Category Archives: Architecture

Beyond the Modern Degeneration of Architecture

Knight of Númenor says that the prevailing architecture of our time fails to convey meaning:

A building could look like a Cathedral, but if you go into the inside, it might be a dance floor. Most skyscrapers are built in a Brutalist manner, which gives little insights [sic] into what the business offices inside are trading, unlike buildings of yore: the townsmen knew this was a church, this was the Lord Mayor’s office building, and this was the merchant’s guild.

The first example is of the repurposing characteristic of ‘postmodernist’ architecture: whether through ironic appropriation of elements that don’t belong according to the historic vocabulary, or through retrofitting of a building for a purpose entirely unlike that suggested by the structure and ornamentation, such changes are superficially original but betray, underneath, a lack of both originality and a true sense of architecture. I am not a trained architect, but it only takes someone with common sense and some informed sensibility to know that such anti-architecture, undertaken not merely as a concession to practical constraints but rather with prætensions to artistic value, is the mercantile work of charlatans.

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Frank Gehry’s Stata Center at MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The second example is of ‘modernist’ architecture, and of Brutalism in particular. Skyscrapers built in this manner, Knight of Númenor says, tell us little about what they are used for, unlike more traditional buildings that signal in a variety of ways what is a temple, what is a municipal office, and what is a merchants’ guild. Architecture of this character, one may say, is faceless.

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Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Both examples show a certain disorientation; both examples speak to the need for genuine social connexion rather than the social alienation we experience in the West, as Knight of Númenor describes:

Atomized individuals waddle through cities, among a sea of constructions, not having much connections to one another, unlike cities of old in which citizens knew the history and ideals of the city they live [sic] in.

What I mean by ‘the West’ is what Aleksandr Dugin articulates about Europe v. the West:

I consider myself to be an anti-Western ideologist in the fullest sense of the word. But I distinguish between Europe and the West. I believe that these are two different concepts. Europe is an historical territory where different peoples, traditions, and states have existed which highly interest me. I have written a series of books called Noomahiya (‘Clash of the Nomoi’) in which I discuss the logos of Europe, Germany, France, Italy, and Greece. I have the deepest reverence and respect for the logos of European culture. I study this logos together with the languages, literature, philosophy, and cultures of Europe, which I love. But I think that the path that European society has gone down over the last few centuries, beginning with the epoch of the Enlightenment and ending with liberalism and modern Anglo-Saxon liberalism, is not Europe, but Anti-Europe. And this is precisely what I attribute to the concept of the ‘West’. The West is sunset, the fall, the descent, which is precisely the etymology that the word has in Russian. I am against the West and for the East, for ascent. The West is the decline of Europe.

This is where, in opinion, I think I part company with Knight of Númenor. He is a cheerleader for the West, and I a partisan of traditional society; he champions the modern structures that have the veneer of tradition but are in fact whitewashed tombs that protect the degenerations of bourgeois society – or, should I say, bourgeois antisociety. This error is not unique to the papists, but I cannot help thinking that this is one form ‘reaction’ takes among papists and some Anglicans; what is needed is not an unconsciously modern reaction, which actually protects the degeneration that has insinuated itself into the system and into our very psyches, but a reasoned, and biblical, response to the changes of the past few centuries. A true classicist will respect tradition, which by the experience of men through the ages shows the wisdom of the Holy Ghost, but he will not look back to a single golden age as a time to return to, any more than Cicero would have tried to return the Roman republic to the way it was under King Numa Pompilius.

Kagawa Præfectural Government Office, Kagawa, Japan (1958).

Shown above is a well-known Brutalist design by Kenzō Tange 丹下 健三. Tange’s work here is certainly modern, in that it uses modern materials and its creator was strongly influenced by Corbu (the French modernist architect Le Corbusier), but it also has an unmistakable national character, drawing as it does from the Japanese tradition. The building’s protruding horizontal beams suggest the rafters of Japanese temples, but the number of levels and the massing suggest a Japanese castle. The construction is modern but traditional in the best sense, fitting for a government office.

