Sculpturalism and Skeletonism

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Shown is one of my favorite architectural drawings. It is Thomas Gordon Smith’s interpretation of the five Orders of architecture. Using Vitruvius as his model, Thomas shows how each of the five Classical Orders of architecture can be related to a five physical types of men and women.

How these differently proportioned men and women would be like in their psychology and temperament, personality and genius, is left to the imagination. We assume some correlation between matter and form, body and soul. There is still practiced the pseudo-science of physiognomy, which considers the form of the body as an expression of the soul; or the pseudo-art of “fashion,” which treats the form of fabric as an expression of the interior war between id and ego.

Thomas Gordon Smith’s depiction of the five Orders

We look at the bottom of the drawing. We notice that the first type—the “Tuscan”—does not have a female expression. (Should we be thankful for this? How would Camille Paglia interpret this?). Then we look at the top of the drawing. We notice that the fifth type—the “Composite”—does not have a corresponding human form at all.1

You do realize the profound Vitruvian principle which Thomas asserts by this one polemical drawing? It is this: Within the Classical language and its Five Orders, the full spectrum of human form (material and immaterial) can be “translated” into built metaphor. Classical Architecture is the poetry of man.

But what is man?

St. Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 writes, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you whole and entire: spirit, soul and body. . . .” St. Paul is simply stating a truth about man revealed to the Hebrew People about the triune nature of man. Man is flesh, bashar; man is soul and personality, nefesh; and man is a vessel of spirit, ruach. This anthropology of man which is a revealed Biblical truth has an authority which trumps Aristotle and the Greeks, who knew nothing of “spirit.” (Which may seem non-Thomistsic and anti-Aristotelian to the intellectual crowd, although Thomas identifies it as the potentia obedientialis, and Aristotle alludes to it in his De Anima iii 5.)

As a priest, I could most certainly expound on the parameters of each component. However, this is not the focus of this little essay. Rather I am mentioning the three-fold anthropology of the human person as a means by which I might propose a general correlation between the human person and the architectural order. Consider the following general schema:

5. Composite Order — Transcendence: i.e. infused knowledge, illumination
4. Corinthian Order — Spirit: i.e. openness to God
3. Ionic Order — Soul: i.e. intellect, will, imagination
2. Doric Order — Body: i.e. emotion, flesh, bodily functions
1. Tuscan Order — “Subsistentialism”: i.e. behaviorism, animalism

So the middle three orders pertain to what is proper to man’s nature. Whereas the topmost order, the Composite, suggests something beyond nature, befitting the order of grace and communion with the angelic and Divine realms. Whereas the lowest order, the Tuscan, bespeaks of the lowest common denominator of the human condition, his genus as “animal,” which lies beneath human nature as its requisite minimalist substratum.

This schema, abstract as it might seem, accords well with the progressive use of the Five Orders of Classical Architecture in the Western Tradition. At latest since the Baroque Period, the Composite has been regarded as the most refined and ideal Christian order by which nature is shown touched by sanctifying grace. Not surprisingly, then, we find the Composite Order (the “Fifth Order”) in most Baroque churches.

The Corinthian Order has been best suited to concert halls and art museums; the Ionic to libraries; the Doric has seemed to do well for dining rooms and bedrooms as long as there is no gluttony or perversion (a sign of which would be a frivolous use of the Composite Order in these rooms—always a sign of lust and gluttony!). For bedrooms and places of eating, the ascetic in me would always advise the Tuscan Order (which Palladio liked to use for the stables).2

This schema allows a certain flexibility and room for interpretation, depending upon the preferred “ism” of the day. For instance, a true Epicurean could place the Composite order around his larder. The hedonist could use it for his bed. If I worshipped technology, I would use the Composite Order for my entertainment center, placing little silicon chips and cherubic representations of Steve Jobs amongst the acanthus leaves. If I were an atheist, I would design my chapel in an attenuated Tuscan manner, and then (since I didn’t believe in God, but only in human psychology) I would affix large paintings by Mark Rothko on the walls.

