ARCHITECTURE, CULTURE & SPIRITUALITY FORUM II
(REFLECTIONS ON COLLEGEVILLE)
Patrick J. Quinn.
Patrick J. Quinn, former Dean and now Institute Professor of Architecture, Emeritus, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute designed religious buildings which have won national and international awards. His writings include Architecture Beyond Belief, the 2008 Dillenberger Lecture at Berkeley, which was accompanied by an exhibition of his drawings:Lines in Light. He is a former President of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. A fellow of the American Academy in Rome, he is also a lifelong actor and athlete.
Published in 2A Magazine Issue #17 – Spring 2011
The ACS Forum offers a critical counter to two disturbing trends in contemporary scholarship and practice.
The almost total dependence by student and practitioner alike on digital methodology and digital knowledge banks which, coupled with the acceleration of demand and response tends sometimes to short-circuit adequate thought.
The almost palpable antipathy of traditionally-trained historians to any discussion of theological underpinnings to the design of ritual space tends to preclude serious evaluation of alternate perspectives in the field.
Spend a little time at the annual Convention of the American Institute of Architects and you may find that the pressure to keep up with sustainability theories, emerging technology and requirements for maintaining a licence to practice allows little opportunity for reflection on the nature of architecture as having any kind of spiritual aspect.
Spend some days listening to presentations at the annual general meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians and you may be concerned at the chronological narrowness of papers which border on scholasticism but with factual/material rather than a spiritual emphasis. At the other extreme you may find broad, even speculative discussion arising from narrow case studies. You may hear mention of gods or saints in religious buildings but seldom of God, spirituality or sacred space.
One of the participants in the ACS Forum, Michael Benedikt, architectural commentator and disputant is also one of the very few architects who is not only unafraid to confront the previously mentioned discrepancies in architectural discourse but, in his most recent book “Divinity, Creativity, Complexity” addresses the issue head on. As editor of an extraordinary collection of essays by eminent architects and theologians, Benedikt presents the problem in his brilliant introduction:
“For its part, today’s architectural design discourse provides few ideas that would guide designers anywhere near the gates of Mystery in contemporary terms, this even though the field, especially of late, has become rife with mystifications of how form is generated, with “systems” and “processes”
whose explanations are as dependent upon authority and intuition, on getting the language right (and the software to cooperate) as religious explanations ever were. In result, to reflect seriously, gropingly, upon God or the cosmos today in the halls of an architecture school, or to say out loud that one is searching for something deeply true, or ethical, or aesthetic in the free act (or result) of design, would be to betray a serious absence of ‘cool’.”
The curious thing about this observation is that although it might incline the reader to think of Benedikt as some kind of frustrated pious devotee of a theistic church, he is quite the opposite, a scholar as much of theology as architecture but one whose writings embrace the notion of a-theology as a vehicle for serious discussion of things which are unacceptable to the supposedly “rational” strictures of his colleagues in the professoriate.
ACS tries to answer the need for an opportunity to step aside from the emotional strain of trying to chart a scholarly path through the morass of disparate anti-ideologies.
Hence a three-day gathering of a small group of serious scholars and practitioners at the Benedictine monastery of St. John at Collegeville, Minnesota where, fifty years ago Marcel Breuer made a major break from the conservatism of traditional monastic design by abandoning the model which first found form in the 7th century Plan of St. Gaul.
The recently completed (2006) minimalist guest-house by Jennifer Yoos of Vincent James Associates, architects offered a beautiful and, indeed appropriate venue for the second annual meeting of the ACS forum. Anat Geva, Julio Bermudez and Thomas Barrie thought that the place would offer an opportunity for open, unfettered debate, marked by mutual trust. They were right in their assumption.
Limiting the gathering to about 40 participants who had submitted papers in advance was also a wise move because it allowed a gathering in which eye-contact, ease of communication and well-moderated conversation was possible.
