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The Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in 2003. Photo from Wikipedia

An architect’s quest for ‘transcendence’

  • April 27, 2019

Though I reside in Santa Barbara, I am in Los Angeles a good deal for meetings and other events. When I’m in the city, I like to walk the downtown neighbourhood. My favourite building to look at while I’m on these strolls is the Walt Disney Concert Hall, home base of the L.A. Philharmonic and the creation of Canadian Frank Gehry, probably the best-known architect in the world.

Like many of Gehry’s other buildings, the Disney is marked by shimmering metallic surfaces, curving planes, and an overall playfulness of design. Some have suggested that the theatre’s exterior looks like the pages of a score that have just fallen from the conductor’s podium. That it is a captivating work of art is testified to by the crowds that regularly gather round it to gaze and to take photographs.

Soon after I arrived in the L.A. archdiocese, I heard that Gehry was actually one of the finalists in the competition to design the new cathedral here. To say the very least, it would have been interesting to see what he would have done with that assignment.

This connection came vividly to mind when I read a recent interview with Gehry, conducted in advance of his 90th birthday. After ruminating on his long career, the Toronto-born architect said that he still harboured a great desire: “I would like to design a church or a synagogue. A place that has transcendence. I’ve always been interested in space that transcends to something — to joy, pleasure, understanding, discourse, whatever a space can do to be part of the dialogue.”

We can easily recognize in this statement what I would call the “Augustinian longing.” The great Church father, Augustine of Hippo, long ago wrote, “Lord, you have made us for yourself; therefore our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Whether we like it or not, all of us are marked by the hunger and thirst for a good that transcends the goods available in this world.

As C.S. Lewis observed, this desire of the heart reveals itself particularly in moments of intense joy, for it is precisely when we have achieved a great worldly value — fame, pleasure, power, money, etc. — that we realize that we still want and need something more.

This is the beauty and goodness to which religion points, the transcendence to which it is meant to order us.

But here’s the rub. As he elaborated on the meaning of “transcendence,” Gehry said this: “Forget the religion aspect. How do you make a space feel transcendent? How do you create a sense of ease with the universe, the rain, the stars and the people around you? It’s comforting to sit in a big room and listen to the rain.”

In stating it this way, the architect revealed his perspective as a pagan one. Please don’t misunderstand me; I have a deep respect for pagan religion. In fact, my mentor, Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, once told me, “If you stop being a Christian, I’d recommend becoming a pagan. Paganism is a noble religion, for it has to do with honouring the great natural necessities.”

He meant that this ancient spiritual tradition, available in both mythic and philosophical expressions, had to do with ordering human beings toward a right relationship with the Earth, the sea, the natural processes of life and death, etc. This was the “transcendence” that paganism evoked.

One of the distinctive marks of our time is a secularism that has got us stuck within the world that we can see and measure.

What this ideology does with the Augustinian longing for God is to turn it into the neo-paganism evident in Gehry’s statement. It is as though the desire that pushes us beyond this world to its Creator gets stifled, limited, corralled, so that we end up effectively worshiping “the universe, the rain, the stars.”

The Church ought to sing the transcendence of God to Frank Gehry as it once sang it to Giotto, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Dante, Gaudí, and the architect of Chartres Cathedral. Once the great architect realizes that the deepest desire of his heart is for the living God, I would love to see the church he would build.

(Bishop Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.)

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