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‘Architecture does not teach us what the sacred is, but it may touch it and draw others to it’

Saintpauls jpg

A holy place should not be a temple to the architect; architecture itself is not divine

An intimation of the sacred can suddenly appear in a cluster of words, in the angle of a doorframe, or in the play of light on an altar. Architecture does not teach us what the sacred is, but it may touch it and draw others to it. Its responsibility to the sacred is, therefore, truly solemn. Architecture interprets holiness and offers it to the people. Whether they choose to inhabit this category or not, perhaps all architects have the capacity to be priests, designing spaces that call for a meeting between earth and heaven. Not every architect handles this task gracefully or competently, and as much as Modernism gave fresh vitality to the design of holy places, it also wielded its tools too sharply, presuming that the sacred could ever be fully contained and pithily expressed in all its eternity and all its splendour within a section or an elevation. God does not dwell in a perfect curve devised by cold compass and rule. Rafael Moneo grasped the related problem of modernity’s individualism with a tremulous observation regarding an architect’s responsibilities when on holy ground.

‘Searching for the sacred was an increasingly challenging prospect and major preoccupation across the long 20th century’

Self-reliant creativity was part of a broader ‘step from the world understood as Civitas Dei (City of God) to the world that contemplates the religious act as intimate ritual … To my understanding, it means that the architect, facing the challenge of building a church or a temple, cannot rely on a shared vision, but instead must risk offering his or her own version of sacred space.’ This binary is perilous: what appears to be in play here is a deliberate divorce from wells of tradition in order to pursue sacred architectural modes of a different order. Innovation is beautiful; egotism is not. Moneo himself, in projects like his cathedral in Los Angeles, does not depart entirely from classic modes of Christian architectural principles. However, his idea is one iteration among many of a set of architectural notions that, in the pursuit of the beauty of holiness, place the architect’s holy vision as first and foremost a personal act and not a collective cultural task set in the pattern of the pulsations of rich historical resources. In other words, the biggest risk of all is that an architect would, in an attempt to craft a holy place, build a temple to the architect. Architecture itself is not divine.

Caspar David Friedrich   Wanderer above the sea of fog

Caspar David Friedrich Wanderer above the sea of fog

Source: Kunsthalle Hamburg

Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’, 1818, radiates the Romantic style, simultaneously suggesting a power over the landscape and the insignificance of the individual within it

This is the delicate boundary that many modern architects walked – as some still do – in the middle decades of the last century. Le Corbusier declared with characteristic assertiveness, ‘I am the inventor of the phrase “ineffable space”, which is a reality that I discovered as I went on. When a work reaches a maximum of intensity, when it has the best proportions and has been made with the best quality of execution, when it has reached perfection … when this happens these places start to radiate.’ He wrote this in 1946, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War’s destruction. Searching for the sacred – for new architectural iterations of holiness in thought, word, deed and materials – was an increasingly challenging prospect and major preoccupation across the long 20th century. In 1955, Le Corbusier stared deeply into one of his own paintings and experienced a new level of ineffability (which presumably he might also have accessed outside encounters with his own ingenious work). He wrote, ‘One day – at a very precise moment – I saw inexpressible space come into being before my eyes: the wall, with its picture, lost its limits: it became boundless.’ Welcoming the loss of limits, being surprised by the arrival of infinitude and the aesthetic of eternity, characterises much of the core ambition for artists and architects in this postwar period. Barnett Newman brought it to trembling life with his vast zip paintings. Harry Bertoia did it with metal, often in collaboration with Modernist architects who themselves were in a productive dialogue with Le Corbusier and his European contemporaries. Seeking ineffability and delighting in its presence characterised work in Britain by Maguire & Murray in the 1960s, and the Brutalist projections of Holy Trinity in Vienna, the collaborative project of sculptor Fritz Wotruba and architect Fritz Gerhard Mayr in the 1970s.

‘The binary between the individual and the collective, on housing estates as well as in concrete chapels, was often and rightly permeable’

This approach to architecture as an invitation to holiness wasn’t just the ballsy Modernism, however. Elain Harwood and Gavin Stamp’s contributions to the Twentieth Century Society’s essays on 20th-century churches explain sacred space’s unique development in modern Britain alongside European counterparts, and this fruitful area of architectural history needs further study to demonstrate just how much was shared between British and Continental designers, both within and beyond Europe. Harwood’s latest book, Space, Hope and Brutalism, develops this theme with stimulating suggestions regarding ethics and architecture in a time of rapid cultural change. The binary between the individual and the collective, on housing estates as well as in concrete chapels, was often and rightly permeable.

