA Philharmonic and the creation of Frank Gehry, probably the best-known architect in the world. Like many of Gehry’s other buildings, the Disney is marked by shimmering metallic surfaces, curving planes, and an overall playfulness of design. Some have suggested that the theatre’s exterior looks like the pages of a score that have just fallen from the conductor’s podium. That it is a captivating work of art is testified to by the crowds that regularly gather round it to gaze and to take photographs. Soon after I arrived in the LA Archdiocese, I heard that Gehry was actually one of the finalists in the competition to design the new Cathedral here. To say the very least, it would have been interesting to see what he would have done with that assignment.

This connection came vividly to mind when I read a recent interview with Gehry, conducted in advance of his ninetieth birthday. After ruminating on his long and productive career, the architect said that he still harbored a great desire: “I would like to design a church or a synagogue. A place that has transcendence. I’ve always been interested in space that transcends to something—to joy, pleasure, understanding, discourse, whatever a space can do to be part of the dialogue.”

We can easily recognize in this statement what I would call the “Augustinian longing.” The great Church Father, Augustine of Hippo, long ago wrote, “Lord, you have made us for yourself; therefore our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Whether we like it or not, whether we explicitly acknowledge it or not, all of us are marked by the hunger and thirst for a good that transcends the goods available in this world. As C.S. Lewis observed, this desire of the heart reveals itself particularly in moments of intense joy, for it is precisely when we have achieved a great worldly value—fame, pleasure, power, money, etc.—that we realize that we still want and need something more. This is the beauty and goodness to which religion points, the transcendence to which it is meant to order us.

But here’s the rub. As he elaborated on the meaning of “transcendence,” Gehry said this: “Forget the religion aspect. How do you make a space feel transcendent? How do you create a sense of ease with the universe, the rain, the stars and the people around you? It’s comforting to sit in a big room and listen to the rain.” In stating it this way, the architect revealed his perspective as a pagan one. Please don’t misunderstand me; I have a deep respect for pagan religion. In fact, my mentor, Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, once told me, “If you stop being a Christian, I’d recommend becoming a pagan. Paganism is a noble religion, for it has to do with honoring the great natural necessities.”

He meant that this ancient spiritual tradition, available in both mythic and philosophical expressions, had to do with ordering human beings toward a right relationship with the earth, the sea, the natural processes of life and death, etc. This was the “transcendence” that paganism evoked. I put the word in quotes because it did not signal, in that context, values that go beyond the world—only values that go beyond the self.

There is a poetic and ecstatic passage in St. Augustine’s Confessions that articulates the fundamental difference between a biblical and a pagan conception of transcendence. The spiritual searcher wonders what is the object that truly corresponds to the aching within his heart:

“What is the object of my love? And I asked the earth and it said: ‘It is not I.’ I asked all that is in it; they made the same confession. (Job 28:12f). I asked the sea, the deeps, the living creatures that creep, and they responded: ‘We are not your God. look beyond us.’ I asked the breezes that blow and the entire air with its inhabitants said: ‘Anaximenes was mistaken; I am not God.’ I asked heaven, sun, moon, and stars; they said: ‘Nor are we the God whom you seek.’ And I said to all those things in the external environment: ‘Tell me of my God who you are not, tell me something about him.’ and with great voice they cried out ‘He made us.’”

To understand that citation is to grasp the difference between biblical religion and paganism. Augustine makes it eminently clear that, even as he reverences the goods of nature, he knows that his heart wants something more, indeed something infinitely more.

One of the distinctive marks of our time is a secularism that has got us stuck within the world that we can see and measure. What this ideology does with the Augustinian longing for God is to turn it into the neo-paganism evident in Frank Gehry’s statement. It is as though the desire that pushes us beyond this world to its Creator gets stifled, limited, corralled, so that we end up effectively worshiping “the universe, the rain, the stars.” Mind you, I think that biblical believers carry an awful lot of the blame for the re-emergence of paganism, for we have obviously presented the Creator God in such an unconvincing manner to the culture. The Church ought to sing the transcendence of God to Frank Gehry as it once sang it to Giotto, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Dante, Gaudí, and the architect of Chartres Cathedral.

Once the great architect realizes that the deepest desire of his heart is for the living God, I would love to see the church he would build.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 163 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

9 Comments

  1. Regarding the decades of destruction of Church architecture, in the 1990s the demolition team made the mistake of touring my new-but-exquisite Seattle-area parish church (St. Mark, in Shoreline), and my reaction ended up as a letter published in the hard-copy Catholic World Report (May 1995)…

    “In his very fine article (What Happened to Church Architecture,” March 1995), Steen Schloeder concludes that the church building ‘is to be a ‘sign of contradiction’ to the world in the architectural dialogue within the urban fabric.’ Pursuing his restored symbolism, we might notice how the centrally located cathedral was first displaced by business, and now within the church building itself, how the tabernacle (and the Real Presence which is what it symbolizes…) again is displaced by busy-ness.

    “Confused by the retained centrality of the tabernacle in our contemporary parish church, the diocesan committee on church design once inquired of our pastor, ‘but where is the chapel of eucharistic reservation?’ To which he responded, ‘THIS IS the chapel of eucharistic reservation; it’s called a Catholic church!’ He then added, ‘the social hall is across the street.’

