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The clerisy of the concrete-and-glass box freaks out

The modernist curse afflicted Catholic church architecture in the U.S. for a while, but that unhappy period is now passing.

Saint John's Abbey Church, on the campus of Saint John's University, Collegeville, Minnesota. (Wikipedia)

Several years back, the estimable Father Paul Scalia observed, of some cultural idiocy or other, “Who knew the end of civilization would be so amusing?”

I detected a subtle theological point within that mordant comment: a point worth reflecting upon during Lent.  Christians are the people who know how history is going to turn out — God is, finally, going to get what God intended from the beginning, which is the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in the New Jerusalem. (The trailer, so to speak, is in Revelation 21.) So Christians can afford to relax a bit about the vicissitudes and traumas of history. To be sure, faith that God’s purposes in creation and redemption will ultimately be vindicated ought not lead to insouciance about here-and-now; we have responsibilities within history and we should take them seriously. But faith in the triumph of the Kingdom for which we pray daily should invite us to “chill” (as the kids used to say).

That’s what I did during a recent skirmish in the American culture wars, which erupted a few weeks back over a leaked memo suggesting that President Trump would issue an Executive Order creating a preference that federal courthouses and other federal buildings be designed in a classical style. There isn’t much to laugh at along the Potomac these days. But the freak-out from the high priests and priestesses of the concrete-and-glass box — the modernist architectural establishment and its acolytes in the mainstream media — was (as I think the kids still say, at least in text messages), “LOL.”

The ever-more-ludicrous New York Times, in high editorial dudgeon, asked why the republic should be festooned with more “fake Roman temples” — as if the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, and similar architectural masterpieces were a blight on the national aesthetic. Does the high priesthood of architectural modernism really want to defend such grotesqueries as the Robert H. Weaver Federal Building (headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development), aptly described by a government worker as “ten floors of basement”? Or the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, another concrete-and-glass eyesore that (as my friend Andrew Ferguson wrote) “is even more obnoxious than its namesake”? Or the Hirshhorn Museum, a concrete Bundt cake squatting on the National Mall?

Alas, these horrors are precisely what the modernist architectural establishment wants to defend, and continues to defend with some success: most recently, in ramming through the Frank Gehry design of the Eisenhower Memorial in the nation’s capital, a gargantuan nonsense better suited to the Berlin imagined by Albert Speer after the triumph of the Third Reich.

The idea of Donald Trump as a promoter of architectural classicism is not without its ironies, of course, given the designs of his own buildings. But as the good folks south of the Mason-Dixon Line have been known to observe, “Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every now and then.” And in the current madhouse of American national politics, one takes with gratitude any signs of sanity one can get.

Modernist architectural fanaticism is not about aesthetics only. As critics like Tom Wolfe (From Bauhaus to Our House) and John Silber (Architecture of the Absurd) have  demonstrated, the International Style, Brutalism, and the rest of the modernist canon embody a worldview and an anthropology — an idea of the human person. The worldview is resolutely secular and lacks any sense of transcendence. The anthropology is similar: human beings are cogs in various machines, economic or political, and cogs need neither beauty nor uplift nor charm, only surroundings defined by the ultimate value of efficiency. (That a lot of modernist buildings don’t work, rapidly decay, and require enormous sums to maintain compounds the problem even while underscoring the point: dumbing down the human has its costs, including its financial costs.)

The modernist curse afflicted Catholic church architecture in the U.S. for a while, but that unhappy period is now passing. Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist-inspired abbey church at St. John’s in Minnesota was often considered the most important U.S. Catholic building of the mid-20th century. Compare it to Duncan Stroik’s chapel at Thomas Aquinas College in California, which I’d suggest is the most important U.S. Catholic building yet erected in the 21st century. Stroik, not Breuer, is the future, because the TAC chapel’s classicism and decorative beauty call us out of ourselves and into the Kingdom; the Breuer church depresses the spirit.

Back to the future, then, in both civic and ecclesiastical architecture.


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About George Weigel 290 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His new book, The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission, will be published by Ignatius Press on July 7.

15 Comments

  1. Back in the mid to late ’60’s, a local parish built a new building. It was supposed to be in the shape of a paten, and I suppose if one were a bird, one could have seen the nod to Tridentine liturgical implements.
    .
    I only ever saw it from the street, though, and thought it looked like a hamburger with a toothpick and olive sticking out the top.

    • I’ve seen some of those churches built in the 60’s & onwards. To me they resemble the mother spaceship come in for a landing.
      I guess the good news is that they’re becoming outdated & I know of two being replaced with traditional architecture styles. So, there’s hope.
      🙂

  2. The Classical style should always be considered a good choice for the public buildings of any (especially Western) rational state. Its reserved beauty does not suit so much the religious spirit of a nation (as does, say, the Romanesque, the Gothic and the Baroque) so it is not a threat to even the appearance of the unification of state and church. However, because the Classical represents Western thought, rationality, and the natural law (and a proper convergence of reason with faith) it would of course be rejected by the modernist. The progressive would reject it also because it represents the order and rule of law they despise. Lastly, we shouldn’t give concrete too bad a name especially since the Parthenon would not have been built without (an earlier version of)it. Roman (classical) architecture and concrete once went hand in hand. It is not so much the matter as the form that elevates the very versatile concrete.

  3. Wow. I could hardly agree more.

    I remember going to Mass at one particularly depressing and featureless church somewhere in Ohio. The statues, a uniform verdigris verging on brown, looked not just wan but emaciated. More like stalactites than living beings.

