Deconstructing the church

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“Die Belastungsprobe” (Endurance Test), 1912-13, by Heinrich Kley. (graphicwitness.org)

I’ve just finished reading a curious and compelling book called Living Machines: Modern Architecture and the Rationalization of Sexual Misbehavior, by E. Michael Jones. It makes a strong case for what has become a notable cliché: that modern architecture symbolizes the degeneracy of its founders and subsequent practitioners – and today represents our degenerate popular and (I would add) scholarly culture.

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Here is a spicy quote from this spicy book, from a section on the movement to shift ecclesiastical architecture away from its traditions to the deconstructivist strain of modern architecture. The author believes that modern architecture has by this point died, to be replaced by later strains, including deconstructivism; I think these strains are merely the continuation and evolution of the boring glass-box modern architecture, which was originally anti-traditional to its core and remains so today, only worse. But my definition is neither here nor there as far as Jones’s book and the following quote are concerned:

Peter Eisenman organized a series of dinners at the Century Club in New York City, to which the architectural elite (as defined by Eisenman) were invited. Philip Johnson always held the seat of honor at these gatherings. One can imagine Peter Eisenman and Frank Gehry and Philip Johnson with tears of laughter rolling down their cheeks regaling each other with the latest monstrosity which some church just commissioned from them. One can imagine a standing contest at the Century Club architectural dinners – Gehry, Johnson, and Eisenman vying with each other to see who could be the most outrageous in ridiculing the beliefs of religious clients and still get the commission.

Jones goes on to list some of them, such as Johnson’s cartoon chapel in Houston, Gehry’s plywood chapel at Loyola in Los Angeles, and Eisenman’s (unbuilt) Millennium Church in Rome. However different they may look, they are alike in their contempt for religion. Jones goes on to declare that “just as postmodernism is Jewish, the postmodern classical revival is Catholic. The breakdown is hardly coincidental, no matter how much Catholics like [Notre Dame Prof. Philip] Bess want to ignore it.” (Jones quotes throughout from Bess’s 2006 book Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism and the Sacred.)

Jones’s book is mostly a delight, but it is marred by a large chapter that seems to have been written by someone else and parachuted into Living Machines, or written by Jones for some esoteric journal and then shoehorned awkwardly into his book. At 48 pages, “Aut Vitruvius Aut Nihil: The Logos of Architecture and its Opponents” is four times the length of the book’s next-longest chapter. Throughout, Jones uses Phil Bess as whipping boy in what seems to be an effort to show that Jones can out-overintellectualize even Eisenman. Browbeaten, and with no opportunity to respond to Jones’s attack, Bess nevertheless is revealed as by far the more sensible thinker.

So, is modern architecture, and especially what emerged after modernism beat off the challenge of postmodernism, really “Jewish”? Of course not. Jones attempts to demonstrate that after the Holocaust everything changed, and that architecture splits into modern or traditional according to how it addresses what he labels “Logos” – or Jesus, or the Word of God, as Jones defines it. The ancient philosophers defined Logos as order and knowledge, a meaning that doesn’t quite help with Jones’s theory.

As if to prove the contrary of what Jones asserts, modernist ecclesiastical architecture in North America includes churches of diverse denomination, and not just synagogues. This may explain Jones’s reluctance to broaden his thoughts on Catholicism to include Christianity as a whole. Christianity’s willingness to dabble in modern architecture does not fit easily into the idea of modern architecture as Jewish. For that matter, Catholicism has itself dabbled all too extensively in modernism in the post-Vatican II era, only lately seeming to ponder a return to tradition.

(Although I am a Jew, I eagerly and hopefully await the pope’s upcoming encyclical riffing off Donald Trump’s draft executive order encouraging classical architecture for new federal buildings in Washington, D.C.)

I have no capacity to untangle Jones’s argument, except to note that whether classical architecture reflects the Word of God or not, it does reflect order and knowledge in architecture. The thinking behind modern architecture is certainly anti-traditional, not to mention disordered and ignorant. Still, whatever modernists may think as they inflict their work on the rest of the world, the divisions of architecture cannot be summed up as neatly as Jones suggests, however complex he makes it sound.

Notwithstanding this major caveat, which the reader can easily moot by skipping over the chapter, by describing the lives and hypocrisies of its founders and later advocates, the book adds considerable detail (much of it titillating) and much useful, engaging analysis to the indictment of modern architecture as a paragon of perversity.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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8 Responses to Deconstructing the church

  1. William S. Kling says:

    Thank you for this column. I haven’t read the comments yet, as they seem to require deep thought, but I’m forwarding the column to the ministers at my church (Central Congregational). They will both get a charge out of it! And they’ll likely understand all the ecclisiastical (sp?) references far more than I.

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    • I must admit, William, blessed though they are as consumers of this blog, commenters Lazy Reader and John the First tend, in their extended remarks, to stray from the topic at hand. Often the points they make are valid, or at least interesting, but in welcoming them aboard I’ve long wondered how many readers will make it through their pronunciamentos. On the other hand, how often do readers who might not read theirs make it through mine? Hmm.