Calaisrefugeechurch jpg

Calaisrefugeechurch jpg

Source: Francois Lo Presti / AFP / Getty Images

A makeshift church is erected in the migrant camp in Calais

In interwar Britain, before all the mid-century concrete began to set, architects and artists including Winifred Knights and Ninian Comper created spaces saturated with imagery of saints and angels imported from Italy and interpreted for England. The legacy of the Liturgical Movement, begun in the earliest moments of the 20th century in Roman Catholic contexts and punctuated by theories of sacred space that moved congregations into the round and moved altars into centrally planned spaces, also brought artists and architects into contact for holy sites in new and startling ways. Henri Matisse at Vence, Marc Chagall’s and John Piper’s stained-glass windows, and Louise Nevelson’s sculptures, were all hovering on that thin boundary – and they still do – between representation and abstraction. A new collection of essays on St Peter’s Church in Manhattan, edited by Aaron Rosen, illuminates how this site became an epicentre for the arts and social action in a section of the New York grid increasingly preoccupied with financial rather than spiritual loss and gain. A few time zones away in the early 1970s, a man named Harold decided to live in a caravan as a hermit in a remote patch of Northumbria. In November 2015, the Neo-Romanesque church in this place recently designed by WHR Pattisson won the prestigious ACE/RIBA Award for Religious Architecture. At its ecumenical service of dedication, Brother Paschal, Guardian of the Anglican Franciscan friary at Alnmouth, explained that this new church at Shepherd’s Law: ‘has a message that the world needs to hear. The message is simple. Here is a man who has spent over 30 years on a bleak hilltop because God exists’. Whether in the canyons of Mammon in Manhattan or the hilltops of northernmost Britain, the sacred returns and gains architectural form, and it grants us rest and nourishment if we choose to seek it out.

‘Uncertainty is a precious architectural element, marshalled in a particularly nuanced way in recent projects by Peter Zumthor and Níall McLaughlin’

Le Corbusier at Ronchamp did choose to seek it out, traversing the architectural wilderness for new forms that could somehow, ineffably, express ancient holiness in a modern world. To risk everything on the arc of a bold roofline in the hope that it might call down the divine into the very molecules of the luminous stained glass in this French sacred place and all that surrounded it seems to be the very opposite of claiming to have found God in the tip of one’s architectural pencil. A sacred site may be designed, built, blessed, and then all one can do is hope that God may dwell there. As JRR Tolkein wrote in ‘Mythopoeia’,

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray

From gazing upon everlasting Day

To see the day-illumined and renew

From mirrored truth the likeness of the True.

Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see

That all is as it is, and yet made free…

DaiKanan Fabrice Fouillet

DaiKanan Fabrice Fouillet

Source: Fabrice Fouillet

Sendai Daikannon, Japan, 1991

Sacred architecture is not about style, then. It is, in part, about the architect as mediator between grace, hope and history. Beauty, as Elaine Scarry writes in On Beauty and Being Just, is a spur to its beholders to bring more beautiful things, situations, possibilities, into being. A sacred space is, then, both thousands of years ago, and in 2016, necessarily beautiful. That is not the same as a sacred space being mathematically perfect, or being to the taste of everyone on a parish council or a local committee.

‘Sacred architecture, in part, is about the architect as mediator between grace, hope and history’

For his book Pictures and Tears, the art theorist James Elkins invited people to send him letters describing their emotional experiences of sacred art and holy space. Robin Parks wrote to Elkins about intense weeping that he believed had ‘something to do with loneliness … a kind of craving for the company of beauty. Others, I suppose, might say God. But this feels too simple a response.’ Seeking the company of ineffability can be confrontational, and the architects who knew this worked with this in a manner that instrumentalised it as invaluably as the flexibility of concrete or the shock of a bold primary-colour scheme.

