The New Church of San Juan Capistrano

by Patrick James Riley, appearing in Volume 4

Just why it took a century and a half and more to replace an historic parish church destroyed by earthquake in 1812 is too involved a story to tell here, and not very relevant to ecclesiastical architecture. Lincoln buffs, of course, will want to know that Abraham Lincoln played a role in it by giving the ruins back to the Catholic authorities. What interests us most here is an example of architecture as a pastoral instrument.

The San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, by the Postmodernist master Michael Graves, sits on a knoll at the corner of El Camino Real and Acjachema Street, occupying a curiously rural slice of downtown San Juan Capistrano. A quasi-mannerist interpretation of Spanish Colonial architecture in early Postmodern idiom, it is striking for its diminutive scale, an overgrown architectural model in wood and pastel-painted stucco. It proudly displays the ubiquitous pseudo-classical elements of 1970’s and early 1980’s Postmodern: squat, purely cylindrical columns; bare lintels; paper-thin barrel vaulting; and the mandatory Aldo Rossi-inspired fenestration.

Above Graves’ liberating interpretive architecture, across Acjachema Street and toward the Camino Capistrano to the west, looms the massive figure of the new parish church of San Juan Capistrano. Dating from 1986, it is an opus of the architect John Bartlett, then based in Arcadia, California.

Built to replace the original mission parish church that was destroyed by earthquake in 1812, this faithfully Spanish Colonial church actually isn’t massive at all. The scale is in fact trompe-l’oeil. Just as Graves’s library disperses its mass by branching out across its site, creating the illusion of smallness, the new parish church concentrates its own mass in a simple union of three separately articulated forms: the great cupola, a bell tower, and a central nave and transepts. It is a Classical piece, an eloquent opus sacrum, one among a growing number of works that presage the rebirth of Classicism, in all its manifestations of form and style, in the architecture of the Roman Catholic Church.

We can only imagine the fuss that would have been raised had this fourteenyear-old work received more attention from the art and architectural press at the time of its dedication. In the case of Michael Graves, imagination need play no role: his work, considered “too traditional,” has already been marginalized by the governing elites of architectural criticism. Mr. Graves is now the only remaining practitioner of note of a once-popular architectural movement, the sole survivor of the Postmodern shipwreck.

The spirit of Torquemada is alive and well in the world of architectural criticism. Books already are being burned, and altars defaced and overturned. What treatment will be reserved for the architects and built work of a true Classical revival in ecclesiastical architecture, especially as this movement gathers more disciples? We know the answer to that question. But the forces that destroyed the Postmodern movement will likely be in for a surprise when they stage their inevitable assault on this authentic and most durable architecture.

Spanish Colonial Architecture in America
California is peppered with buildings in the Spanish Colonial style. From suburban homes to gasoline stations to major public oeuvres, these edifices define the physical and cultural landscape. Spanish Colonial is often required by local design review boards and planning authorities as conditio sine qua non for obtaining a building permit. The “Mission style,” as Spanish Colonial architecture is most often called, has become California’s official architecture. Like so much of California’s cultural produce, it has also come to symbolize, by unfortunate association with the recent crop of substandard design and construction, all that is cheap, superficial, and speculative in the world of buildings.

The “Mission style,” of course, wasn’t cheap or Hollywoodish in its original incarnation, the architecture of Spain’s American colonies and, soon thereafter, of the missions founded by Blessed Junipero Serra up the California coast. Like most of the Spanish-inspired architecture of the New World, the “Mission style” derives from Spanish Plateresque and Churrigueresque architecture.

Exterior of the new San Juan Capistrano parish church. Photo: Duncan Stroik

Late fifteenth-century Plateresque freely borrowed the decorative motifs of the intricately detailed work of Spanish silversmiths, the “Plateros.” In the seventeeth century, after the restrained Juan de Herrera interlude, decorated architecture in Spain reached an apotheosis in the exuberant—some would say capricious—Churrigueresque baroque, named after theChurriguera, a family chiefly known in its day for the design of altars. Characteristic of both the Plateresque and Churrigueresqueare the elaborate frontispieces that are then applied to an otherwise flat facade. The architectural elements in these decorations, columns, entablatures, pediments et al play a purely decorative role. With the Plateresque and Churriguerresque, Spain’s Gothic moment, based like all Gothic on structural purism, meets its end.

