"Why would any seminary today want its building to look as if it were designed in the late 19th century?" This question, raised by Patrick Quinn, FAIA, in response to an AIArchitect article about the Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia, sparked a response by seminary architects Tony Aeck FAIA, LEED-AP, and Joe Greco AIA, LEED-AP, of Lord Aeck and Sargent. Here is their ensuing discussion, to which you are invited.
Re: Spirituality Meets Sustainability
A wonderful approach to sustainability, but it seems that one key design issue has been ignored, leading to the obvious question: "Why would any seminary today want its building to look as if it were designed in the late 19th century?"
—Patrick J. Quinn, FAIA
In response to the question posed by Patrick J. Quinn, FAIA, regarding our project at Columbia Seminary, we would respectfully contend that the design issue to which Mr. Quinn refers has not been ignored but rather engaged. Of course, semantics can be debated forever, but the project is not, in fact, intended to look as if it were built in the 19th century. It is intended to be evocative of the 19th- to early-20th century Gothic-inspired architecture found throughout the Columbia campus. In this regard, the design seeks to establish itself harmoniously within the existing campus context and the surrounding neighborhood, while revealing its own place and time through contemporary nuances of the building's design.
In truth, a 21st-century seminary might very well want to look like--or at least evoke--one built in the 19th century for the same reason that people in the 19th century wanted their seminaries to look like they were built in the 12th century. Gothic architecture was originally conceived as an formal expression of Christian theology, which at the time of was heavily influenced by the scholastic movement. In this context, Gothic architecture can be understood as an effort to reconcile the dual religious traditions of spiritual mysticism and intellectual rationalism--an idea that is arguably more relevant to theological seminaries today than ever.
While these same principles can and have been expressed elegantly outside of the Gothic tradition, the desire of Christian institutions to build more overtly within their own architectural tradition does not seem inherently misplaced or difficult to understand. Instead, the more pressing question may be whether architects should use their professional acumen to understand and to build upon the cultural traditions of their clients or, alternatively, to "educate" those clients to appreciate and conform to those traditions with which their architects are more comfortable and familiar.
-- Tony Aeck FAIA, LEED-AP, and Joe Greco AIA, LEED-AP
Lord Aeck and Sargent, Atlanta
I was pleased to find Mr. Aeck's courteous and elegantly phrased response to my question about why a 21st Century seminary needs to look as if it was designed in the 19th.
His justification, however, seems to stem from an academic rather than a historical perspective, and citing Panowsky does not really address the issue.
Historicism, under any guise, be it design or preservation, restoration or conservation, is a convenient escape from some real design problems.
The juxtaposition/ integration of old and new has been the very essence of most architectural practice over the past 1,000 years. Beverly Minster consists of three sections, built centuries apart in radically different styles of medieval architecture-- Early English, Decorated, and Perpendicular--yet they form one of the most beautiful wholes in English architectural history.
As for the theological and scholastic inspirations for Gothic, I think one need look no further than Gimpel's wonderful little "The Cathedral Builders" or perhaps the correspondence between Suger and Bernard to find some hard factual evidence that the architects (?) of their times were interested in advancing the art of building well, using the best technology and formal possibilities available to them.That may be why I find buildings as different as the Abbey of Le Thoronet and the church of S. Denis to be so powerfully moving. I believe that it is why Lou Kahn was equally moved by the remote, medieval Jain temple at Ranakhpur and the Doric temples of Paestum. Yet when asked to design a benedictine monastery in the desert of Southern California, or a convent in Philadelphia he did try to emulate Le Thoronet or Ranakhpur or anything else. He utterly eschewed historicism, yet embraced historical tradition--a living, historical tradition--and conceived new settings for monastic life.
Even Uberto Eco, author of Name Of The Rose, in his dissertation "Art and Design in the Middle Ages" is careful to distinguish between the value of adapting Greek and Oriental mathematical systems and the value of seeking to go beyond them, experimentally....all in the service of the divine liturgy. His lengthy analysis of the interaction between musical and architectural structures of the middle ages would have overjoyed the scholastics.
It is the kind of analysis that lies behind Robert Lawlor's brilliant essay, published many years ago in PARABOLA, on the acoustical uses of the Divine Proportion or Golden Section in the Abbey of Le Thoronet.
When Alvaro Siza was asked to add a new entrance building and visitor's center to that same abbey, he made a beautifully fitting contemporary design, to which he whimsically added a barred gate that "feels" medieval.
The brilliant English architect, John Pawson directly cites Le Thoronet as inspiration for his recent, radically modern Cistercian monastery at Novy Dvur in Bohemia. Pawson writes: "The cantilevered cloister has no precedent in Cistercian architectural tradition but the result--pure volumes from which all distracting detail has been eliminated--seems a natural expression of the Order's aesthetic vision."
I find an increasing yearning among educated Americans to look back nostalgically for architectural comfort. Some of this can be traced to the intellectual-led revolt against Modernism in the late 20th century, a reaction against simple-minded, glass-box and Brutalist architecture and a search for the kinds of subtleties and complexities espoused by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown. Some of this nostalgia can be traced to uncertainty, to lack of knowledge of what is going on in the world, and some to timidity in the face of change.
I find myself amazed and delighted at the richness, the good sense, the technical elegance, and the beauty of architecture around the world today, and yes, I realize that the best works tend to be islands of beauty in a sea of junk. But the islands are becoming more numerous and beginning to be less isolated. Young architects seem deeply interested in producing thoughtful work that resonates with more than just the visual sense.
Seminarians, who expect to work in the world of today should not be expected to study in architecture that evokes historicist indulgence, rather than historical understanding. Historicism is isolationist and even hermits don't buy it, so why should seminarians be subjected to such kindly avuncular protection from contemporary life.
They should instead be sent to study the New Oakland , Calif., Cathedral, due to open this fall, in order to see how integrating the best of technology, theology, liturgy, and urban design can be both inspiring and enduring.
--Patrick J. Quinn, FAIA.