Friday, July 22

Ave Maria - Matt's Reaction

First thoughts:

Oh, dear.

Second Thoughts:

What the heck were they thinking?

Third Thoughts:

Mm, interesting. Not good, not bad, just...interesting.

Fourth Thoughts:

1. It's not really a 'historicist' design. In itself this to me is not a problem--I may be a classicist in philosophy, but I look forward to the distant day when someone actually comes up with a proper 'new' style which can be considered on the same level with the old greats. Think of what Art Nouveau was to, say, 19th century academism. (I believe we should have the freedom to design in old styles, and in new styles alike--presuming the new styles are as good as the old. I'm not sure we've achieved that, or nobody since Gaudi, anyway. This isn't to say the key is mindless imitation but a sense of living tradition which understands the whole of a design requires: it is not just copying a standard Corinthian column out of a handbook--that's one possible start, but not the finish). So, therefore I don't think it right to judge it by my own classical standards. The question is, while standing outside those canons, does it still succeed at possessing an internal consistency, at being beautiful? I'm not sure this succeeds at being anything--either ugly or beautiful. It's almost too much work to get up the energy to hate the thing, it's so preposterously bland.

2. It has no theme, to quote Winston Churchill on a bad pudding. The problem is this lack of history has to do with a lack of studied attention to detail, than a desire to do something innovative. In short, as Em has put it, it's a cartoon. Rather than Our Lady of the Windex, it is now St. Gumby's. What it really reminds me of is the earliest, ultra-naive tip of the Gothic Revival, back when it was spelled 'Gothick' and people assumed if you slapped a pointed arch on it, you had the whole mystery of Udolpho solved. There's a 'Gothick' warehouse that was done in glass and iron from the late 1700s which bore an uncanny resemblance to the old Windex chapel, in fact. However, unlike the charming and almost excusable historical clunkiness of those far-off days, this is slicked-down and space-agey. Even if you're going to produce a Gothic for the twenty-first century--which doesn't entail knocking off all the crockets and gargoyles, as the great Gaudi well knew--this isn't the way to do it. This is not moving forward, this is not stretching the boundaries of traditional architecture like Borromini and Suger did, this is bastardization. And the folks who did it don't know any better.

3. Tom Monaghan's own personal fixation with Thorncrown Chapel is getting the better of him. While he's probably a good-hearted and great-hearted man, he made the typical millionaire (or ex-millionaire, anyway) mistake of not bothering to cultivate his taste. Sometimes you have to let go of a stylistic quirk or a favorite detail because it simply won't fit. ("Michelangelo, you know, scrap the whole dome thing, there's this lovely little glass-and-steel oratory I saw in the woods, tiny little thing, just blow that up twenty times as big and call it a day." Alberti would call this a question of decorum, unless he wouldn't have.) In the past, popes and princes usually had the good sense to learn about these things and, if not blindly following the dictates of taste (itself an insidious breeder of ghastly timidity), decided to develop informed opinions on the subject. I can forgive Mr. Monaghan's shortcoming here, as he has also avoided the similar mistake of kowtowing to whatever the cultured men in the black turtlenecks tell him to believe, but Fr. Fessio, a fine Jesuit scholar and a man of great repute really ought to know better.

4. It looks ridiculous in the context, given that Ave Maria town is supposed to be more strictly classical (note the pavilion on the left of the drawing below). It also looks ridiculous in the moral context of the University. We have endured sub-par Catholic art for nearly a century and a half in almost all fields, with the few shining exceptions like the brief flowering of church architecture at the turn of the last century. Allow me a digression: I'm not one to get my pants in a twist over the supposed naivete of much 19th-century American church art. In fact I find the rather dismissive attitude some take towards them a bit excessive considering the time and place they came from; it's like expecting folk tunes to sound like Mozart, and if all music was Mozart, the world would be a supremely dull place. I find much of the plaster-saint quirkiness of those baroquely emigrant churches that dot the Midwest quite inspiring and wonderfully exotic, but you can't compare them with Guarini or Borromini or the popular genius of the Gothic cathedral. The problem is, today many people do just that. They think something 'traditional' means vaguely church-oid, church-shaped, with a few statues stuffed here and there and a rose window. It is not enough to reduce a church to a tradition-minded check list--eastward orientation, stained glass, whatever--it has to breathe. A University church, to inspire minds towards the sublime sophistication of Catholic doctrine, must be in itself sophisticated and well-designed. We need something that's the equivalent of the Summa, Dante or Gerard Manley Hopkins. This, however, is not a Newman sermon in stone, but reads more like a bad piece of sanctimonious (albeit well-intentioned) contemporary Catholic fiction. I won't name any names. You know who I mean.

5. They've had forever to work on it. This thing has a history. I might have actually sort of not disliked it if I hadn't known that they had produced virtually the same thing in glass not six months earlier. It just seems careless that they haven't developed the design since then except for dropping some bricks in.

6. It's too blank. I have a reputation for loving ornament but some men can do blank well, truly well. Lutyens, for example, and whoever did the back of that church at Rancho de Taos that O'Keefe painted. But this is not the way. This cries out for more development. How many millions are they pouring into this thing? At those prices, the dingbats--and intelligent design--that good classical or Gothic requires aren't really that expensive.

6.Regarding the Interior. I actually find this potentially quite intriguing, and a great improvement over the past. The organ-pipe reredos I haven't made my mind up over, though. It's ambitious and more decorative than I would have expected, even if the decoration is a little odd. However, the model is so utterly useless, I'm not really sure what's going on down in the sanctuary. I'll wait and see.

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