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Notre Dame’s new-classicists yearn to build grand old churches


Not long ago the “Living Arts” section of The New York Times featured a report on America’s “New Classicists,” a group of architects in their 30s and 40s who have taken to building in the style of ancient Greece and Rome. Bright and ambitious, what apparently sets this “New Bunch of Old Fogies” apart from other recyclers of architectural fashion is the high seriousness with which they take themselves and a reputation among critics for being either blatant opportunists or the stodgiest of antiquarians, all semblance of youthful vigor aside.

Why, observers ask, at a moment when the rest of the architectural community is anxiously awaiting the challenges and opportunities of the new millennium, should these designers want to revisit the building conventions of the distant past? Have they really discovered in the sober formality of classical temple fronts or the mathematically proportioned components of so many loggias, bathhouses and forensic halls something applicable to the needs of our time, or are they just making the most of a hot nostalgia market?

Of little surprise to anyone monitoring the ongoing debate over American Catholic church architecture was the appearance in the Times’ report of professors Duncan Stroik and Thomas Gordon Smith of the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture. Recently the pair has emerged as champions of classical design as well as outspoken critics of the direction Catholic church building has taken in the decades since Vatican II.

Stroik, who at 38 enjoys a kind of wunderkind status in certain religious and architectural circles, gained wide attention early in his career by building his family’s South Bend, Ind., home in the manner of a Renaissance villa (his so-called “Villa Indiana”). Smith’s reputation developed during a stint as director of the architecture program at Notre Dame, for which he assembled a cadre of faculty and students intent upon making the school ground zero of New Classicism.

Both advocate an approach to design that rejects modern architecture’s emphasis on novelty in favor of an inviolable canon of classical propriety. (“Rote is radical,” Smith has observed, adding that Notre Dame architecture students are expected not simply to master established design formulas but to apply the logic of classical problem solving to present day situations.) Both are also devout Catholics who, with the zeal of Latin Mass enthusiasts, hope to overturn a half-century of experimentation with liturgy’s physical setting by re-popularizing the look and feel of buildings erected, say, by the Emperor Constantine, the Medici popes, the bishops of the Council of Trent or the first Jesuit communities.

Enough of “prayer barns” and “concrete boxes” masquerading as places of divine worship, the Notre Dame classicists have insisted in published statements; the Catholic faithful are weary of church buildings in the modern vernacular and eager to cast their architecture again in the elevated Greco-Latinate forms that were once the glory of the church of Rome.

What Stroik and Smith are proposing is not simply a “preservationist” initiative concerned with maintaining existing churches in the classical style. Instead, they envision a generation of entirely new places of Catholic worship built along classical lines that will set the church again on a proper liturgical-architectural path.

To Stroik, post-Vatican II architectural practice has been an “unmitigated disaster,” in part because of the council’s own willingness to admit modern modes of expression into the once-hermetic realm of sacred art. In his much-reproduced essay, “Modernist Church Architecture,” he argues that by adopting the preferred style of mid-20th-century European and American architects, the church “undercut its own theological agenda.”

That agenda, as Stroik sees it, is to preserve the gospel message by means of logic, order and historical continuity -- the very values upon which classical architecture is founded. “Just as to do Catholic theology means to learn from the past,” he writes in his equally popular “Ten Myths of Contemporary Church Architecture,” essay, “so to design Catholic architecture is to be inspired and even [to] quote from the tradition and the time-tested expressions of church architecture.”

From this perspective, modern architecture fails the church because it indulges too easily in gestures of disorder and caprice; it raises too many questions, breaks too many rules and diverges too far from the artistic conventions underpinning the faith of average believers. “People generally agree as to whether or not particular places elicit a sensation of sacredness,” suggests Thomas Gordon Smith, who attributes his spiritual-artistic awakening as a classicist to scholarly studies in Rome as well as a period of experimentation with Episcopalianism.

Like Stroik, Smith considers the forms employed by modern architects too inconsequential to bear the weight of religious meaning. “In the 1960s,” he laments in a recent essay, “the church tentatively got on the bandwagon of abstract modernism…. [And this] capitulation of Mies van der Rohe’s dictum, ‘Less is more,’ [has] led to an iconoclastic movement, rationalized by calls in the [liturgical] documents themselves for ‘noble simplicity.’ ”

Safeguarding the church from modern “iconoclasts” is an activity that has gained Stroik and Smith a loyal following among Catholics bitter over changes to the traditional style and setting of liturgical prayer. When in an article for Catholic Dossier, for example, Smith expresses dismay that even deconstructivist architect Peter Eisenman --“[someone] who has designed for MTV”-- is now dabbling in church design, his remarks seem intended to provoke an audience certain to disapprove of anything resembling Eisenman’s topsy-turvy funhouses or the aggressive, music-video medium of America’s youth culture.

Likewise, when in the same publication Stroik prefaces one of his jabs at modern church architects with a humorous quote about the rarity of their successes (“If you wish to see great modernist architecture you must have plenty of time and a Lear jet”) he assumes his readers will appreciate both the levity and the sentiment of the quip. One could just as casually dismiss as failures the dozens of historic parish churches that dot Stroik and Smith’s beloved Roman cityscape, which are a greater draw to sightseers on a typical Sunday morning than to the native Catholics who live within their shadows. But glibness of this sort only trivializes public discourse on the topic and distracts serious observers from the hard, analytical work that prefigures sound aesthetic judgements of any kind.

