Thursday, August 23, 2007

Does a truly Catholic home need to be neo-classical architecture?

A commenter to the last post brought up a fantastic point for discussion, one which I had been planning on posting about but had neglected to do so to this point. It would have been better had I done this post closer to the unveiling of the schemes, because it probably would have answered a lot of questions about the design. So the comment is something like this: the home designs look a lot more modern than expected given my statements about church architecture, Duncan Stroik's architecture, etc., and this is surprising.

This is a totally fair question or comment, so I'd love to address it. First, here is an example that the commenter (Leeann) was referring to, a rendering from Scheme A:
What you see here is a couple things that brought about the comment. First, there's floor-to-ceiling windows, which are definitely more of a contemporary design thing. Also, the columns that are supporting the structure are "unadorned;" i.e. they aren't "classical" in terms of doric, ionic, or corinthian, or other classical design themes. What you see is very linear lines (that's kind of redundant I suppose, but you know what I mean), and uncluttered design feel, etc. So the question is, is this type of design philosophy opposed to beauty, the human person, or even transcendence, which are things that are usually acknowledged as being supported in classical architecture?

My answer would be "no." First off, I think anyone would acknowledge that a portion of design is simply personal taste. My personal tastes gravitate toward uncluttered, simple, elegant design. You can see that in the design of this blog, which I have been very careful in doing (though hopefully it looks like I didn't spend a lot of effort). I think ornamentation can, if it's not done properly, add to a space feeling cluttered. So that's some background on my personal tastes, and as a reminder there is more specifics here for both myself and Molly. (Molly's tastes are obviously a little different, so part of this process is melding our tastes to produce something both of us can really relate to).

Secondly, one of the overarching philosophies in the design you see above is "tectonics." That is, that the physical structures you see before you in a space actually mean something; they're there for a reason. So, when you see the columns above, those are there because they are actually supporting the structure of the home. There are no extra columns just for looks. Also, even the vaulted ceilings are tectonic in that they conform to the shape of the roof. There is no unnecessary dead space, which would be created by having a simple horizontal ceiling. So in my own words, tectonics is "truth-in-design", what you see has meaning for the physical structure. The physics and the design are melded into one form. I think that can be elegant and beautiful. I don't think it would be truth-in-design to tack up corinthian veneers all over the place to make the space look "classical." I don't think that's necessary or very elegant. I think ancient Greek and Roman architecture was tectonic in that the ornamentation you saw was actually physically carved into solid marble or stone, and that makes sense to me. Today's cost structures certainly would not allow for that (and it's not like the peasants of these ancient societies were running around building their own classical homes either).

All this said, what I do wholeheartedly support are classical design principles, which aid in making a design "timeless." Things like proportion and pattern, use of the golden ratio, these things can be part of any design. Let me show you some examples of architecture that I think relate to Scheme C, are contemporary, and employ timeless design principles. This is all stuff I have found on my own, so I don't want to put words in my brother's mouth that these relate to the design of Scheme C, but I think they do from my own viewpoint. First, here's a reminder of the side elevations of Scheme C:
A great contemporary architect that I think produces good residential designs is Hugh Newell Jacobsen. Now, he generally seems to produce designs that are quite a bit more expensive than our home will be, but here are some of his designs that I think relate well to the design of Scheme C:
I especially like the last one. The design is so elegant, with everything so rationally ordered and balanced, it's quite beautiful. You can see the so-called "clean lines" in his designs, and the uncluttered nature of them, but I think it would be hard to argue that if these designs were shown to a person from, say, the 1700's that they would find the designs unintelligble. I think they would understand the designs quite nicely, which relates to the timeless principles of the designs.

Where I depart from the contemporary philosophy is in the design of a Catholic space, whether it be a church or chapel. There you need a whole different sort of tectonics, a spiritual tectonics. A Catholic space has to have iconography and some degree of ornamentation and formality to communicate truths of the faith. Stripping a Catholic church of these things strips the church of the spiritual meaning that is intended to be communicated to the faithful. So here is where I wholeheartedly endorse the church architecture of Duncan Stroik and others like him who are reclaiming the sacred language of church architecture and revitalizing the Church. If you are interested, here is a piece by Duncan McRoberts, another fine Catholic church architect, on spiritual tectonics in specifically Catholic spaces like churches and chapels. So, our chapel in the home will necessarily be a different space than the rest. Part if that is coming from me; I will be creating sacred art for the chapel and the rest of the home that will add the necessary iconography. But the design of the chapel itself will be different too, and we really haven't gotten to that point yet.

I think, in general in regard to the home as a whole, there are two extremes that need to be avoided. One extreme is the claim that ALL architecture must be "classical" or neo-classical in form. I totally disagree with this. I would say that Duncan Stroik may lean this way; if you look at his portfolio at his non-religious architecture, he designs every home or office building using Classicism. I don't have a problem with that at all, but if one were to argue that this is the ONLY way these buildings should be done, and that any contemporary architecture is unsuited for the task, that's where I would not agree.

The other extreme is rampant in the architecture and art world today. That is that one MUST design architecture or art to be something completely new (often couched in the term "of our time"), or that you completely throw off the old or ancient human knowledge about design and try to "invent" everything yourself. If a building includes classical elements, or utilizes the language of architecture from past eras, then it is automatically disqualified from getting recognition as a "good" building because you didn't do something "new." This, again, is something I totally disagree with. Today's novelty is tomorrow's fad, and unless universal principles of timeless design are used, new architecture risks being a fad, cast off later in favor of whatever the next new thing is.