Nevertheless, no matter the “ism” one follows, no matter its subtlety or absurdity, the power of the Five Order of Architecture to communicate by metaphor remains, so that every dimension of human life, from reality to banality, from sublimity to idiocy, may be expressed within the schema of the Five Orders.

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The previous reflection was, like Thomas Gordon Smith’s watercolor, polemical. (I do not believe in a polemic that is sterile or purely academic). So if the Classical schema of the Five Orders is so remarkably powerful a means of architectural poetry, then: Why is the vast majority of modern architecture in the twenty-first century moving into a language seemingly foreign to the Five Orders schema? What is the order of this Zeitgeist, and how to explain the foulness in its spirit?

But we can tame and unmask the Time-demon by showing that the modernisms of today are little more than bastard children, the lost sons of the Five Orders. Whether you follow the “hip” architecture displayed in the pages of the Sunday Times, or if you subscribe to the neo-green-Bauhaus magazine dwell3 title you’ll notice that there are only two acceptable modernisms at the moment, which I can describe nicely as “sculpturalism” on the one hand, and “exoskeletalism” on the other. However, the Classicist has been granted a universal viewpoint, from which he can regard these modernisms for what they really are: The Sixth and Zeroth Orders of Classical Architecture.

1. Order Six: Sculpturalism

This kind of “architecture” has as its most famous proponent the whimsical and always feted work of Frank Gehry, but I don’t want to give the Emperor Gehry too much credit, since he’s not wearing any clothes. To be frank, I just don’t know how he is able to get away with what he does. There is genius in his buildings, achieved by the inverted narcissists who manage the engineering required to pull off Gehry’s outlandish fantasies. So I give credit to the structural engineers, and also to the enslaved office grunts who have to figure out the detail drawings and get the specs right on all the plastics.

I could call this kind of architecture “post-Gehrian.” However, that would make Gehry himself post-Gehrian. I could better describe this sort of architecture as 3-D Kandinsky, with an architectural program fit in post-facto. But that would grant this architecture a sophistication it does not deserve.

This sculptural architecture, when overlaid upon the schema of the Five Orders, would have to occupy a place somewhere above the Composite Order, since it carries the trajectory of Composite sculpturalism into a new realm—a “sixth order” of architecture.
Does this mean that the anthropomorphic analog of Frank Gehry’s work would be the realm of the Church Triumphant? Not quite; quite not. If one were to extrapolate in a consistent manner the trajectory of this “sixth order” of architecture to find its anthropomorphic correlate, this is who and what we’d get:

Lady Gaga - all style, no substance; humanity eclipsed by a costume - (virtual - reality/ narcissistic idolatry).
Another Frank Gehry building - could fit any typology or program; always looks better in the photographs than in person.

Lady Gaga represents the epitome of style-over-substance. She is the pop equivalent of an accident. She is untalented. Her voice has been granted quality by digital manipulation (a posteriori). She/it travels in a plastic egg. Gaga, the thing is not a subject. She/it is a place-holder for a costume, an act, a voice-over. Unlike the “hyper-sculptural” giants which lurch across the urban landscapes to be what they are meant to be, les enfants terribiles of the world, she is a sexless gnome. Not beautiful. Strange.

We place hyper-sculpturalism “above” the Composite, simply because it has no place else to go. We have gone beyond architecture, into another discipline which we once called modern sculpture, but we’ve made it very big. It’s an accident writ large. The accident has ballooned to such proportions that it has seemed to become a substance.

What is most frightening to me is that to the modernist who embraces the Gaga, this “strange” has become the new transcendental. 1984 is 2011. The modern god is not true; it is strange. Don’t believe me? Look at the tattoos and piercings of the hollow souls who worship the strange god, the god of Gaga and Gehry. That will be proof enough.

2. Order Zero: Exoskeletalsim

Meanwhile, the Zeitgeist, like the Giant Zarathustra, plants its second foot across the Five Orders, straddling beauty itself, placing its second foot in a zone which marks modern architecture’s contrary trend: “exoskeletalism.” It is a style which fortifies formal minimalism with high quality detailing; formal compactness with a free plan; all packages within a technical devotion to pre-fabrication and self-sustainability. This style eschews whimsy. Form does not just follow function but approximates function. It is an architectural equivalent of an insect’s exoskeleton.

