Lost in Space

Suspicion of Architecture and the New Oratory at Ave Maria University

by Denis McNamara, appearing in Volume 9

The debate generated by the recent release of images of the initial proposal for Ave Maria’s new chapel cuts to the heart of larger discussions which have been circling the Catholic architectural debate for almost 50 years now. Can glass and steel be used for a Catholic church? The answer, of course, is yes. But rather than asking can it be done, the primary question is should it be done? Philosopher David Hume proposed this is/ought problem in the 18th century, and modernist architects have been equating the is and the ought for decades. What is, they claimed, was a twentieth century dominated by machines, glass, steel and industrial production. Therefore, what ought to be was architecture made up of those very things. What is, they claimed, was an architecture that had passed through the age of the priest and "attained what is rightly called culture," as Le Corbusier claimed. The great irony with the Ave Maria chapel, of course, is that the very same architecture which heralded the age of rationalistic doubt and the glorification of the machine is now being used to proclaim a new era of traditional Catholic renewal. Certainly this can be done. Again, ought it be done?

It is somewhat edifying to hear that Ave Maria University has hired the excellent liturgical art firm of Talleres de Arte Granda who will no doubt supply beautiful interior appointments for their chapel. It is also good news to hear that the glass model shown in the early news releases is to be greatly revised. However, the fundamental problem remains that the Fay Jones’s Thorncrown Chapel lies at the heart of the design. While Thorncrown is clearly a nice structure — a tiny building of minimal architecture and views to the forest on every side — it succeeds because it is almost anti-architectural. It blends with the natural surroundings, making the viewer feel as if he or she is outdoors when indoors, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s great architectural concerns. There is indeed a suspicion of architecture at the Thorncrown Chapel, where instead of a building, viewers are given lines of beams. Admittedly, these lines and beams are designed and arranged quite well, but that is all they are. The beams look as if they were ripped on a table saw, just as Frank Lloyd Wright desired in his famous essay “Art and Craft of the Machine,” in which he called the machine the “Intellect mastering the drudgery of earth that the plastic art may live.” Again, we can base a chapel on this philosophy, but ought we?

The answer has to be no. I make this a "soft" no because I understand the allure of Frank Lloyd Wright and Fay Jones. They did wonderful things in their ways. However, a Catholic church ought not to be a machine, nor ought it to look like a machine. It ought to be an icon of heaven, the Heavenly Jerusalem described in chapter 21 of the Book of Revelation. We ought to use an architecture which speaks in sign and symbol in the very architecture itself, in the anthropomorphism of columns and the inherited sign value of classical motifs used by Constantine, Abbot Suger and Michelangelo. It ought not simply to let us look out to the fallen natural world, but to present to us an image the redeemed world, just as an icon of a saint is not a portrait but an image of a Christian infused with the divine energy, aglow with the inner life of God. Vague reminiscences of gothic in glass and steel on a mammoth scale do not signal a Catholic renewal. Rather, they signal the incomplete understanding of what Vatican II tells us real Catholic renewal should be: the sacramental use of art and architecture to give us a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy through sign and symbol. We can try to force glass and steel to represent Catholic language, but we ought not to. It is not suited to the task, and .lling it with beautiful Granda statues will not change the fact that the architecture itself remains mute. The opportunity here is great, just as it was at the Los Angeles Cathedral, and what a terrible thing for this opportunity to be lost because we substitute the is for the ought.