Monday, October 16


Two Art Deco Church Facades

Recent Speculative Work by Matthew G. Alderman

A Design for a New Facade for Visitation Church, Miami, Florida, in the Art Deco Manner. Elevation with Plan. September 2006.

Over the next few decades I imagine the most important task facing the next generation of church architects will not be the construction of new churches--though that will certainly will continue to occur, and with increasing frequency--but the renewal of existing structures in order to restore them to liturgical and artistic orthodoxy. This trend is already beginning to make an appearance in some quarters--Duncan Stroik, H.H. Menzies and Stephen Schloeder have all tried their hand at this problem in various projects, and I imagine they won't be the only ones in the near future.

The harmonious renovation of existing buildings is an issue which has fascinated architects for ages. One long-standing debate during the Renaissance concerned whether some of Italy's Gothic cathedrals at Milan and Bologna should be completed in the classical style then prevalent, in some form of Gothic, or some common denominator between the two. Indeed, those defending Gothic continuity often cited the reigning orthodoxy of Vitruvius, saying that ideally a structure should be a harmonious whole than a collage of disparate elements.

There's some grain of truth to either approach; design unity is a luxury that has largely been only possible in recent centuries, and, as a consequence, many of Europe's churches are an appealing organic mish-mash of times and fashions. Still, my own preference is for stylistic continuity when it can be managed. Of course, presently we also face the problem that a good many of the churches we may renovate are essentially stylistically bankrupt, which suggests any renovation of their design would be, in the best of all possible worlds, essentially using the existing interior and exterior as a framework on which to overlay new plasterwork, vaults and other details. Some may cry at the apparent structural dishonesty, but despite what the modernists may tell you, very few buildings done in recent years have truly been structurally honest--a slippery term at best--and anything built today by necessity will require some sleight-of-hand to cope with the viscera of wiring, air ducts and other miscellanea that modern comfort requires.

Still, in some cases, the church may be too outre to be able to stand such a renovation--Los Angeles Cathedral comes to mind; trying to straighten out its crooked angles would be an exercise in futility, and the outside is beyond hope. Short of turning the whole thing into a parking garage, subtler changes, such as flattening the sloped floor and putting in place a more traditional chancel arrangement in a style that, while not outright copying Calatrava's oddball choices, at least tried to find some middle point between it and tradition, would probably be the best that could be done under the circumstances. Or you could turn it into a yarn factory like Sixtus V planned to do with the Colosseum, which is much prettier.

Fortunately, the church I worked with had a lot going for it already.

On the opposite extreme, you see, there are some humbler modern designs, of an astylar simplicity and liturgical orthodoxy, that require a similarly discrete intervention--not because they're beyond hope, but because they already are quietly pleasing in their own way. A more invasive reworking might be both budgetarily prohibitive and liturgically unnecessary. I recently was invited by the pastor of Visitation Parish Church in Miami to propose, hypothetically, a narthex extension to his church building, which required such a discrete intervention.

The church's design is fairly simple, essentially lacking a canonical style but with hints of Art Deco, one of several virtually identical structures put up in the late fifties by the Archdiocese of Miami. While simple, it nonetheles possesses an appropriate longitudinal arrangement, and the good father had already begun on some sensitive and discrete additions to the sanctuary in good materials--including marble--that would harmonize with the existing design without necessarily being limited by its comparative humility. The church's most notable attribute, actually, is a splendid shiny terazzo floor which the priest had recently added a series of inlaid symbols up the main aisle; however, it also possessed a very low ceiling, which, while less distracting than one might think in the interior, resulted in a fairly unremarkable silhouette from the outside.

Visitation Parish Church's status quo.

These additions, which were intended in a speculative way to brainstorm ideas for the longterm expansion of the parish, consisted of a program set out by the priest: a narthex flanked by a bookshop and a small kitchen for distributing after-Mass coffee. The arrangement I proposed required the extension of two small storage spaces on either side of the church's open porch forward by a bay, and dividing the interstitial space into a glassed-in narthex occupying the same space as the existing exterior gallery, and a new open-air porch to take its place. The style was to be an art deco that harmonized with the existing church, though slightly higher in style as with the altar modifications.

The choice of deco proved to be an interesting challenge. Miami's native style is, in some sense, art deco, though Miami deco has a certain neon extravagance that suggests the grand hotel and the cinema than God; however, the sort of deco the we proposed would be discrete enough to allow reference, in an abstracted way, to the simplicity of Romanesque and other more conventional ecclesiastical styles.

Originally, we'd thought to make the two separate volumes on either side of the narthex into low towers, but it struck me that lifting one single tower or false-front bell-wall of sorts in the center would provide a sufficient lift to the low outline of the church, while also cutting down on the costs that two smaller towers might entail. The bell-wall is a feature of Spanish colonial and Sicilian baroque architecture, and one very suitable for American ecclesiastical architecture in this age of privation as it eliminates the very expensive proposition of a separate campanile while increasing the height and prominence the front elevation. Here, the bell-wall is somewhat abstract, as I've not drawn bells in its three arches; however, if the parish had an interest in using them to house a small ring of bells, the arches could be increased slightly in height to avoid the bells crowing the large Crucifixion scene that occupies the center of the composition.

In terms of color and materials, I imagined the addition to be predominantly of pale yellow stucco. The faux-adobe white that this architecture might suggest, and which is not unknown in South Florida, seems rather silly. While the area was Spanish in name at one time, the swampy ground and humidity would have precluded the use of the mud bricks of California and the Southwest there; indeed, Spanish architecture in Cuba is mostly stone or non-adobe based, and in the few places where Spain gained a colonial foothold in Florida, is more about wood, coquina rock, and perhaps more ordinary sorts of stucco over brick. The lower half of the wall is painted a blue to recall the waters of St. Elizabeth's child, John the Baptist, while statues of St. Elizabeth and the Virgin stand in shallow niches on either side.

Further additions or developments to the design might include modifying the kitchen plan to include an open distribution window facing the parking-lot and a small open-air arcade running along the side of the church connected with the window for parishioners to enjoy their post-mass coffees.

A Design for a New Facade for Visitation Church, Miami, Florida, in the Art Deco Manner. Early design. Elevation with Plan. September 2006.

This was actually the second design I did for the project, the first getting out of my system the more flamboyant aspects of the style. I realized, after stepping back from the project, the bell-wall was probably too tall and would have to become a real tower, and the whole thing looked a bit too much like a movie theater. However, such studies are very useful to explore both the good and bad impulses that may cluster together at the onset of a project, and also to give a context to later evolutions of the design. While unsuitable, this earlier version nonetheless employed a decorative language which would not have been probibitive in cost, while the scalloped top of the spire produced a silhouette that the good father found intruiguing and might be worth incorporating, in a less etxreme form, into the current bell-wall design should this project become a reality. At the very least, given the ubiquity of this church design in Miami, such architectural experimentations provide food for thought beyond the confines of a single parish.

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