Le corbusier jpg

Le corbusier jpg

Source: FLC and the Association Notre-Dame du Haut

The entrance handle to Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel (1954) is symbolic of the ascent from earth to heaven

Uncertainty is a precious architectural element, marshalled in a particularly nuanced way in recent projects by Peter Zumthor and Níall McLaughlin. The former’s 2011 Serpentine Pavilion – drawing upon histories of the hortus conclusus – was no doubt hospitable to interpretations of the space as a sacred one. No altar, no specific religion demonstrably invoked, no shrine, but the cloister and the intentional spaces for contemplation shifted terms of engagement into stimulatingly ineffable territory. Modernity needed ineffability, and still does.

Maria Antonietta Crippa and Françoise Caussé’s new book on Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp revisits this perhaps over-familiar sacred space with freshness and sophistication. The fraught context of the Catholic Church’s problematic relationship with Modernism is considered thoughtfully, and Le Corbusier’s participation in the project emerges in a wider context of debate about how sacred art could or should be defined. When he first arrived at the site of the chapel, he walked up the hill alone. Someone asked if he had any ideas about what to build. Le Corbusier erupted in laughter and replied ‘Not at all. I shall ruminate on it like a cow and what comes out will come out. You will accept it or reject it but I will not start again.’

From the sweeping curve of the distinctive roofline to the delicate strokes of the architect’s handwritten ‘Marie’ on a fragment of stained glass, what Monsignor Dubois described as Le Corbusier’s ‘Marian skyscraper’ invited contemplation on new aesthetic terms. The skyscraper itself was imprinted simultaneously in this mid-century period upon the modern mind with alarming industrial efficiency.

Mark rothko jpg

Mark rothko jpg

Source: Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko / DACS 1998 / Tate 

Black on Maroon by Mark Rothko

The historian Kathryn Lofton has gone so far as to argue persuasively that Herman Miller’s ‘Action Office’ and the tyranny of office cubicle culture also constituted a new mode of sacred space and religious practice. Every cubicle became ‘a possible private sensorium of religion within the hum and sheen of the modern office’ and the office building itself therefore became a cathedral filled with thousands of desk-altars and ‘desktop acts of individual religious identity’. Lofton’s analysis of the Herman Miller Action Office as a deliberate contribution to and platform for the ‘sensorium of religion in the modern period’ reminds us that the sacred is present in the heart of the most divisive, secularist, capitalist places of modern life.

‘Hannah Arendt identified: ‘the unknown that is the region of faith’ as a foundational shared human condition. It manifests in innumerable ways. It’s architecturally uncontainable’

The ethereal Ronchamp and modern sacred spaces like it grew up in this cultural environment, as both tonic for it and product of it.

Undeniably groundbreaking, it’s also important to understand the depth of ambivalence surrounding Le Corbusier’s chapel and modern sacred spaces that reworked holy experience for a brave new world. Reflecting on Ronchamp, Le Corbusier contended, ‘Never for a minute did I intend to make it an object of wonder. My preparation? Sympathy for the other, for the unknown, and a life led in the brutality of existence.’ It’s difficult to imagine even the most strident of contemporary church architects stating their strategy this way.

Robert harding jpg

Robert harding jpg

Source: Robert Harding Picture Library / Alamy

The Neolithic Avebury Stone Circle is of religious importance to pagans today

In the 1960s, Nikolaus Pevsner was certainly uneasy about it, he was alarmed by ‘random windows, random in shape and position, and walls and roof of curvaceous sculptural shapes representing Le Corbusier the abstract artist rather than Le Corbusier the architect.’ It was too close to sculpture, too far from conventions of church architecture, too much too soon. A random window might indicate a random God, or at least a random human spirituality. Crippa and Caussé don’t shy away from this possibility, but rather choose to celebrate the crises Ronchamp embodied and instigated.

Hannah Arendt identified: ‘the unknown that is the region of faith’ as a foundational shared human condition. It manifests in innumerable ways. It’s architecturally uncontainable. And yet there are numerous 20th-century places, Ronchamp among them, where the unknown wilderness is indicated, if neither grasped nor contained. In January 1985, an unsigned entry appeared in the visitor’s book at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas: ‘This is where it stops. Depthless. Time out.’

Saintpauls jpg

Saintpauls jpg

Source: Fox Photos / Getty Images

St Paul’s cathedral, bombed during the Blitz