The Spaniards eventually exported their decorated architecture to Southern Italy and to their colonies in the Americas. In the 18th century the Churrigueresque set roots in Mexico, while a native brand of Plateresque, the Mexican Plateresque, less exact in the carving of ornamental details than its Spanish forebear, emerged. This architecture would come to define Spanish Colonial in North America, including that of the California Missions.

The Pastoral Power of Architecture and History
To replace the original mission parish church, destroyed by an earthquake in 1812, a new parish church in a Spanish Colonial spirit was built and dedicated in 1986. For the pastor, Monsignor Paul Martin, the historicist architecture of the new building served two critical purposes: the first was to maintain historical-artistic continuity with the rest of the adjacent Mission San Juan Capistrano; the second was to give the predominantly Hispanic parishioners a church building with a familiar face, making it for them a church they could feel comfortable in.

“This church is familiar to the parishioners, it reminds them of home, it establishes a link with their families and relatives back in Mexico,” says Monsignor Martin. “A modern church building would not have served the needs of this diocese.”

The design of the new church borrows what it can from the remains of the original church. The rest, as explained by Dr. Norman Neuerberg, an expert whom Monsignor Martin consulted, was obtained by studying similar churches in Mexico. The plan is the same for both churches, a Latin cross. Culled from the ruins are many of the ornamental details: for the carved stone doorways, for the proportions of the broad intrados of the Roman arches, and in the use of engaged pilasters at the nave and transept. While the pictorial record of the old stone church indicates a quadripartite rhythm to the nave, the new parish church has only three bays, but wider and deeper. These are capped by sail vaults, each pierced by an oculus, as in the original design.

Interior of the new parish church. Photo: Duncan Stroik

In the sanctuary of the new church we find the first and only—insofar as we can tell—substantial departure from the collapsed archetype: a dome of Renaissance proportions raised on pendentives and with a drum punctuated by clerestory windows replaces the fifth sail vault that was located above the old sanctuary.

The treatment of the exterior of the new church is hard to decipher. Its stunted Plateresque seems to be characteristic of modern California Mission architecture. It suggests a stunted effort at achieving a Plateresque effect. While the Plateresque design is clearly implemented, the result is only moderately, or perhaps modestly, Plateresque. Doubtless this was intentional in the new parish church, which again relied on the record furnished by the ruins of the old stone church. It is natural to postulate a scarcity of funds, materials or of qualified manodopera at the time of its construction.

Regardless of the reasons, the parsimony of applied ornamentation in the original might indicate something altogether different: the emergence, for whatever reason, of a newer Spanish Colonial iteration, perhaps a true “Mission Architecture,” understood as Mexican Plateresque stripped almost bare of its essential decorative components. Gone are the characteristic intricately detailed columns and architrave, the tendrils and carved foliage of the traditional Plateresque frontispiece. In their place we find an arched doorway framed by simple pilasters with a single flute. The tympanum consists of a geometric fan pattern, a nearly complete reduction to essential geometries of a floral or vegetal motif.

This blank Plateresque “canvas” nevertheless reveals the purity of the form of this new church, calling attention to its mass and proportions and creating the illusion of great size. Horizontal articulation of the building consists of a single cornice band, a simple profiled element devoid of dentils or other carvings. Even the bell tower, the only major architectural component that offers any intermediate horizontal articulation, displays uniformly bare surfaces devoid of ornamental appliqués. The total visual effect is sedate, placid, but nevertheless grand.