The way is not merely to sigh, ‘Sic transit gloria mundi,’ nor is it to dream of the inevitable ‘Great Reset’ espoused by the (neo)reactionaries – which, unlike the General Strike (against capitalism and bourgeois-controlled ‘class collaboration’) of Georges Sorel and the syndicalists, is a bad myth, bad because it is neither true nor effectual. No, the way is forward, both ad fontes and excelsior: to the ancient sources and ever higher.

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Against the Intended Project at King’s College

Dat sacrilege doe. I find this project at King’s College, Cambridge, to be exceedingly ill conceived, and not merely because I am a nostalgic Romantic (though by temperament I am sometimes that, too). What seems destined to be attempted there overthrows all sense of order and harmony in nature.

It is not that I hate all modern architecture. I am not opposed even to all Brutalist constructions. I believe that even a Brutalist building, which features exposed concrete, can fit sensitively into its environs. Some of the designs of Tange Kenzō, for example, fit into the fabric of Japan without departing from Japanese tradition entirely.

But the tower now enterprised upon blocks qi like none other. Not content to sit patiently before the chapel, it must erect itself taller than the chapel, destroying the famous view between the chapel and the river.

Read the matter for yourself. It is irreverent. It is wicked. It must, for the sake of decency, be replaced with a more modest tower.

And it is April Fools.

For Chinese-Californian Domestic Architecture

In the Straits Settlements of Singapore, Penang, and Malacca, Chinese settlers have made their architectural mark; in the United States, this has not happened. As the Chinese become increasingly prominent in American life, I expect that our cultural contribution will increase, especially in California, where a third of Chinese Americans live. Fremont and similar cities, which are more than 15% East Asian, would be excellent places for architects to explore new ways of designing houses which were attuned to Chinese culture.

For Chinese folk, layout ideally will suit Chinese needs. A page might be taken from the way in which houses were laid out in ancient Rome, whose family culture was in some ways similar to that of the Chinese. Here is a basic Roman domus, or house:

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And here is an extended layout that provides for two sets of bedrooms, one around the atrium (main hall) and the other around the peristyle (garden court):

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In a Chinese household, the main hall would be the place where the ancestor cabinet and the home altar were kept, corresponding to the Roman lararium, at which the household gods used to be worshipped. Since I have already discussed how Christians might adapt these things, I shall pass over that matter here, saying only that a Christian family and a pagan family would each have its own way of using the space for worship. For both, however, the most fitting place for the altar would be opposite the entrance.

Besides the altar, the Roman atrium also had an impluvium, or rainwater basin, which gathered water from the sloping roof of the compluvium above. Though a distinctively Roman feature, it is not without parallel in Chinese practice. According to Ronald G. Knapp, in China’s Old Dwellings (Honolulu, Hawai‘i: Univ. of Hawai‘i Press, 2000), many an old southern Chinese house has a skywell (天井), which like an atrium lets light and air into the house. Like the Romans, the Chinese have often stored rainwater, though in large vats. Especially in the drought-prone Californian climate, keeping this water rather than allowing it to run off helps save precious drinking water. In the summer, says Knapp, the skywell itself also catches passing breezes and evacuates interior heat. If we are to prepare for scarce water and energy, these features are worth making available.

In a larger house with two sets of bedrooms, the bedrooms opening upon the main hall would be more suitable for guests, and the more private area in the back could be reserved for the family. This separation corresponds well to Chinese practice in a traditional house, which maintained a hierarchy of living spaces. But the back rooms, in many cases, would be better stacked on top of the rooms arranged around the main hall. Especially in California, space is often at a præmium, and the use of a second story allows for flexible garden space in the back, perhaps with herbs, vegetables, and clothes-lines. Though earthquakes have made one-story houses common, the Bay Area is not short on houses with two storeys. Either way, however, a usual separation of spaces fits well with the Chinese need for clear order.