But how the place had changed in fifty years since this writer first went in 1961, as a bright-eyed young enthusiast to see the mighty Breuer’s monumental work.
The great abbey church stood starkly alone in a calm yet forbidding landscape….forbidding because of the enormous bell-banner looming at the end of a long, long, avenue across the prairie. My memory was not of a lake or sweet woodlands but of a huge arrogance in cast concrete, asserting itself triumphantly in a gentle landscape. Inside, I had found it to be formal and formidable, the brut concrete crushing all contemplative sensibilities, the vast window of honeycombed stained glass illogically bland, the communion “stations” ridiculously prominent, the low sanctuary lighting cold and inhospitable and the altar a monumental, sacrificial stone.
Today, the church seems gentler because the landscape and the many encroaching, less monumental recent buildings soften its impact. The many matured trees protect and nurture it. The banner is remarkably well, preserved, its patina browned by time and the harsh climate. The strong, calm architecture of the adjacent new guest house shares the church’s space and reduces its majesty.
Inside, little has changed from 1961 but my perception has. The great folded roof seems to brood sadly over the assembly. The light divides the space in two; one half coated with a lateral sheen, the other a great cave for the monks, offering protection in the face of horrific winter weather. It seems cosy when the monks fill the choir stalls for vespers, ghastly in black when they are absent.
The acoustics are still appalling, the choral singing lackadaisical, peaceful but lacking the magical serenity of sweet unison.
The guest house, by contrast is skilfully, tenderly designed, aesthetically luxurious with lots of good light. It is so well planned for ease of movement and communication that it seemed just perfect for ACS’s needs. The plan, deceptively simple, with dining /meeting at one end, small contemplative chapel at the other, offices, circulation and toilets in between, all bedrooms on the upper floors, takes extraordinary advantage of its lakeside and wooded setting. It thus gains credibility as a real “place” in the best sense of the word.
Place earns its meaning from what goes on there, what activities it evokes and fosters. This one fostered rest, ease of conversation at meals and pithy discussions among the participants. A place also needs escape valves, however and this one has three. The meditation chapel offers the visual ease of a framed garden of barely swaying tall grass against the free order of tall trees, with glimpses of light on lake-water beyond. The same lake offers a chance to plunge from a small sandy beach into clear, chilly and invigorating depths after talk becomes turgid. An enchanting, undulating woodland walk around the lake offers an opportunity for a different kind of mind clearing with abundant wildlife, the startling wail of lake-dwelling loons, and one’s surprise arrival, after a mile, at a small hundred year old airy oratory, which was beautifully and profoundly re-ordered by the late Edward Sovig in the 1980s. Its tiny stone walled terrace affords a solitary view across the lake to where the abbey complex sits, now very much in tune with its landscape. The walk back seems shorter and less strenuous. Body and spirit are refreshed. Ideas are inspired. How can measure all that? How can it be digitized? Can it be fairly described by future historians?
This is only one of the areas of research which occupies the work of individuals participating in the Forum for Architecture Culture and Spirituality
If, according to E.V.Walter’s reflection on Ptolemy’s ideas, place is best described in drawing, not in prose, how well can the reader understand what I am now describing, since I did not draw it? How well can a future student know whether the place is important enough to include in studies of architectural history? How well can the historian convey it to that student? Well, perhaps that future student, reading this, may decide that experience of place is its best teacher and he/she may take off from the classroom (the digital sensorium,perhaps?) and instead take body, mind and spirit to some places of rich experience.
