Our senses are the means by which we receive information. Without them, no
information would pass to us; that is to say, there would be no knowledge,
intuition or transcendence. It should be noted that in sensation, the corporal
emerges as the core of subjective and objective cognition.
In terms of architecture, it is our aesthetic apprehension of the corporal
that informs us, through our senses, of the cultural value and content of a
building. Buildings invariably are signifiers, they reveal, represent, resemble
and express. They are, without question, artifacts or physical proponents of
What and how something is signified, is the most important question for
architecture and for any community which builds.
When the Catholic Church intends to build a sacred space, and chooses an
architect to conceive of a plan and images for that space, the community should
take it very seriously. If, for example, a Modernist architect is asked to
actualize the what and how of a sacred space - the community should be concerned
about how he might articulate their experience of religion and what that
experience might be. This is because Modernist architecture, I would submit,
lacks a theoretical foundation to create a representational, expressive or
metaphorical discourse to signify the wellspring of customs, rituals,
sacraments, remembrances, essences, catechisms, symbols, miracles or atmospheres
for worship that embody the Catholic faith.
To explain this, it must first be stated that the canon of Orthodox Modernism
intends to repudiate history. In order to pursue a negation of truth, the modus
operandi of Modernism depends on an aesthetic of representational sterility and
So viewed, Modernism's denial of historical meaning then, means that it can
only claim to lie within a secularist architectural mode. One of the things
which Modernism denies Catholicism, is integral to historical religious content:
tectonics. Tectonics in architecture has been defined as the poetics of
structure. To reveal a poetics of structure is to give back to reality and the
set of programmatic, economic and physical rules it gives us, an art form which
is essential. An art form, moreover as narrative, that people need and
appreciate. Marco Frascari, in his essay "The Tell-the-Tale Detail
", argues that through tectonic detail one can see the process of
signification; the attachment of meaning to manmade objects. The narrative and
character created by tectonic detail alludes to multifaceted measures of
meaning and is the link that makes the invisible, visible.
Unfortunately, in Modernist architecture's preference for tectonic
abstraction, there are no elements which can act as a symbolic link to the
transubstantive and eschatological content of Catholicism. Modernist architects,
in other words, either misunderstand or refuse to use symbolic conventions and
signification to open communication between existential planes. As an
abstraction, it becomes an architecture that forces the Catholic liturgy to
occupy an otherwise empty, unknowable place.
As an example, let us consider the new chapel of St. Ignatius, by the
well-known architect Steven Holl, located on the campus of Seattle University.
As a work of orthodox Modernism, none of its architectural characteristics
transcend an industrial appearance which seems to mean that technology and its
gadgetry actually transcend all other possible representational values. It has
no ecclesiastical details, no sacred architectural ornaments or any recognizable
tectonic symbolic forms. It abandons all religious architectonic dialectics
which have endured the ebb and flow of custom and use, or that touch the deepest
layers of history - the domain of memory. To a passerby, it appears to be
nothing more than a nominal box with light scoops that in the past,
illuminated tables of fabricators, technicians, objects d'art, seamstresses, or
even disco dancers. Furthermore, though the light inside is described as
evocative, these light giving scoops, as formal elements, themselves
reveal no meaning. Unlike clerestory windows, domes, lanterns or rose windows,
they are representationally mute gestures. The name given them doesn't even have
sacred epistemological or etymological status; or for that matter, an extrinsic,
cultural meaning. They are like utensils, literal statements of efficiency.
Moreover, the only other notable aspect this structure offers the spiritual
being is a material variation of its contrived randomness and wall surface
treatment. Thus when compared to hundreds of the intricate forms and rich
surfaces of many traditional churches, the supposed genius of this chapel's
forms amounts to very little. Though these variations may, at first glance, be
interesting, after time they reveal nothing to us, or rather, nothingness.
The building's lack of representational possibilities, admits that the
technological process of making has become the destination of the building
itself, thereby changing the metaphorical province of its program. Holl's
chapel thus refuses to respond to its program by means of religious figuration.
Aside from some candles, a tabernacle, the baptismal font, a displaced crucifix,
the altar and a kneeler, the building itself offers us a sober and positivistic
dialogue with the machine. So viewed, a building devoid of figurative elements
and thus reduced to cleverly organized production line functionalism or even
composed of novel shapes, bears little didactic presence. Thus, upon
apprehension of this building from both within and without, our senses respond
only to mechanistic metaphors, fundamental to a Modernistic discourse on art,
rather than to otherwise religious concepts of transcendence.
To conclude, Seattle University seems to have solicited Holl, as a bold
player in a game of novelty-seeking, in order to appear progressive. In fact,
this building's appearance seems emblematic of overvaluing the importance of
change. For many decades now the Church has chosen the builders of Modernism,
which, as Edmund Burke said, ". . . have no respect for the wisdom of
others; but pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own. With
them it is sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things, because it is
an old one. As to the new, they are in no sort of fear with regard to the
duration of a building run up in haste; because duration is no object to those
who think little or nothing has been done before their time, and who place all
their hopes in discovery."
Meanwhile, what the Church is near losing is the true essence of its
inextricable relationship with architecture that keeps what is sacred, sacred.
In building this building, the University and the Catholic Church have failed to
question what Modernism is unable to express; they have failed to discriminate
against what Modernist architecture can only express and they have failed to
adequately represent themselves by defining what they can and ought to express.
The atmosphere of a chapel is a sacred concept in itself. It is an atmosphere
that deserves great depth of thought, and requires great care in its making. So
stated, it is very odd over the past decades that the Catholic Church would
forsake the architecture it has grown up with for one which has no articulate
theory of universals, ideals or beauty. Perhaps a reconsideration of the
tectonic in expressing these ideals will lead us forward to the realization of a
chapel as sacred space.
Duncan McRoberts is an architect living and working in Seattle.