. cathedral

"Two thoughts:

"1) Do not worry too much about the indiscretion, foolishness, or banality of what you write. Leave Time to take care of it all - either to kill it and hide it for ever, or else to change it in its magical way into something strange and rare and not silly at all. This diary, if it is read at all, will make no one blush two hundred years from now. Someone might blush a little in a hundred years, just as I have squirmed after reading some of Keats's earliest poems this morning.

"2) It becomes more right and acceptable to believe that the other things in the world were made for us to enjoy, if we think that we were made to be enjoyed.

"These truisms pounced on me in the very early morning, when I was half in dreamland."

- Denton Welch,
diary, Sept. 13, 1946.

I'd be flattered if anyone was reading this a hundred years from now.

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(started 09.16.02 | 06:55pm EST) THERE'S A PECULIAR IDIOCY going around these days when people talk about architecture, and it makes me want to rip my teeth out every time I hear it. I encountered it a few months ago when our revered national daily wrote about the new Jordan Le Clos winery designed by Frank Gehry - the first Gehry ever in Canada, apparently, and weren't we just chuffed to hell about it.

In a piece on the winery in the Globe and Mail (sorry, but they don't keep articles accessible and online - one of the many absurdities with the local press up here in Labattslavia, where the internet is still regarded as an unsavory and suspicious marketing tool for the dailies - so no link), a writer referrred to Gehry's vast, undulating shed as "cathedral-like". I stared hard at the photos of the model, and as hard as I tried I couldn't see the cathedrals in Chartres, or Coventry, or Cologne reflected anywhere in a building that looked more like a stop-motion photo of a paper towel spill. I won't deny the power of Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim, but the man seems to be stuck in a rhetorical rut, style-wise, and the winery looked like a trashcan doodle rescued and flattened out to meet a deadline.

Nevertheless, the writer deemed it "cathedral-like". Naively, perhaps, I'd always regarded cathedrals as places full of a thrilling verticality, buildings whose principal function was to make you look up, to draw your eyes and your spirit to some point a hundred or more feet in the air, to make you feel like your bonds with the earth could be quietly severed at any minute, buildings imbued with the implicit threat of revoking gravity. For some reason, I couldn't imagine that sensation being evoked in one of Gehry's patented collisions of waves, drawn in sheet alloys.

The writer, though, felt compelled to do so, which I put down to laziness, a shallow skim over the cliché bucket that architecture writers get handed along with a copy of Ada Louise Huxtable and a handful of Fallingwater postcards.

Moneo and his church.

But then, today, I picked up the new New Yorker and came across Paul Goldberger writing about L.A.'s new Catholic cathedral, Our Lady of Angels. He opens with a long paragraph, trying to paint some context for Los Angeles' sometimes unhappy architectural landmarks, and imagines that Rafael Moneo's building will inevitably be compared to Gehry's unfinished Walt Disney Concert Hall, which looks like a further refinement of the Bilbao concept, the Guggenheim taken apart and re-assembled like a cheap jigsaw puzzle.

For Goldberger, the dominant architectural style in modern L.A. is "big, boxy buildings ... a big, horizontal mass, like the Beverley Center, the vast shopping mall built atop a parking structure." Moneo has, he thinks, tried to "make it into something spiritual," with limited success compared to Gehry, whose "swooping forms are more conventionally cathedral-like." And there it is again.

I HAVE, OR SO I'M TOLD over and over, been raised as part of a generation discouraged from making emphatic pronouncements, from forming a thought without a qualifier, from crossing the rhetorical road without looking both ways. I've been trained to respect other perspectives, and to ameliorate my opinions generously with them, no matter how instinctively I might disagree. Frankly, I long ago lost my fondness for this exercise in mental handicapping, but it's still a reflex, and one that's useful in guarding against coming off like a combination of preacher, choir, organ, congregation and collection plate. (An editorial affliction that might one day be called "blogger's syndrome".)

You can't help but wonder, though, when an idea evolves past opinion to assumption on its way to becoming some kind of accepted wisdom, and you find yourself scratching your head whenever it heaves into view. I don't - I can't - accept the notion of Frank Gehry's convulsive buildings, the best ones as impressive as they're graceless (please understand, I don't think Gehry's a bad architect, just a limited one), the worst ones looking like a stomach ache rendered in titanium sheeting, as cathedral-like. The idea seems to have taken on a life of its own, and a quick Google search has it pop up here and here and here, among a dozen other places, mostly in reference to the Bilbao Guggenheim's atrium.

An atrium - a soaring, light-seeking space contained by a larger building - is basically cathedral-like by nature, or rather, it shares a basic form with the classic cathedral form, so Gehry would hardly be doing anything revolutionary by rendering an atrium in just such a manner. An atrium can be situated anywhere, in a building of any sort, provided it has the height to accommodate a tall, light-filled hollow somewhere inside its mass.