In then end, my hope is that the home can meld the contemporary and the ancient, two things that are often presented as opposing one another. The home can then show that the contemporary and the ancient can be in conversation with one another, which incidentally is also important for presentation of the Catholic faith to the modern world, much of which feels that the "ancient" teachings of the Church have no place in the modern world. Truth is timeless.


Laura The Crazy Mama said...

You can't please everyone!!!! My only opinion about house design or any design is this: as long as it's nothing like that "House on The Rock" in Wisc., go for it. That has to be the most hideous, unsettling "design" of anything else in the whole world. I went on a tour of it one time and I was sick to my stomach the whole time.

Debbie (Nana) Koop said...

I know this comment has nothing to do with this post, but I would like to know how you will use your chapel. I would like to see a post just about the many ways in which you will use your chapel. How will the chapel add and/or detract from any devotions that you have now? What prayers and devotions that you do now will work better or worse in a formal chapel? How much time do you now spend in prayer or devotion now and will the chapel increase that or will it stay the same? Will having a chapel, in your opinion, help you to be more disciplined? How often will your home school meet in the chapel? Will you allow the kids to read in the chapel and if so, could they read anything? Will this room be designated for prayer and meditation alone? I'm just curious about your prayer time now and how a chapel will change that. Love, Mom

Debbie (Nana) Koop said...

Ignatius Press has a book out on facing east when in prayer: Turning Toward the Lord, by Lang. I thought you might be interested.

Brendan Koop said...

Regarding use of the chapel, I'll mark that down as a post to do in the future!

John Curran said...

Really enjoyed your discussion of architectural form, with reference to the home and chapel; answered many questions that arose in my mind.

orthagonality -- brendon, I know you've chosen Scheme C, to be revised, and possibly with less non-squared angles. I wonder if you've been in a real building where the wings go off on odd tangents; I've recently been in one, and is a bit unsettling and even somewhat off-putting-- I really wonder if is pleasing to the brain.

I am very interested in any remarks you have to share on what debbie koop asked regarding uses of the chapel.

If you don't mind a personal comment, I am very intrigued with what appears to me, as an 'outsider', your ideas on traditional Catholicism which you have integrated with a (not to say "Protestant"?!) Christianity.

Not a criticism, but a seeking to understand, with applications for myself.

For example, would you permit Holy Communion (on the presumable rare instances of Mass in the private chapel) to be distributed by a Eucharistic Minister, or do you hold (as I do!) that the Real Presence must be held in higher reverance...

Brendan Koop said...

Ooo, very interesting comment John. I love to engage such thoughtful questions! Somewhat of a failing of mine, actually. A buddy of mine in my men's group has taken to detecting if I'm passionate about a subject I'm launching into, and then blurting out "you have 30 seconds," as a time limit before he'll cut me off :-)

Very good question regarding the orthagonality, I can't say that I specifically recall being in a building where there were "wings" intersecting at acute angles. This may be a deficiency in my experience, but as you said, Scheme C is going to be revised to add more orthagonality, and from there I'll probably rely pretty heavily on renderings from my brother to get a sense of how it feels. The renderings have been remarkable, almost photorealistic, but I suppose that can't substitute being in the space.

As far as your comments at the end, if I can guess at what you were trying to say (correct me if I'm wrong), it's that it seems I have some combination of traditional Catholicism with "evangelical" Catholicism, and I think that's probably pretty accurate (though labels are usually useless in describing a person's views). In fact, I wouldn't call any offical views of the Faith my own views, in that I trust 100% in the magisterial teaching authority of the Church. Authentic "traditional" and "evangelical" Catholicism both are orthodox, but perhaps both have different emphases. I am very excited about the Holy Father's motu proprio liberating use of the Tridentine mass, and am even more excited that I will be able to expose my children to this extraordinary form of the mass so they can experience that diversity of liturgy (not to mention that we are teaching our kids Latin as part of our homeschool curriculum). The "evangelical" Catholic side of me definitely comes from my development as a Catholic (apologetics and evangelization), and the fact that we are actually members of an orthodox, "charismatic" Catholic parish. Think Franciscan University style parish. It's dynamic and incredibly faithful, with a high degree of emphasis on Bible study, catechesis, formation of children in the Faith, and worship (including charismatic worship). There ain't no beating around the bush at the Church of St. Paul, Jesus Christ is Lord! If you've heard of Jeff Cavins, St. Paul's is his home base, and I have taken 3 year-long Bible studies from him at the parish, where he teaches in person. Another plus at St. Paul's it that we have the largest number of homeschooling families of any parish in the state - not surprising given the catechesis of the parish. There's something like 90 homeschooling families.

In regard to your specific question about Holy Communion, I can't conceive of a situation where we would ever have an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist at a mass in our chapel, as the Church is very specific that extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist are only to be used when absolutely necessary (even at a decent sized parish mass). A mass with, say, 10 people in attendance doesn't come anywhere close to meeting such a threshold. Still, EME's are certainly licit when necessary per the Church's guidelines, and I defer to parishes to decide when they feel they need extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist (though there are clearly occasions where use of EME's goes too far).

Hope this answers your questions.

John Curran said...

brendon, thank you for your carefully considered posting, which does indeed answer my questions. You'll see even the planning of your home is a mysterious working, with unforeseen ripples. I've been "lured in" with the combination of a few topics of interest to me.

I'll continue to watch the proceedings here with interest, and thank you for not only allowing this, but encouraging feedback.

Brendan Koop said...

Thanks John, I have a feeling we'll get to know our regular commenters very well over the course of this home planning!