Admittedly, I can respect this kind of architecture, not because it is beautiful, but because (in opposition to the Sixth Order, which is amateurish and theatric), it possesses an accidental asceticism. I like it for the same reason that I am committed to eating bread and water mixed with ashes on Fridays in Lent. I like it because this architecture reminds me of my death, and therefore, it serves the function of an “anti-icon.” This architecture tells me that this world is passing away.

Now I know that my interpretation is not what the architects of this new pre-fab are espousing, not in the least! The thing about this “exoskeletalism” is that it is so devoid of an architectural language, that it can mean anything one would like it to mean. Unlike the Sixth Order, which tries to speaks everything so that it says nothing, the Zeroth Order speaks nothing, so that it can say anything. The Zeroth Order is the perfect architectural “empty suit.” It can mean whatever I want it mean, or you, or he or she. In the Zeroth Order, less is more, because modern man fears ornament. He fears an architecture which can speak of something. He prefers an architecture which sleeps. He prefers an architecture which is hardly there. Just as he prefers a world, a humanity, a religion, which measures its freedom by its lack of commitment to a transcendental value.

There is, only one “essence” to this architecture: Its greenness, its ability to be prefabricated. Aristotle’s third cause, efficient causality, is meant to approximate a harmony with “Gorean” nature in this kind of building. So when you talk to any high priest of this kind of architecture, whether Leo Marmol or Michelle Kaufmann (both of them brilliant modernists), you’ll hear from them talk of energy conservation and environmental responsibility.

However, what is more environmentally responsible than a corpse? It has the lowest of all carbon footprints. Indeed, when we assert the anthropomorphic analog to this pre-fab architecture, you will see how obvious the metaphor of the corpse becomes once we place the images side by side:

Delta Shelter by Thomas Kundig, Mazama, WA 2005 and Human Skeleton, Memento mori.

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The Delta Shelter by Thomas Kundig, is a one-thousand square-foot essay in the sheltering of the human body, soul, and spirit in the midst of the elements. Each of its four sides has a large steel shutter which can be cranked closed in the heat or in the cold, rendering the shelter impermeable to nature and to psychological angst. It’s a house which is entirely unadorned, suitable for sleeping, eating, dwelling. Heidegger would have liked it.

It does have a logical eloquence which cannot be denied. Every piece has its function. Move one part, and like a crossword the rest of the whole will suffer. It is a place which supports life, but does not adorn it.

The logic and beauty of this minimalist shelter, typical of Zeroth Order architecture, are matched by the logic and beauty of the human skeletal system. Both lack personality. This is an animalistic place! A man-cave! Get the beer and fire up the grill, for this architecture embodies a philosophy of “subsistentialism.”

This kind of architecture is so mute and unadorned that it falls beneath the Tuscan Order, to form an order beneath the first one—a “Zeroth Order”—and yes, zero is not a cardinal number, but that is indeed the point: This kind of architectural minimalism is silent in spirit. It is an architecture of anonymity, beneath meaning, beneath all pretense.

Living in a place such as this could take any shape one would like. If you are a monk, then in this shelter you can view your dwelling as an icon of death, like a skull. In this place you can meditate on your own mortality.

If you are an atheist or a hedonist, then in this shelter you can live your life with functional abandon. You can eat and walk and sleep. You can defecate, either inside or outside. You can clothe yourself or remain the savage which Rousseau describes. You can read or you can play. You can do anything here. The architecture will not object, for it doesn’t say a word.

Is it beautiful? No, it is not beautiful, except in the sense that a skeleton is beautiful. It is lovely only insofar as it evokes a memory of what once was and what will be. “Unto dust” and “all is vanity” (Ecc. 1:2; 12:8).

In conclusion: Is there a conclusion? Yes there is.

I assume most readers to Sacred Architecture are believers in Christ, and that most understand that the spread of beauty throughout the world is, in its own mode, a spreading of the Gospel. And this insight is entirely correct. Classicism preaches Christ.