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      • John the First says:

        People are ever in a hurry on the internet, and not only there. One should never write for the public anyway, but for individuals. To write for the public today is to be forgotten tomorrow, if not sooner.

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  2. LazyReader says:

    The issue of pastors losing congregates is NOTHING new. Fancy architecture wont save that……
    The real issue is the socio-political gaming of big religion which is an industry in and of itself in the political spectrum. Politics and religion need to go their separate ways. Politicians can go to church but once they step into the office for the day the religion thing stops. Religion in general is a huge detriment to politics and politics has been an enormous detriment to religion. Keeping religion out of politics is better for both. On one end we don’t have to worry about whomever is elected concerning their efforts with possible laws that while religiously guided may be detrimental to our liberties. On the opposite end, the church/institution where by policy involved avoids the humiliation when laws they endorsed backfire and keeps the taxpayer from forking over to a church they may not worship.

    To put butts in pews again the churches are embracing the leftist ideology hoping to gain followers. But it’s too late, the left hates Christianity, Christianity coincides with the western world which they also hate but apparently have no inclination to leave. We’ve seen the experiments too… 40 years ago, Iran was modernizing; they opened and westernized their economy and instituted secular reforms, such as allowing women to vote and religious groups outside Islam to run for public office. And that was not what the religously devout and powerful wanted. Instead, they wanted a theocracy guided by religious capacities, and theocracy they got and a politically well connected elite took over much of Iran’s government; swept it’s reforms under the rug; put women back in the burqa’s and beat up the queer community. 40 years later look at Iran today; it’s economy is in ruins, state mosques are emptying; buried regret and hatred and opposition against Iranian regimes has turned into open revolt against Islam. Mixing religion and politics has corrupted both institutions.

    Christianity in America should learn the same lesson and learn it quickly. More and more of Christianity’s symbols, Jesus, the Cross, etc are becoming less a symbol of faith and more a symbol of right-wing politics, and thus, something to be resented by moderates and those on the Left because of their involvement in politics. Jefferson knew the consequences of a church influencing the nations first leaders. Religion was a private matter “between Man & his God”. Kennedy being the first catholic president, warned us 50 years ago; and when you examine the institutions that went after him….. Protestants across the nation distributed Anti-Catholic literature and pamphlets. Forcing Kennedy’s famous separation speech. Religious affiliation is incompatible with governing a society of multiple faiths for worse the secret cache of potentially divided loyalties.

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  3. John the First says:

    I’d recommend a reading of Friedrich Schiller’s Aesthetical and Philosophical Essays, more specifically the series of Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man. Without scapegoating, politics… and far fetched speculation.., a philosophy on a meta level. Basically Schiller already foresaw modern man’s machine society and the impending slavery to the machine. To compress the philosophy in a few lines, Schiller argued that modern man is basically, compared to the ancient Greek, a very unwholesome man. Unwholesome because modern man is on an evolutionary path, developing his reason, slowly moving away from his primitive state (especially since the last say five-hundred years), moving away from nature. This development of reason then leads to science and technology, and today, a society obsessed with ‘data’, ‘information’, ‘facts’, calculation, statistics, infographics, etc, a society developed in a very one sided way, worshipping a calculating machine, worshipping ‘data’. This one sided development then has its consequences in all spheres of life, government, arts, how people treat each other, etc. Basically, what man values and occupies himself with al the time, that is what he becomes. Hence, technocracy and machine society, and even the modern utopia of machine man… Basically this will inevitably lead to a collective spiritual crisis with all its consequences… where the crisis is the sign that change is demanded, nay, absolutely required.

    Schiller, who was a Platonist (and Monadist), then argues that the pursuit of beauty is the connecting link between man’s animal/sensuous nature, and his developing rational faculties (which in time should become his rational nature), the connecting link in the development. He argues that the pursuit of beauty is not a mere fancy, but essential to a balanced development of the whole of his being, his passive and active faculties (contemplation, intuition, reflection versus analysis, calculating, splitting, dividing, categorizing), and as such, the development of a wholesome society. This is again based on the idea that humans can experience beauty (unlike animals) because of our unconscious connection with the realm of ideal forms (Platonic philosophy). All forms created by humans are then scaled down versions of the ideals, and that by creating beauty and surrounding ourselves with it, we change our being, we rise our nature from mere animal-sensuous drives and formlessness towards higher form based intelligence.

    Modernist architecture is most often brute machine-like architecture in its form (aside of the gaudy glamour in some cases), but this follows the rest of society which is more and more machine like, which correlates with the faculties which are developed by the participants of one-sided societies, which correlates with modern man’s brute materialism of which these faculties are in service of.

    Modernist architectural forms therefore cannot even be called barbarian or primitive, it cannot be compared to anything historical because of this unusual and skewed mix of animal-sensuous nature and developing reason, the unwholesome way of being it leads to knows no example in human history.

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  4. “Degeneracy”….oy vey…

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