I believe that ASC participants often do that. Witness, for example Dennis Winters discussing his personal experience in investigating the Sacred Landscapes of Western Tibet, or Thomas Barrie journeying to Vaals in order to examine, in situ, how the application of Dom. H. Van Der Laan’s theory of harmonic proportion works out in built space. Alison Snyder spent time in Istanbul deciphering what she terms “Urban Zones of Sacredness” surrounding Fatih Cami and speculating on whether mere adjacency to a sacred place changes the nature of social exchange. Phillip Tabb, unknowingly echoing Ptolemy’s contention, discussed “Place Drawing as a Sacred Practice” and illustrated with his own beautifully detailed sketches. Tabb suggests that “to call into being the sacred or mythic realms of a place seems to require either a quieting process into the ethos of the place, enactment with ritual, or possibly a conscious awakening through a process like drawing.”Paul Battaglia takes an opposite approach when he posits that architects find difficulty in addressing the nature of “seeing”, except in rare cases. Unfortunately he fails to cite any of the “rare” cases but proceeds to use a painter (Klee)
and a poet (Hopkins) as examples of ones who can describe the transcendent nature of “seeing” objects. Thus he misses entirely the point that architects are more concerned about Space and Place rather than form. He might just as easily have cited the philosopher Bishop Berkeley or Jonathan Swift or even Joseph Mary Plunkett:
“I see his blood upon the Rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes
His body gleams amid eternal snows
His tears fall from the skies”
What Battaglia seems to miss is that architects and others who draw learn that one sees, through drawing, that essential nature of something or someplace which a camera or even a contemplative look can seldom get to. I use “draw” here in its true sense not as illustration but as eliciting, as bringing out that which is not obvious, that which cannot otherwise be described, even in words from the most erudite writers.
It is hard to pray in aluminium or steel. It is easier to pray in stone or clay. That idea applies both to making shapes and to being in built space. The U.S. Air Force Chapel in Colorado and the mediaeval church of Le Thoronet exemplify extremes of the latter; Michelangelo’s “prisoners” and Harry Bertoia’s “flight” are examples of the former. Could that be merely a question of conditioning, of cultural landscape, of habituation?
This brings me to a paper by Heyjung Chang in which she calls on such eminent divines as Maslow, Dewey, J. B. Jackson et al., to dismiss architectural theorists’ notion of spirituality as pretentious, noble, misconceptions which have little to do with shared experience. She is justified, of course in the light of much jargonistic posturing among contemporary theorists of design. However when she attempts to shape the notion of spirituality into a more “useful” concept and tries to “identify it as a critical dimension that binds together the fullest experience of the environment” she takes us in a direction which is so objectified that one can only later breathe relief at Nader Ardalan’s long quotation from Thomas Merton at the end of the his interesting paper. He describes how he teamed with an artist, Karl Sclamminger, to create spiral, spatial constructions based on traditional Persian sacred number systems as found in Mandalas. The latter formulae trigger memories of the Pythagorean Golden Section, so beloved of architects for over twenty five centuries in the West, and the Upanishads’ nine-square diagrams which frame an image of Brahma and allow for infinite variations toward a perfection that is never quite attainable. The Merton quote is from THE NEW MAN:
“It is quite usual, when a man comes into intimate spiritual contact with God, that he should feel himself entirely changed from within. Our spirit undergoes a conversion a metanoia, which reorientates our whole being after raising it to a new level, and even seems to change our whole nature itself. ……….” (Please read the complete quotation in Ardalan’s paper).
When Ms. Chang refers to “peak experience” or when Paul Tesar says “we can use our attention to penetrate deeper into the object of experience, to discover its specific and unique identity, its wonder and mystery, because its general identity is not in question and already known “ they are
seeking, I believe, to make that which is arcane, or shrouded in secrecy, intelligible so that in understanding it we may transcend its clarity and advance from consideration of the ordinary to contemplation of the unmeasurable.
It is deeply refreshing to move away from such difficult questions to observe how a young man, a student came to grips with death and life simultaneously in the building of a very traditional mosque. Osman Nur returned to Somalia upon the death of his beloved father. A mosque honouring the latter’s memory was already under construction using traditional craft, time-honoured methods, and local materials. No greater way to pay homage to his father could Osman find than to design and build that mosque, but he faced the dilemma of confronting the unquestionable authority of the intractable elders. Yet somehow through the diplomacy born of profound respect for tradition, he was able to introduce radically new (to them) techniques…a waffle slab of concrete, and modern skylights, which were inspired by Ardalan’s book, The Sense of Unity and his sacred spaces, spiralled skywards in rotated squares based upon the much revered numbering systems of old.
