Places not worth caring about

In James Howard Kunstler’s view, public spaces should be inspired centers of civic life and the physical manifestation of the common good. Instead, he argues, what we have in America is a nation of places not worth caring about.

And argue it he does, with passion in the greatest tirade I can recall ever watching. Take 19:48 to watch it yourself and see if you can keep from laughing – and agreeing. (Oh yeah: watch it with your earbuds or after the kiddies are down for the night.)

“Suburbia – Advanced Mutation” and “What’s Really Going On Here?” look too much like the postwar excrescences in my hometown. I used to think it was my town that was the problem, but most of the stuff built since World War II – i.e., most of the stuff built in my lifetime – is not worth caring about.

Architecture and Starkitecture

In an era where Houston’s SuperDome can be a “church” for Joel Osteen and his followers, it’s good to know that there still are those who take Church design seriously. It’s especially good to know since I’m chairing my Parish’s Building Committee as we’ve outgrown our current quarters.

Our current quarters are in the American Orthodox genre of “hermit crab.” We take whatever shells other critters abandon – in this case, a “Kingdom Hall” abandoned by Jehovah’s Witnesses (I remember when it was new around 1960):

Our cast-off shell

I recall our Priest, Father Charles, lavishly dousing the interior with holy water, noting that it would take a lot to drive the heresy from the place. But even after adding the cost of holy water, the price was right.

But our next move, we think, should be to something permanent, and thus properly Orthodox. More on that later.

The Wall Street Journal reviews two designs of a Notre Dame-trained Architect, Duncan Stroik, working in a traditional Latin Church vocabulary (subscription may be required). While the Narthex view of The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe left me lukewarm at best, I’m glad I clicked the slideshow link. The first aerial, showing the domed cruciform sanctuary behind the Narthex persuaded me to keep reading and looking, discovering “the splendor of the nave and sanctuary.”

The Thomas Aquinas College chapel is more appealing from the outside, but the interior disappoints with white painted plaster that reminds me too much of the Puritan minimalism of New England Congregational Churches. To be sure, the columns, flooring and aisles would give a Puritan the vapors, but the whiteness seems discordant to me – too “post-Vatican II.”

So why with such historic forms available have Catholics built modern monstrosities for the last 50 years?

Is this excretion a sick joke?

I’ve never been Catholic, and I well know how easy it is to misunderstand a tradition from outside it, so I’ll not speculate.

Before I published this, Ross Douthat of the New York Times picked up the same Wall Street Journal story. Follow his links for proof that butt-ugly brutalism ain’t necessarily cheap.

Meanwhile, on my side of the Great Schism, we have a rising younger architectural star, Andrew Gould, whose temple designs have only been realized once so far. Orthodox parishes in America tend to be much smaller than Roman Catholic parishes, and our temples are proportionately smaller as a result. But an advantage we have, which I think militates in favor of “doing it right” when we build our temples, is that we aren’t liturgical innovators. Our Liturgies are extraordinarily stable. We don’t need to build something cheap so we can knock it down in a few decades to erect what the folks at Fuller Seminary tell us is the Big New Thing God Is Doing to Grow Your Church. My exploration of Church design-build firms for and with our Building Committee suggests that in the current Protestant world, design is often driven by sociological Church Growth theories, and that the big design-build firms promote those theories.

Andrew’s home parish, Holy Ascension near Charleston, may now look relatively stark on the interior, but those white wall are plaster, and will be covered with icons over the decades to come. It is a work in process in that sense, as I believe has been true of most Orthodox temples over the millennia. His whole portfolio of Ecclesial design work bespeaks permanence.

The plaster walls of the properly Orthodox temple Andrew designed and we hope to build, will also receive icons in the future:

Proposed Saint Alexis Exterior
Proposed Saint Alexis Interior

The setting is rural – the source of some personal regret for me, since not one current member of our parish will be within walking or normal biking distance – and commodious. Though I wish we could have afforded a site closer in, I’m excited by the prospects. One of the deepest human needs, I’m convinced, is worship, and an architect whose designs aren’t conducive to that should be used for kindling. (The syntax of the prior sentence isn’t what I intended, but I’m going to let it stand, if you catch my drift. Call it serendipitous.)