Photograph by Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho (CC BY 2.0).

For a two-story façade, fitting construction and stylistic details might be found in the houses of Provence and other houses inspired by Provençal architecture. The look of Provence would fit well with the climate of some parts of the Bay Area, and in time architects could find ways to combine Provençal construction and colour with Chinese elements, as the folk of Penang have done with the cultures in their context.

Before the house, a front porch and a front yard could serve as the forecourt. Following Chinese tradition, the entrance into this forecourt, whether a gate or a simple opening in a hedge, would be placed to the southeast – that is, toward the right from the perspective of the street.

Photograph by Sarah Gilbert (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

In keeping with the American tradition of the front porch – a tradition the folk at Front Porch Republic have stressed – the use of a soft forecourt affirms the republican tradition of bridging the privacy of individual persons and their families and the public good of the commonwealth. As Patrick J. Deneen says, ‘The porch, as a physical bridge between the private realm of the house and the public domain of the street and sidewalk, was the literal intermediate space between two worlds that have been increasingly separated in our time, and hence increasingly ungoverned in both forms.’ Thus a feature of Chinese architecture can be adapted to support, on American soil, both the life of our republic and every family’s need for fellowship with a society greater than itself, a society that at last embraces the entire human race. Especially when the Chinese are held to keep to ourselves and serve the kindred of the Chinese rather than the whole that is the United States – to care for the advancement of our own children in élite universities but not for the common interest – the semi-open forecourt is a place to prove that imputation wrong and to add Chinese strengths to the American republic. We are neighbours, and our use of the space can reflect that truth.

By bringing Chinese architecture into concourse with ancient Roman and modern American republicanism, I hope to have encouraged the cultivation of Chinese virtues in the American state and the inculcation of American habits in Chinese persons. As the Trimetric Classic says, 人之初,性本善,性相近,習相遠:Man has been created with a good nature; but though nature brings us together, as Aristotle also tells us, habit takes us apart. Hence, to integrate a large population of Chinese in the States and also to acclimate Americans to a world in which the Chinese must be known is a greater task than simply setting up Chinese shops for commerce and putting up Chinese folk in American tract houses, even in the prosperous Silicon Valley. We need the gifts God has providentially developed to be formed into a cohærent whole, and we need the gifts of architects who will understand the task and apply their skill to it.

Eschatological Cabinet

Perhaps you know what the image above shows. It is a Chinese shrine cabinet, once used by a prosperous family to hold the spirit tablets of the ancestors. Today, however, I am considering the use such a thing would have for a Christian family. Obviously, the superstitions of the pagan past do not belong to the pure worship of the luminous faith of Jesus Christ, so rites and cæremonies, and even ornaments, must differ from those which the pagans use.

A cabinet, of course, is meant to be opened. Inside, on the backdrop, I would have written the Beatitudes:

虛心者福矣、以天國乃其國也、
哀慟者福矣、以其將受慰也、
溫柔者福矣、以其將得土也、
飢渴慕義者福矣、以其將得飽也、
矜恤者福矣、以其將見矜恤也、
清心者福矣、以其將見上帝也、
和平者福矣、以其將稱爲上帝子也、
爲義而見窘逐者福矣、以天國乃其國也、○

And surrounding these words I would have memorial tablets for the ancestors who had died in the faith, with whose honourable examples we also strove, by the might of Jesus Christ, to live for the righteousness of God. And this whole cabinet would be the reredos to the home altar, and in it we would keep the family Bible.

When the family was worshipping God, we would take the Bible out of the reredos and have it on the table until it was to be read. The ancestors’ memorial tablets would bear witness to the presence of God and the blessed hope of everlasting life. On their death days, we would read their commemorations after the official Collect of the Day. In this way, the Bible of all God’s people would beautify the tablets of the ancestors, and the tablets would serve the word of God. When the Scriptures were read, they would be represented as being in the midst of the living and the dead, in the communion of all the saints in Christ Jesus. When we sang praises to God, and offered prayers in the Name of his Son, we would remember that the ancestors did the same, as well as innumerable angels and all the company of heaven, and we would look toward the life of the world to come.

