Church architecture out of the ordinary

  • June 21, 2007
{mosimage}Though design is an important part of it, Toronto’s 21st century wave of new cultural buildings is about more than just architecture. It’s also about city-building: how best to create an urban complex that is beautiful and liveable, and that serves the millions who live here. Each of the new structures we see going up suggests a different approach to this crucial task.
The overhauled Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art on Queens Park, for example, proposes a genteel, measured strategy. Handsomely crafted by Toronto architect Bruce Kuwabara, this jewel box of a building has been inserted with mindful care into its place on the edge of the University of Toronto campus. The building seeks to reinforce its mid-rise academic context, not contest it — to move with the Victorian grain of its neighbourhood, fitting in.

Will Alsop’s recent Sharp Centre for Design, at the Ontario College of Art and Design, and Daniel Libeskind’s new addition to the Royal Ontario Museum, on the other hand, cut boldly across the grain of the city we’ve inherited from the past. Instead of staying respectfully on the ground, like other structures in its mainly residential area, Alsop’s building lifts off from the earth, boosted skyward by long steel toothpicks. Libeskind’s ROM extension — a radical composition of angular, colliding volumes — explodes from the north end of the museum like so many ice-floes clashing in an Arctic gale.

Though we need to think critically about how great a success each of these structures really is — something Torontonians will be debating for years — the validity of the tactical approach to city-building expressed by each one is, to my mind, certain. Toronto needs patient infill of the kind provided by the Gardiner Museum and much strengthening of our traditional urban fabric. And we need striking monuments that proclaim to the city and the world our ambitions and the prosperity and creativity of our citizens. There’s no need to choose between these two strategies; each has its place in the fashioning of the contemporary city.

But while thinking about Toronto urbanism, and how to enhance it, I have been finding it useful to recall where the Catholic Church has traditionally stood on this topic.

{sidebar id=2}Since the fall of the Roman Empire until the present day, our characteristic ecclesiastical architecture has been firmly on the Alsop-Libeskind end of the spectrum: forward, impressively scaled, sharply distinct from surrounding urban fabric instead of blending in. The cathedrals of medieval England and France, the great Renaissance churches in Rome, Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in Barcelona, José Rafael Moneo’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles — such stunning sacred places lift the mind and heart out of the ordinary, and, even in these secular times, forcefully assert the enduring presence of Christianity in civilization.

Throughout history, several challenges have been mounted to the venerable Catholic notion of city-building through civic grandeur. The most serious was the Protestant Reformation, which introduced new ideals of humility into church architecture. One thinks of the lovely, austere Puritan meeting-houses in New England. Yet even the Reformation did not completely erase the taste for Catholic magnificence among Protestant church-builders: When finished, the Episcopalians’ Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in New York City, will be the largest Gothic building in the world.

The radical Enlightenment also played a part in the architectural drama of anti-Catholicism when the French revolutionaries of 1789 decided to knock down Notre Dame, the most spectacular reminder in Paris of the religion they were determined to eradicate. Demolishing the massive cathedral turned out to be too daunting a technical challenge, so they gave up and settled for defacing some statuary instead. During the Spanish Civil War, Catalan anarchists took sledgehammers to the Sagrada Família and destroyed Gaudí’s models and workshop.

But political radicals have always hated the historic Catholic vision of church architecture and urbanism, which is unsurprising. More remarkable is the negative attitude of some Catholics toward shows of ecclesiastical splendour — as though putting up architecturally important new churches and cathedrals is empty pomp nowadays, even robbing the poor. It’s not.

In fact, I can think of no better time than the present day for the Catholic Church to build brilliantly and boldly, as a sign to the city that Christianity is still alive and at work in its midst. What we come up with should be as daring as Libeskind’s museum addition — and just as big a jolt to staid, middling ideas of what making a city is all about.

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