A cathedral, on the other hand, has (or rather, had) a very specific form, inside and out. You wouldn't mistake a cathedral for a shed, or a factory, or an apartment building, though there are schools of postmodern architectural though that would like you to do precisely that. Let's put it even more simply: An atrium is part of a building; a cathedral is a building.

Basically a rant on really big churches, inspired by a New Yorker piece. Of limited interest, really. Hey - if you can spare the ten minutes or so, be my guest.

john scalzi
james lileks
alan zweig
mike reed
lucy huntzinger
warlog: ww3
little green footballs
ken layne
uss clueless
relapsed catholic
arts & letters
steve bell
talking points memo
peter maass
cliff yablonski

Nasreen Muni Kabir, Bollywood: The Indian Cinema Story buy it

I've just discovered Bollywood, and it's exhilarating, like finding a whole new set of rooms in your house, or a whole new country just across the street. I'm not among the "early adopters", but I'd like to think I'm at least a year ahead of the curve, beating the drum for what could be a sensation.

For most people, Bollywood is overripe melodrama, overacted purple plays where people break out into song and dance for no reason except that it has to be done, the triumph of formula over script. As Kabir says, it's probably an honest enough opinion, except that so much more can be discovered once you embrace the formula and let the giddiness of the masala style of filmi wash over you. After all, does anyone complain about the ironbound plot mechanics of the Hollywood action film?

I'm compiling a list as I go through the book of classic Indian films, most of which I've never heard of - Sholay, Mother India, Dil Se, Awaara, Pyaasa, and dozens more. There's a big new Indian rental shop around the corner from our place, and I'll be hitting up the owners - a group of jaded-looking young guys, no different from the kind of aficionado you'll find in serious video stores anywhere - for subtitled copies of whatever they have.

A CHURCH CAN LOOK like practically anything these days. According to James Lileks, the revolution in church architecture began, as most things we know now, after the war: "Churches now looked like ski lodges, motel lobbies, golf-course clubhouses. Machines for efficient praying to a Savior in the gray flannel robe." I attended just such a church, a foursquare barn with a timberutted ceiling, built by the same contractor that built the house I grew up in. It was, as Lileks says, an efficient space for the business of religion, but one devoid of any sense of wonder:

"I love those 50s churches from an architectural standpoint, but they lack the twin virtues of the pre-war structures: crushing weight and soaring majesty. The medieval cathedrals were bound by the necessities of load-bearing walls to be narrow, to push in as they pulled up. But for every yard of dun-hued stone was a ribbon of stained glass; for every slab of unyielding rock there seemed to be ten times as much air and light above you. Chalk it up to the requirements of the builder's art at the time, but no other human structure so succinctly stated the nature of the world below and the world above. Odd: many people in a gigantic church feel more in touch with the divine than they do outside under a night sky. It's as if a roof helps the human mind focus on the infinite."

Rafael Moneo's Our Lady of Angels is, if the finished product looks anything like the computer-generated images I've seen, at least attempting to be a cathedral, in a stark, brutalist kind of way. Growing up in Spain, Moneo would have had incredible examples of cathedrals at hand wherever he went. For an American architect like Gehry, the cathedral is far down on his native architectual vocabulary; the factory and the shopping mall are much more prominent, and it shows. American cities are full of small-scale copies of gothic cathedrals, almost all of them built before the second world war for Catholic, Episcopalian, Baptist and Presbyterian flocks, and dozens of glass, brick, concrete and steel cathedrals, built since the war, for rapidly growing Protestant fundamentalist congregations. These modern faiths seem to demand modern buildings, just as avildly as the secular patrons that commission architects like Gehry, Graves, Meier and Eisenman demand the acme of newness in the latest materials.

Goldberger's initial impression of Moneo's cathedral isn't promising: "The shape recalls one of those performing-arts centers that were built on college campuses in the nineteen-sixties, or a suburban church, blown up to monumental scale, and produced on an exquisitely refined level." Moneo's style - a "gentle brutalism", in Goldberger's words - favors concrete, and thus essentially eschews any form of adornment. One of the great tragedies of modernism - and everything that came after, including the era we're living through - is a loss of confidence in ornamentation of any kind. Even stained glass - the most visually sensual element of most medieval churches - was apparently deemed too much for Moneo's cathedral (too "traditional" by the architect, too expensive by the archdiocese), though the tall, high windows of Spanish alabaster are probably quite lovely, if my memory of the pearl-like light coming through a tiny alabaster pane in the crypt of a church in Rioja is anything to go by.

Moneo's building is hardly a monstrosity, but I can't imagine just how Frank Gehry would have produced something more specifically "spiritual", as Goldberger seems to imagine is his peculiar gift. It's strange, though, to read that Moneo took to comparing the adjacent Hollywood Freeway, which roars alongside Our Lady of Angels, to a river, and built a long wall of glass overlooking the "banks" of this river. It's the kind of disconnect you expect to read about in an Oliver Sacks book - the man who mistook a freeway for a river - and it's typical of the abrogations of meaning that typify modern architecture and, as a whole, most modern high culture; a will to alter meaning, to regard what our senses tell us, and everything it's taken millenia for us to learn from experience, as arbitrary, as a consensual hallucination that "geniuses" are encouraged to ignore. And so an atrium becomes a cathedral, a freeway a river, in some desperate-seeming attempt to imagine that the world we live in isn't a whole lot uglier and more arbitrary than the one we inherited.