And if a cleric should come to prepare communion for the sick, it would be on the table standing before this reredos, wherein were written all the names of family’s faithful departed. Death, then, is not a lonesome passage, but an entrance in communion with all those in the family who have gone before into Sheol in the footsteps of our Lord. Into the joy of the saints in everlasting rest will he go, with the ancestors, who trusts in the Lord. The Lord’s body and blood are the last tokens of his faithfulness in death and in life, that those who feed upon the life he has given will surely rise to everlasting life at the Last Day.

All this awaits a family that daily gathers not around entertainment but around piety. The family must seek the wisdom and assistance of the Lord who has saved the ancestors and will save his own who are now living. Salvator mundi, salva nos, qui per crucem et sanguinem redemisti nos: auxiliare nobis, te deprecamur, Deus noster.

Better Buildings: Silicon Valley Alliance Church in Comparison

Some of my relatives attend Silicon Valley Alliance Church (SVAC) in Milpitas, at 10 Dempsey Street. This is the view shown by Google Maps:

Across Dempsey Road to the north is a strip mall, and across South Victoria Park Drive to the east, beyond another strip mall, is Ocean Supermarket.

Placed in this context, the church building could stand prominently among the strip malls as a place where God spoke, a place where people could seek his face. Instead, it is only one story tall, flatter and wider than it is tall. (The low ceiling and the carpeted floor also make for poor acoustics, which by nature discourage congregational singing.) The entrance used by most people to get to the worship service looks like this:

Much more, I think, could be done to make this look like a place where people worshipped God, rather than a generic building that might as well be called ‘Building’. Architecture serves not only physical needs but also the human need for context and orientation, and these are what the SVAC building does not give.

In contrast, look at the façade of St Thomas, Fifth Street, New York:

Front elevation plan of the church

The building cannot be mistaken for anything but a house of worship. Anyone who wants to worship God, or is thinking of worshipping God, is presented with just the thing. Any signs with the name of St Thomas Church are there only to confirm which church it is, not to announce that this is a place for the worship of God. As a landmark, then, St Thomas is far superior; with SVAC, which is in no way distinctive, there is no comparison.

One obvious thing about St Thomas is its very different proportions. Its nave is 43 feet wide between columns, and 95 feet from the pavement to the vault. The SVAC building, of course, need not be of such grand dimensions, but some height would enhance its presence in the neighbourhood. Indeed, substantial height in the presence of strip malls and a single-story supermarket would suggest God’s dominance over the immediate surroundings, which I think an unequivocal good. Perhaps a taller church building could even be seen by someone walking to or from Calaveras Hills High School, the local alternative high school, and later lead to opportunities for school chaplaincy. Though a prominent building is obviously unable to do any good on its own, it may help Christians minister to the city.

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Besides height and landmarking, however, St Thomas also has other features that are instructive for any redesign of the SVAC building. At the bottom of the floorplan above, four vault bays have pews in them. Indeed, at St Thomas, there is a second story of gallery pew space. For a congregation of SVAC’s size, the additional pew space is probably unnecessary, but what is needed is classroom space; and that is what might similarly be furnished by space outside the side aisle. These classrooms could be separated from the worship space by a solid wall, much like the solid wall on the north side of St Thomas.

Even with the solid walls next to the side aisles, there would still be window space in the open triforium and clerestory to fill the place with light, eliminating the need in the daytime to use a full set of electric lights. Instead, the light created by God himself and set in the sky would light up the worshippers as they prayed and sang praises toward heaven.