But what brings this diversity of perspectives together in a monastery whose motto is the balance of work and prayer?
Julio Bermudez, whose research concentrates on how distancing ourselves from sources of wonder can help in understanding the “wow!” factor in spatial experience, speculated that perhaps each of us has experienced or seen something which had a profound (spiritual) effect on us; that “people here have had revelation that they feel the need to share”.
Listening to Michael Rotondi describe an epiphany which caused him to abandon his materially successful practice and seek something more in tune with his deeper, inner self one might be tempted to say “oh, here we go again, back to the sixties and all that touchy feely stuff beloved of uncertain adolescence and bereft age” but one should remind oneself that the sixties’ euphoria released also some still unanswered challenges.
Michael Benedikt in his disarmingly frank paper on “Love and Beauty” evokes a memory of Denise Scott Brown’s question to an assembly of professors of architecture…”Next time you think that something is ugly, stop and ask yourself seriously ‘why?’ You may be surprised at the answer. Benedikt, using an elemental four-word matrix, isolates for a moment the notion of “loveable ugliness” which, he thinks was what both Samuel Mockbee at the Rural Studio and Christopher Alexander were striving for. Once, when I talked with Chris in his garden, he contemplated aloud an idea of beautiful otherness in the ordinary, which he said was behind the design of a tiny pond beside which we sat. This was what he wrote about in The Timeless Way of Building, the “quality with no name”, that which can inspire us to free ourselves of learned and habituated theoretical constrictions in order to build in tune with nature.
Benedikt, in his modest story-telling mode, calls the best of Modern architecture “the world of the Ice Queen”, epitomised by Mies’ Farnsworth house with its aloof posture “unforgiving, pure, demanding of admiration for its self-denials, perfect in proportion and construction, all weaknesses and stresses and blemishes concealed”. This is
his category of “lovable beautiful”.
Do we detect a moral note in all this scholarly discussion? Indeed yes. For he goes on to reflect, a little wistfully, I think, on the “multitude of architects who did loved and beautiful work, and are doing it still, whom we know not at all” and thus makes for me, the most profound point of the three days.
Paul Tesar’s gentle logic pursues a similar vein when he talks of spirituality ‘from the ground up” in the streets of India… I must confess to being a little at odds with Paul in this. India is too complex, almost infinitely so, to be so characterised. And yet, among the street-food vendors outside the Law Garden in Ahmadabad or in the spirit of a lone individual who makes a huge pleasure garden out of discarded commodities and spaded earth in a humane affront to Le Corbusier’s grandiloquence at Chandigarh or, further afield, in the dignity of a naked saddhu striding resolutely through traffic in Kathmandu,one senses the innate power of anonymity exposed for an instant. Such flashes of awareness beyond the unwitting smugness of the trained mind are indeed startling intimations of otherness arising from the day-to-day experience.
Is that why some of our most moving sensory and perhaps ‘spiritual’ experiences occur in small spaces built of earthy materials or, at least of elemental form where light and sound and air are so clarified that it can be akin to experiencing the Milky Way from a high mountain, where one can almost touch the stars? Is that why it seems easier to pray in a dry-stone cell than in a titanium capsule?
Ah, but what if the capsule is a thousand miles out in the cosmos?
But architecture, for most of us is earthbound, causing the Irish landscape architect James Fehily once to say about Mies and Corb and Kahn and Wright “they are all great men, but here am I trying to put two by fours together”.
Such humility is rare and some of us are easily seduced by the equally scarce heady milieu of the mountaintop. It is easier from there to accept Le Corbusier’s belief articulated by Jose Oubrerie in a recent conversation at RPI, “Always in a building you should have something which goes toward the infinite”.