Mixed Messages

Volume 43, Issue 2, by Michael J. Crosbie

The name of this journal suggests that there is a strong connection between faith and form, that the environments we create for religious purposes — the art and the architecture of where we meet to worship or to celebrate our belief — always reflect belief. This does not, however, imply consistency. The fascinating thing about religious art and architecture is that they send mixed messages. The different messages are open to various interpretations, and those interpretations change over time. Often our interpretations of what a work of art or architecture “says” tells more about us the interpreters than about the work in question. This question of interpretation, the meaning of the religious spaces we create, runs through each of this issue’s feature articles.

The cover story on the St. Thomas Aquinas College chapel is particularly provocative. The architecture of the chapel speaks volumes about the values of the college that built it and the architect who designed it. For some architects, the style of this building is difficult to swallow. Shouldn’t architecture always reflect the spirit of the age? (In fact, how can it not reflect that spirit?) What does it say about our own time, or about our technology? If you’re a modernist, Aquinas chapel is heresy in stone — a lie about the way we build today. Beyond architectural style, the chapel expresses a spatial hierarchy of celebrant and congregation that is a throwback to the way Roman Catholic churches were designed before the Second Vatican Council. Here is a church that appears to be out of step with both time and belief.

How might one assess a church whose spatial configuration brought the congregants and celebrants together in a stronger sense of community, yet was completely faithful to the tradition of Italian Renaissance architecture? And what about a church that was overtly modern in its architectural design, yet fairly conservative in its spatial arrangement of celebrants and congregants – such as Richard Meier’s Millennium Church in Rome, or SOM’s Oakland Cathedral? Or even the Ave Maria Oratory in Florida (Faith & Form vol. 43, Issue 2, page 12), a building that has drawn fire from both traditionalists (for its contemporary style) and from progressives (who see its position of altar and pews as pre-Vatican II)?

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown considered such issues in their design of a school chapel and a synagogue, both in Pennsylvania (Faith & Form vol. 43, Issue 2, page 18). These projects seem comfortable in their architectural expression of “both/and, either/or,” as Venturi wrote in his 1966 treatise, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. The architecture of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates has never been shy about having it both ways, or many ways, simultaneously. In these two religious buildings architectural tradition has its role to play, in support of spaces that seem to bring the congregants and the celebrants together in community — in light-filled volumes that lift the spirit. There is affirmation that the most interesting art and architecture, like human beings, often contain ideas in conflict with each other.

This brings us back to the parallels between faith and form. A mature faith always has the capacity for doubt and for inquiry. The most satisfying religious art and architecture always make room for the same.

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