The reason St Thomas has an asymmetrical façade, with a heavy tower on the left and none on the right, is that the left side is next to 53rd Street, whereas the right side is nestled close to another building. The tower, then, is right at the street corner, calling the city to prayer. For SVAC, the nearby building would be the strip mall to the west – that is, to the left of the entrance on Dempsey Street – and so a redesigned building whose practical solutions were inspired by those of St Thomas, Fifth Street, would instead have a tower on the right, on the far side away from the strip mall. This would also allow the side classrooms potentially to have doors open to the outside, toward the parking lot, if anyone needed to be picked up or dropped off. This, I think, would be well-informed adaptation rather than slavish imitation.

Obviously, a Gothic building is only one way to do things. In Milpitas, the kind of Gothic used for St Thomas might even be rather out of place. I note, however, that First Presbyterian Church of San Leandro, built in an English Gothic style, has no difficulty fitting into its surroundings. Any design would have to be sensitive to its surroundings and strive to make the building an integral part of its neighbourhood; but, with some imaginative skill, a competent architect could do the necessary.

Protestant Use of Chapels

Old church buildings often have chapels whose proper use in a Protestant church is not always clear. Their original purpose in the Middle Ages – masses at which the communicants were none but the priest and a server – is incompatible with the doctrine of holy Scripture. For their antiquity, however, it seems a shame to destroy such chapels – and, even if their dismantling were desired, it might not be feasible. Even in the iconoclasms of the Reformation and the next century’s Puritan Rebellion, after all, these chapels escaped destruction, and probably for good reason. Better, I think, is to fit them for another purpose, that what was intended for will-worship of man’s devising, God might use for true worship according to his own ordinance.

Architecturally, it is useful, especially inside a larger church building, to have smaller spaces that break down the larger space to a human scale. A large building that does nothing but overpower the human will in the end be nothing but inhuman and unnatural, and such a thing is not worth our admiration. For even our Lord condescended to be born of a Virgin, taking on human flesh, to save the souls and bodies of men. To erect a building that crushes the human soul with its high and mighty forms is no angelic, but rather a diabolical feat. In the order of nature, however, is a wisdom that gives more than faceless walls of glass or concrete. Even a pyramid, one may remember, when it had shimmering slopes of smooth limestone – surely a massive geometric form – also had a mortuary temple attached to it, with columns that in turn were inscribed with words and pictures. So old chapels in larger church buildings answer to the human need for smaller things related to the great. The great thing was the High Mass, and today is the main service on Sundays and holy days. Let us consider what, in biblical religion, the smaller things might be.

Chantry chapels were built for priests to say requiem masses for the dead who had paid for propitiatory masses to be said on their behalf, in order that they might more quickly leave purgatory. Today, these chapels must no longer be used for the abomination of private masses. They can, however, still serve well as small spaces for stillness and prayer. Here are two pictures (taken by Aidan McRae Thomson) of a chantry chapel in Winchester Cathedral:

It is pious to pray in these places, monuments of the Lord’s faithfulness to the dead. No less pious is it than that Jacob took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it, and named the place Beth-el. As the chantry chapels are detailed in their adornment, a Christian may remember, so Christ will not lose one of the sheep the Father has given him. In the end, the order of the world belongs to God, and he will set all things right. If it helps the prayers of the faithful to kneel in the quiet of these places, let Christians so use them, surrounded by stones that speak of the goodness of God.

Besides chantry chapels, I wish also to discuss side chapels, which like chantry chapels were once used for many private votive masses, offered for exposition but not according to the intent of holy Scripture. Many of these side chapels were dedicated to some saint or another, with candles burning before the saints’ images. Some of these images, such as Our Lady of Walsingham, people even made superstitious pilgrimages to see. So side chapels, with all that has been done in them, have often been places of idolatry. It is clear that their former use must give way to another.

One ground plan with side chapels is that of the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge:

The side chapels are off to the sides of the antechapel in the west of the building (the chapel, with the main altar, is in the east), to both the north and the south; a couple of them look like this and this (and another elsewhere).