I sound like a luddite, and I don't want to, but there's a seam of condescension somewhere in the story Goldberger tells, and I don't blame it entirely on the writer. Goldberger notes that the plaza outside the cathedral was full of people, "many of Hispanic descent". (There was quite a bit of criticism, most of it aimed at Cardinal Mahony, that Our Lady of Angels' location was haughtily distant from where his parishioners actually lived. It doesn't seem to have been prescient.) Since walking - or rather, enjoying a walk - is such a rare pleasure in L.A., Goldberger contrasts the cathedral square with the piazza at L.A.'s Getty Center, where "the haute bourgeoisie of Los Angeles got a chance to be urban pedestrians", and calls Our Lady of Angels "a poor man's Getty", a phrase that grates.

Goldberger calls Robert Graham's traditionally representational bronze cathedral doors "somewhat pompous", and notes that while Moneo had wanted to commission abstract pieces for the interior of the cathedral, Mahony overruled him, saying that he wanted art that, in Goldberger's words, "his parishioners would easily understand", at which the writer wonders whether the Cardinal "didn't sell his flock short". Mahony, in other words, was exercising the same prerogative as the popes, archbishops and cardinals who commissioned the great medieval cathedrals, which were rich with allegorical carvings and imagery that a mostly illiterate audience could comprehend. Which would be fine, if this were still the middle ages, and his largely Mexican, Central American and Filipino parishioners were on the same level with one of Chaucer or Boccaccio's rude, simple peasants. Goldberger - and Moneo - obviously put their faith in the certainty that they aren't. Without the chance to interview each of them in person, it's impossible to say who's right.

But one thing's for certain - Goldberger's surprise at how the parishioners seemed so quickly imbued with "a certain pride of ownership" in the new cathedral says volumes about how little architects, or architectural critics for that matter, can predict the response of people, large masses of people, unschooled in the latest theories of architectural fashion, and the ultimate tenants of any building. While building codes and city by-laws conspire to make human needs a part of the building process, it's often hard to imagine that people are allowed to populate the digital renderings and precise models of designers, except as a marker of scale. Is it any wonder why architectural drawings are inevitably rendered from some perspective a hundred or more feet in the air, at some God-like distance from the prospective structure, a view that few people without the access to a plane or a well-placed penthouse apartment will ever be afforded?

Even the great cathedrals were designed so that the best view of all was that of the lowly parishioner, walking throught the great front door, into the nave and down the center aisle where, almost inevitably, you will find yourself stopping, almost (hopefully?) brought to your knees under the soaring vaults of the ceiling, at the center of a crossfire of altar, arch, and windows, the "sweet spot" of a cathedral church. This experience of a building was understood implicitly by the builders of the great cathedrals, but it's become the lost chord of modern architecture, a subject of guesswork and theory on the part of people who aren't even sure what a cathedral is like, or what a river really, truly, is.

(finished 01:03am EST | 09.18.02)

Hans-Michael Koetzle, Photo Icons: The Story Behind the Picture buy volume one, buy volume two

The Taschen Icons series of small chapbooks have produced some great, inexpensive little volumes, but few as great as these. A few dozen iconic photographs from a century and a half of photographic history - Stieglitz' "The Steerage", Robert Capa's "Spanish Loyalist", Bert Stern's final photos of Marilyn Monroe - are examined in detail, with biographies of the photographers and historical context. Who commissioned the work? Where did it get printed and enter the public consciousness? Was the Capa shot really the final moment of a soldier on the battlefield? If you ask yourself these kinds of questions when you look at a photo, you'll want these books. And they're cheap, did I mention that?

Michael Capuzzo, Close to Shore buy it

The story that inspired Jaws - in the summer of 1916, the Jersey shore was terrorized by a rogue Great White shark; four swimmers died, along with an old myth about the "harmlessness" of sharks. Capuzzo tells the story as part of the great disillusionment that WW1 and the end of the Victorian/Edwardian era brought to this century, the notion of man mastering nature dying on the bloody sands of the seaside beach resorts, as it was in the trenches of France. Full of great historical detailing; it'll make a great movie. Oh, right, it already did.

Robert Ward, Virgin Trails buy it

IT'S FINALLY OUT! A couple of summers ago, I travelled with Robert "los Bob" Ward through north and central Spain, and I can say that, among the man's other virtues, he's an impeccable travel companion. His book will let you share the experience of travelling with "los Bob", along the pilgrimage routes of Europe. A really amazing read.

Dennis Bock, The Ash Garden buy it

Another book by a friend. A novel about the bomb, among other things. It's still there, hanging over everything, despite every attempt to pretend that, along with the wall, if just went away ten years ago.

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