Systematic analysis is precisely the element that has been lacking in Stroik and Smith’s critique of modern church architecture. Seldom do they bother publicly to dissect the features of one or another of the buildings they find so offensive or provide more than anecdotal support for their claim that Catholics generally hate newer accommodations for worship. Instead, they resort to making the type of sweeping generalizations that should leave even the casual student of recent church history a little suspicious: Soft-headed liturgists are to blame for the sad condition of sacred art, for example. The “vertical dimension” is what’s missing in Catholic architecture today, and with it the sense that our buildings are anything but base, “communitarian” places. Parishes have been brainwashed, their buildings whitewashed, by armies of experts and consultants who are nothing but closet Protestants. Diocesan-level building commissions, architectural review boards and other policy-making bodies are part of a vast “establishment” of modernists out to despoil the church’s patrimony of historic art and architecture.

Such slogans reflect an attitude of both paranoia and self-righteousness. Like good Pharisees, Stroik and Smith are quick to invest the external forms of human ingenuity with specific, moral content. In their case, it is the formal perfection of classical architecture that is equated with moral virtue, while the various products of the contemporary scene are denounced as intrinsically rotten.

It appears not to trouble either Stroik or Smith that they may be overestimating classicism’s iconic potential in the current visual landscape or misjudging the extent to which the style has been debased by commercialization. One has only to visit the typical American mega-mall, with its bounty of phony pediments, cornices, balustrades and cupolas, to observe the latter. Are American Catholics really to swoon over classical details in church buildings when their fiber-resin equivalents can be found at every ATM cubicle, photo-processing kiosk, convenience store or outlet mall in the country?

Neither does it faze them, apparently, that they may be significantly underestimating the depth of sentiment the public is capable of applying to even the sparest of architectural gestures. Witness the citizens of Columbus, Ind., who have worked hard to secure a place on the National Register of Historic Places for their dense collection of buildings by world-famous modernists.

The idea that modern-styled buildings might be perceived as anything but “cold and sterile” doesn’t sit well with the Stroik and Smith’s target audience. When Stroik shares his musings on the set of “Mother Angelica Live,” however, a TV dreamland dripping with appropriately “ecclesiastical” décor, the conservative purveyors of Catholic information take pains to transmit every word to diocesan newspapers throughout the country. Likewise, when Smith makes an off-handed remark about modern churches looking like “Darth Vader helmets,” the quip surfaces on a dozen Catholic Web sites, all proudly displaying the emblem of orthodoxy.

Yet, even Stroik and Smith must concede that from time to time in the life of the church the very style they hope to revive has been judged unfit for sacred service -- most notably, perhaps, by the 19th-century apologist of Gothic culture, Augustus Welby Pugin. So vile and pagan were classicism’s historical associations to Pugin that he pronounced its application even to the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica “a humbug, a failure, an abortion … and a sham.”

Pugin’s hyperbole strikes us as humorous today, and, in time, one assumes, so will that of Stroik and Smith. At the moment, however, there is little amusement to be found in their noisy posturing, and the inconsistencies in their agenda prove irksome: How, for example, can they denounce modern liturgical design as hackneyed, passé and “institutionalized” while damning it at every turn for being too revolutionary for the average parish community to manage? How can they claim to be the new-est of history’s neo-classicists without sounding peculiarly modern themselves in their concern for fashionability?

Rote may well be a “radical,” but only to artists style-conscious enough, in a modernist way, to care about such things. If Stroik and Smith were really the classicists they claim to be, they would hardly indulge in the passing polemics of contemporary church art but content themselves with the transcendent view their ancient orders are supposed to afford them.

The Notre Dame classicists’ fundamental folly lies in thinking that American Catholics can easily forget all they have learned in recent decades by inhabiting buildings shaped by the internal logic of liturgical prayer -- buildings that encourage worshipers to assemble less like members of a marching band than like the integral players in an orchestral ensemble; buildings that, by coincidence of history or cultural predilection, are designed with a modernist eye for practicality; strong, handsomely appointed buildings, with decent restrooms, coatrooms, diaper-changing rooms; proper planning-and-primping-and-feasting-and-mourning rooms, all conceived with the same care as the room reserved for divine worship; buildings, in short, where the church can sacramentalize the here-and-now of its creed in surroundings linked to the here and now.

By proposing to replace all this with an expanse of lovely, antiqued shrine boxes, Stroik and Smith are bound to ingratiate themselves to today’s tabernacle-obsessed bishops, biretta-topped seminarians and a handful of cardboard monsignori. What an architectural legacy they risk destroying, however, for the sake of erecting new church buildings in such an old-fashioned way.

Michael DeSanctis is associate professor of fine arts and a member of the honors faculty at Gannon University in Erie, Pa. He is the author of Renewing the City of God: The Reform of Catholic Architecture in the United States (Liturgy Training Publications, 1994). He is active as a liturgical design consultant throughout the country.

National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2000