    “Would that our loss of symbolism in church architecture were due only to the intrusion of modern architecture and its functionalism over the past 70 years, as Schloeder suggests. Unfortunately, our loss of symbolism itself symbolizes a loss of the faith.

    “But, then, perhaps this accelerated trend of the past 30 years also leads to a new source of conversion, a new sign of contradiction. Central to much of John Paul II’s thinking is this stripped simplicity: finally ‘(the conscience) is man’s sanctuary and most secret core, where he finds himself alone with God, whose voice resounds within him….’ (Gaudium et Spes, 16). Architecturally we ARE the real temples of the Holy Spirit; personally, we are the catacombs and the church within the urban fabric and now within the Internet, and it is at our ‘core’, finally, that we might again detect our personal and common immunity from much current theological ambiguity.

    “How best might church architecture foster this silence within?”

  2. You’re thoughts on art and the transcendent are refreshing and bright. You named all the right artists, a proper architect [Gaudi] except Gehry. I’m ignorant of his works other than the pictured Cartoonish Walt Disney Concert Hall. Your filmed descriptive tour of Chartres, the Rose Window is a masterpiece. Insofar as modern the Sydney Opera House. Although looking twice thrice at the shot of Gehry’s Concert Hall there something strangely appealing. Perhaps it’s memories of Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Perhaps not.

  3. Great piece except for this hogwash: “I think that biblical believers carry an awful lot of the blame for the re-emergence of paganism, for we have obviously presented the Creator God in such an unconvincing manner to the culture.” People choose not to believe. Period. Faulty evangelism is still good news. You have to plug your ears to miss it.

    • Although I should qualify that pop off with the comment that we certainly have failed to architecturally honor our faith over the last 75 years. The Los Angeles cathedral doesn’t justify unbelief, in my mind, but much of it does provoke disappointment or contempt. But DC’s Shrine is a very strong remedy, and to my mind the single most convincing argument for Catholicism’s Mariology.

  4. Transcendence limited and unlimited. Rereading transcendence suddenly connected Bishop Barron’s query with today’s Sunday readings article on Satanic tempting and the Nature of Christ. Did Satan prev Lucifer most intelligent fail to apprehend Jesus’ divinity requiring test? Was Satan’s initial perception of his Person and transcendent divine nature limited to his, Jesus’ human nature? Pagan art climaxes in worship of nature whereas Christian transcends to the sublime. The reason I prefer Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House to Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall is its closer resemblance to spiritually aspiring medieval Gothic. Certainly there was indication of Jesus’divinity afterwards in his miracles. There were no miracles in the Desert. Simply refusal. If the Holy Spirit confirmed him as God’s Son would that have not convinced Satan likely present at his baptism by John and consequently John’s attestation? Then why would if Satan wished to discover whether Jesus was divine presume that if he were he would fall into temptation? Satan was well aware he had been resisted by mere mortals many times prev notably by Mary, John the Baptist, Moses. Was the temptation by Lucifer in the Desert directed precisely at Jesus the Son of Man? The mystery of the Incarnation I venture supports this take.

  5. Gehry is smart…wrong, but smart. In his writings he tells you what he believes and then he builds it. If you read them, he’ll tell you of his belief in deconstructionism and how he relates to Derrida, and in one article he actually admitted that humanity is inexorably bound to chaos. And since all of history shows that laws, etc., haven’t really brought order, all we know is that we are bound to chaos. So he builds chaos–sort of–since the buildings have to stand up. Interesting theory, except he denies the value of the Incarnation as the remedy to chaos, and then builds it in architectural form. There really is no more anti-Christian architecture than what he proposes when you really get to the heart of it. Yet, even for him, nature seems to call him to something beyond chaos, and he roots it in feelings–like those generated by rainfall, etc. I guess its a start. (The architect of the new-ish Oakland cathedral said in writing that his goal was to design a building that people found “somehow emotive” and he based it on light coming through giant redwood trees).
    The real question is why these architects are finalists for Catholic cathedral competitions (Gehry was also a finalist for the the Vatican’s Church for 2000) when their architecture is a denial of Christianity in built form or some sort of paganism?

    • The question you pose reflects the schism in Catholicism. Many ‘Catholics’ today see nothing wrong with a pagan architect constructing a pagan building, calling it a cathedral, then practicing some form or type of quasi-worship within it. Many Catholics today don’t know or believe much distinguishes Catholicism from any other religion. Why should they?

      One style of church and one style of liturgy exist which do reflect traditional worship of our Divinely transcendental yet ever-present Christ – the Tridentine Mass and an architectural style mostly gone now. That style is not modern, it is not in the round, and only men enter the sanctuary. God, not man, is worshiped there.

  6. “The Church ought to sing the transcendence of God to Frank Gehry as it once sang it to Giotto, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Dante, Gaudí, and the architect of Chartres Cathedral.”

    Yes, the Church ought to sing of God to Mr. Gehry (and to all of us), but the Church does not sing much of late. Instead, we’re waiting on the Lady, but no, she’s not fat.

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