Side chapel, King’s College, Cambridge.

Perhaps the best use of these chapels is those exercises whose nature spans the public and private. These are the exercises that belong to primers, books of private devotion for laymen providing material complementing the official public services of the Book of Common Prayer. In the Church of England, both during and after the Reformation, primers were put out by public authority to teach the people the devotion of a godly people. It is fitting that such exercises should sometimes take place in architectural spaces that are near but not in the spaces reserved for public worship. For some privacy, or rather for some sound insulation, it is perhaps most useful to have not just parclose screens but more solid walls and doors as in King’s College, Cambridge. The advantage of a door, of course, is that it can also be kept open for exercises that are not quite public and not quite private.

Cambridge. King’s College Chapel (interior, side chapels).

One such exercise that comes quickly to mind is the teaching and learning of catechisms, both the simple catechism that appears in the Prayer Book and more advanced catechisms, such as the several written by Alexander Nowell and the one written in Heidelberg and held by some Reformed churches as a doctrinal standard. For this purpose, altars can be replaced by chairs in which the catechists sit in authority as they examine young Christians in the doctrine of the faith. Using side chapels leaves the central worship space free but connects the doctrinal and devotional training of the young and unlearned with the daily round of public worship. Orthodox Christians of all stripes should recognize the reason of seeing to it that believers learn how worship is based on the truth of the gospel and the doctrine of the faith finds expression in true spiritual worship; and so it is most sensible that, through the physical nearness between discursive instruction and worship, students of the faith should gather that the two are closely tied. It is for this reason, I believe, that the classical Prayer Book (1662) also orders that in every parish the clergy instruct and examine the parish children on Sundays and holy days after the second lesson at Evening Prayer, to the end that the words of public church services may come forth from believing mouths, and that the truth of Christ may shape the form of public worship.

Another use of the space, for those who are already being searched hard by the Holy Ghost, is what the Prayer Book calls ‘ghostly counsel’, or spiritual advice. This is the Protestant practice of private confession as distinguished from Rome’s pretended sacramental reconciliation. As Abp James Ussher has already spoken at length of the matter, I shall defer to him in the defence and explanation of the Anglican practice. A bruised reed the Lord will not break; and a side chapel is a good place, with quiet, for a minister to help Christians find the right cures for their sins and pray for their deliverance from all the schemes of the devil. In this manner Protestants can use private confession, not as a way to interpose penances between sinners and forgiveness, but rather as a way to encourage those who are humbling themselves before God and wish to hear the counsel of the wise, whether from clerics or from godly laymen.

A more contested use of side chapels, I expect, is prayer concerning the dead, as represented by the Matins, Lauds, and Evensong of the Dirge (ed. Gerard Moultrie) that appeared in some of the primers of the reign of Elizabeth I. In prayers for the dead and for the bereaved, Anglicans should maintain in pride of place the service given in the Prayer Book. Nevertheless, with sound teaching, Evangelicals should not fear to continue prayers for their brethren beyond the hour of death, but should instead pray boldly in the knowledge that God’s elect will be raised from the dead at the Last Day, that the Lord may keep the faithful departed in his bosom and hasten his return to judge the earth and justify the righteous by virtue of his own righteousness. So, both before the burials and upon the obits of the dead, we ought to commend ourselves while alive to God’s mercy and entrust our departed family and friends to the righteousness of Christ: the righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance. That the Father may be faithful to his Word, every Christian sincerely desires; therefore let no one condemn those who would use side chapels to say dirges for the dead.

The above, I find, are uses of smaller spaces inside churches which would accord with biblical religion and please God. I have no desire to see them used again as they were in the Middle Ages, for practices that perverted the piety of the early Church. Nor do I wish to see them embalmed as museums for an unbelieving people. Instead, I wish to see them used for pious purposes, purposes that would strengthen the faith of the Church according to the Scriptures.