The ruins of the old stone church once again provided clues, this time for the painted decorations of the interior. These are predominantly floral motifs in bright turquoise and gold tones, typical of coloristic innovations that are proper to Mexican painting of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These developments in painting actually precede the emergence and consideration of the Mexican Plateresque in architecture. An intriguing contrappunto to the floral painted decorations is provided by the painted architecture that adorns niches and sometimes frames other artwork: it could reasonably be seen as a Plateresque interpretation of Renaissance quadratura, the use of painted architecture to frame a subject. It is in any case the purest and most readily discernible Plateresque element of the new church. In painted form, we can fully admire the architecture of the Mexican Plateresque, its delicate tendril work, its intricate vegetal motifs, the full ornamental complexity denied us, not necessarily for the worse, in the built work.

The Parish Church As Sacred Sign
William Whyte, the noted urban theorist who died in 1991, coined the term “imageabilty” to describe the salient characteristic of an urban landmark. Not all buildings are landmarks. To be a landmark, a building must be “imageable,” that is, it must impress its image in the mind of the citizen, and in doing so it helps the citizen understand the city better, and helps him find his way about town. An “imageable” building, a landmark, is a sign. Like all signs, it points to something other than itself, to a destination, to some other reality.

Side chapel. Photo: Duncan Stroik

“This church is familiar to the parishioners, it reminds them of home,” Monsignor Martin said of his new parish church. This church is a sign to the ethnic Hispanic parishioners, a sign of their homes, their family, and their country of origin. It points to all these realities—home, family, country—by pointing to the churches back home, the Plateresque and Churrigueresque churches of Mexico. And like all successful churches, it points to a far greater reality, a “faith reality,” as Monsignor Martin called it, the Church founded by Christ.

In Catholic theology, a sacramental is a sacred sign that is similar to the Seven Sacraments in its effects, but was not instituted by Christ Himself. The Code of Canon Law defines sacramental as “sacred signs by which, in a certain imitation of the Sacraments, effects–above all spiritual–are signified and are obtained by the intercession of the Church.” These sacred signs can be either visible, as in priestly vestments, or invisible, as in the blessing of objects and dedication of a church. The blessing of sacred objects, which is a sacramental in itself, is a requisite if an object is to assume the nature of sacred sign, that is, if it is to become a sacramental. Unlike the Sacraments, which were instituted by Christ, the sacramentals are instituted by the Church, through its intercessory power.

Does the blessing and dedication of a church make that church a sacramental? Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, doesn’t specify. But a church building is sanctified thusly. The church edifice, when it indicates the greater “faith reality,” is a sign. It is made a sacred sign by the blessing and dedication that it receives. The new parish church of San Juan Capistrano is a cultural sign that reminds parishioners of all that is humanly dear to them. It is also a sacred sign that points to that which is divinely dear to the believer. It prepares and disposes the believer to receive the Grace that flows from the Sacrifice taking place within its walls at Mass.

The Rebirth of Classical Ecclesiastical Architecture

In 1981, the late Italian architect, historian, and critic Bruno Zevi declared Postmodern architecture “stillborn.” Less than a decade later, this prophet of Modernism was proved right. Postmodern has vanished from the architectural avant garde, surviving only in the works of its high priest, Michael Graves, and rearing its head now and then in the immense plantations of corporate America’s office parks. The art and architecture intelligentsia will quickly predict a similar fate for Classical sacred architecture. But it will be mistaken.

The seeds of the demise of Postmodern architecture lay not in its “Post,” but in its “modern.” A public sickened by the havoc wreaked by the Modern movement warmly received and embraced Postmodernism until the truth set in: it was not an attempt to give modern architecture a classical face, but to give Classical architecture a modern face. Classical architecture was reduced to a mere caricature, to an infantile interpretation of ancient and timeless themes and motifs.

While the critics rejected the Postmodern right away because of the presence of the Classical, the public rejected it for the lack of a true Classical soul. In its essence, it lacked true “imageability,” and quickly became meaningless and insignificant in the true sense, that is, incapable of signifying anything, incapable of being a sign.

The intelligentsia will be writing the obituary of Classical architecture even as the Classical suffers the labor pains of rebirth. “Rumors of its death will be greatly exaggerated.” The unsung John Bartletts of this world will see to it that we have more churches like San Juan Capistrano.