What this means for us (with reference to these two trends in modern architecture, the “Sixth Order” and the “Zeroth Order”) is very clear.

For our churches, there can be no indulgence whatsoever in the current language of modernism. The Gospel message of man redeemed, man elevated to divinity—this message does not allow for the fickle and irresponsible architecture of the Sixth Order, nor can it allow the pessimistic architecture of the Zeroth. The architecture of the church building must by responsibility bespeak the dignity of man, raised to the status of sons of God who are given God’s grace, by the Son of God who is in his essence the embodiment of grace. This stance cannot be compromised. The church is the place for the Mysteries of God, for the proclamation of the Gospel—which together form an unambiguous message of hope, which is best communicated architecturally—neither through strangeness nor familiarity but—through beauty.

Secondly, IF—and I emphasize “IF”—there is any desire to appropriate any trend in modern architecture today, then MAYBE—and I emphasize “MAYBE”— the appropriation could occur with the Zeroth Order. The minimalism of the Zeroth Order is so zero-ish that its interpretation depends entirely upon its architectural context. It is a language with no content, like the man who speaks in tongues. Now, it is POSSIBLE—“POSSIBLE”—that the one who worships at a Composite Order church COULD—“COULD”— return to his or her Zeroth Order dwelling, to live an ascetic life focused on the next world, and so focusing his or her hope and primal memory on the beauty and dignity of the Composite Order church down the lane . . . . and is this possible?

For its success, would it not require a Christian society of an almost Carthusian sensibility? Yet, is in fact this twenty-first century America—or any nation on this planet, save Vatican City—a society comprised of neighborhoods of monasteries?

I tire of dreamers who dream the “ifs,” the “maybes,” the “possibles,” the “coulds”; for these dreamers do so without weighing the heaviness of the folds which enwrap the WHAT IS of fallen reality. I tire, therefore, of the any appropriation of anything modern, for I know already what modernisms produce: The synthesis of all heresies modernism is, and all modernist architectures are, essentially, the icons of some heresy, for they do not guide the imagination into orthodoxy.

Now of course the human soul craves modernisms of all kinds, because she is in love with novelty. She is prone to concupiscence. She is corrupted still by original sin. Yet she can be redeemed by grace, and so choose Wisdom over Folly. Wisdom tells us that the Sixth Order has no place in a Christian world, because it is a phony, a sham, and bespeaks the possibility of happiness in the midst of vanity of vanities.

Likewise, Wisdom tells us that the Zeroth Order has no place either—no more than a dead man who desires to receive the sacraments. “Let the dead bury their dead,”(Matt 8:22; Luke 9:60); so let the Zeroth Order remain outside the walls of the Kingdom.

It was said long ago: “f this work be of men, it will come to naught: but if it be of God, you cannot overthrow it; otherwise you will find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:39). But God has called us to be his hands in this world. Let us cast away this architecture of Zeros and Sixes (the numbers of death and sin), and instead build an architecture within the Five Orders. Let us meditate upon the Five Orders just as we are called to meditate upon the Five Sacred Wounds of Our Divine Savior.

Father Noah Waldman is priest of the Archdiocese of Saint Louis, and has written extensively on art and architecture.

1 I shall have to ask Thomas why he omitted them. I know Thomas very well. It’s been almost twenty years since we first met at Notre Dame, so I think I know something of how his mind works. My guess is that he just ran out of room for the Composite people. There is something quintessentially pragmatic and American about Thomas’ theoretical positions; he is a nineteenth century gentleman living in the third millennium. Personally, I would have added to his drawing by placing the two religious characters atop the swirly Solomonic Composite columns, and I would have positioned them in an ecstatic pose. As for the omission of the Tuscan “female”— I think Thomas has an innate sense of propriety. No masculinized ladies, please; the potted plant on the right will do just fine.
2 If I found a church with a Tuscan interior, I would suspect the architect of some heresy, such as Jansenism, Febronianism, Porphyrianism, or Troutpersonism.
3 Notice the use of all-lowercase letters in the magazine’s title. Uppercase letters have a higher carbon footprint.