    To paraphrase Fr. Scalia above, who knew that the end of civilization would be so banal?

  4. On a field trip back in the 1990s, our archdiocesan committee on church design was confused by the retained centrality of the tabernacle in our otherwise more contemporary and suburban parish church. Mystified, they 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.” To anchor things further, in interesting times, in 1986 this pastor instituted Perpetual Adoration, which he hoped might continue for at least three years tops…

    Thirty-three years and still counting (!), although the pastor long ago was drawn to that symbolized better place.

    Would that our loss of symbolism toward the transcendent, in church architecture, were due only to the intrusion of modern architecture and its flat-earth functionalism over the past 70 years. Unfortunately, as Weigel well knows (his book: The Cube and the Cathedral, 2005), our loss of symbolism is, itself, a symbol for our loss of the faith.

      • Yes, I read Rose, hastily but with approval. In the opposite and very edifying direct, let me highly recommend Steven J. Schloeder, Architecture in Communion, 1998, Ignatius Press, of course.

        A rich feast of religious symbolism in architectural history as the basis for “Implementing the Second Vatican Council through Liturgy and Architecture” (a possibly misleading subtitle). The final chapter is “Catholic Architecture in the Third Millennium,” featuring at the end, architect Schloeder’s St. Therese Church, in Collinsville, Oklahoma. (Check the web for some photos.)

        My undergraduate five-year degree was from the University of Washington (1962-7), one of the last two such schools in the country to still follow the Beaux Arts Tradition sympathetic to symbolism and still drenched in the Western tradition. The dominant curriculum change was made during our fifth year. The students were to be employable, but we had seen the other side.

        The new college building, itself, was to be a bare-wall model of concrete Brutalism. The revivalist old building (left over from the somewhat artificial 1909 Alaska Yukon Exposition and world’s fair) is also still in use. An interesting juxtaposition, both buildings nearly side-by-side.

        The campus is overwhelmingly Tudor Gothic. Check out the cathedral-like Suzzallo Library at “Suzzallo Library Images”, or: https://www.google.com/search?sxsrf=ALeKk02L2UejQtZs11bubeoZ2KsBZ8PQMg:1583365602984&q=suzzallo+library&tbm=isch&source=univ&client=firefox-b-1-d&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjhw8LCgILoAhX6ITQIHUXlCBYQsAR6BAgKEAE&biw=1704&bih=966

  5. I am very happy to hear of the move away from the soulless, boring, so-called “efficient” buildings, even though the dirty little secret is that they are not efficient at all, and not as inexpensive as the architects would have you believe. The usual argument against classic Gothic architecture is that it is too expensive to produce now. I think the real reason is that there aren’t any more stonemasons or carpenters around who were steeped in the techniques of classic architecture and could pass those precious and beautiful skills to apprentices. With church buildings especially, there’s nothing worse than seeing a Catholic church look like a forlorn cement-block bunker from a failed Communist state.

    Incidentally, if you want a laugh, check out the Gates Computer Science building on Carnegie-Mellon University’s campus. Storage container architectural design at its finest!

  6. Sadly, apparently nobody actually teaches classical architecture anymore, at least in the United States. The teachers don’t know how to teach anything except ugliness and ‘efficiency.’ They don’t know the classical principles anymore and don’t teach them and don’t even point students in the direction of them as part of their patrimony worthy of incorporating into new design.

    I was teaching English to some students at a technical university in Central Europe. One of them was an architect student, who took issue with my comment that the new ‘National Forum of Music’ in our city was a bad building on the grounds that it looks like a highly sculpted mound of something a dog leaves on your lawn (right down to the color). She objected that it was a ‘great’ building because you can listen to a concert in one hall and not hear the music in the next hall. I countered that it was ugly, that it did not raise anyone’s hearts and minds to the sublime, didn’t inspire any excitement or anticipation in the audience that ‘Here we will experience something of transcendent beauty.’ Indeed, inside it is not only banal and forgettable, it is also somewhat awkward to find your way to the ‘lobby’ or cloakroom or anywhere else you might want to go during an interval. Functional – maybe. But dreary, dreary, dreary. Nobody stops and takes a photo of that building. Tourists don’t point and say, ‘What is that building?’ It looks rather like a modern version of a place where secret files on citizens might have been kept in the Stalinist times. And certainly nobody approaches it with rising anticipation of a wonderful artistic experience awaiting them inside. Keep your baseball caps on folks; nothing special happening here.

    Architects just have no idea that beauty is at the core of our desire for a truly humane environment. I wonder if one could even find ‘beauty’ in the index of an introductory architecture text these days.

  7. Check out the new St William Church of Round Rock TX. Best church Ive ever seen. Busy & traditional. It just blew me away after I walked through it on a Sunday afternoon. Never knew it was there! Just a powerful building, inside & out!

    • Thank you for sharing that about St. William Church. It does seem that there’s a general movement back towards the traditional which is good news.
      The St.Mary cathedral in Austin isn’t new but it’s one of the loveliest churches Ive been in. The proportions and interior are perfectly aligned. The painted surface behind the altar that resembles tilework is just beautiful. So was the music at Mass.
      The one thing I find lacking in the new traditional style churches is the sense of intimacy you find in historic churches like St.Mary Cathedral. The intentions are good but the interior of a new church near us reminds me of the oversized McMansions that have been springing up since the 1990s. And the exterior while traditional looks like Byzantium on the Bayou.
      But it’s all much, much better than the spaceship, theatre in the round churches of the last century. Thank goodness.

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