The clerisy of the concrete-and-glass box freaks out

George Weigel

Several years back, the estimable Father Paul Scalia observed, of some cultural idiocy or other, “Who knew the end of civilization would be so amusing?”

I detected a subtle theological point within that mordant comment: a point worth reflecting upon during Lent.  Christians are the people who know how history is going to turn out — God is, finally, going to get what God intended from the beginning, which is the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in the New Jerusalem. (The trailer, so to speak, is in Revelation 21.) So Christians can afford to relax a bit about the vicissitudes and traumas of history. To be sure, faith that God’s purposes in creation and redemption will ultimately be vindicated ought not lead to insouciance about here-and-now; we have responsibilities within history and we should take them seriously. But faith in the triumph of the Kingdom for which we pray daily should invite us to “chill” (as the kids used to say).

That’s what I did during a recent skirmish in the American culture wars, which erupted a few weeks back over a leaked memo suggesting that President Trump would issue an Executive Order creating a preference that federal courthouses and other federal buildings be designed in a classical style. There isn’t much to laugh at along the Potomac these days. But the freak-out from the high priests and priestesses of the concrete-and-glass box — the modernist architectural establishment and its acolytes in the mainstream media — was (as I think the kids still say, at least in text messages), “LOL.”

The ever-more-ludicrous New York Times, in high editorial dudgeon, asked why the republic should be festooned with more “fake Roman temples” — as if the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, and similar architectural masterpieces were a blight on the national aesthetic. Does the high priesthood of architectural modernism really want to defend such grotesqueries as the Robert H. Weaver Federal Building (headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development), aptly described by a government worker as “ten floors of basement”? Or the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, another concrete-and-glass eyesore that (as my friend Andrew Ferguson wrote) “is even more obnoxious than its namesake”? Or the Hirshhorn Museum, a concrete Bundt cake squatting on the National Mall?

Alas, these horrors are precisely what the modernist architectural establishment wants to defend, and continues to defend with some success: most recently, in ramming through the Frank Gehry design of the Eisenhower Memorial in the nation’s capital, a gargantuan nonsense better suited to the Berlin imagined by Albert Speer after the triumph of the Third Reich.

The idea of Donald Trump as a promoter of architectural classicism is not without its ironies, of course, given the designs of his own buildings. But as the good folks south of the Mason-Dixon Line have been known to observe, “Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every now and then.” And in the current madhouse of American national politics, one takes with gratitude any signs of sanity one can get.

Modernist architectural fanaticism is not about aesthetics only. As critics like Tom Wolfe (From Bauhaus to Our House) and John Silber (Architecture of the Absurd) have  demonstrated, the International Style, Brutalism, and the rest of the modernist canon embody a worldview and an anthropology — an idea of the human person. The worldview is resolutely secular and lacks any sense of transcendence. The anthropology is similar: human beings are cogs in various machines, economic or political, and cogs need neither beauty nor uplift nor charm, only surroundings defined by the ultimate value of efficiency. (That a lot of modernist buildings don’t work, rapidly decay, and require enormous sums to maintain compounds the problem even while underscoring the point: dumbing down the human has its costs, including its financial costs.)

The modernist curse afflicted Catholic church architecture in the U.S. for a while, but that unhappy period is now passing. Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist-inspired abbey church at St. John’s in Minnesota was often considered the most important U.S. Catholic building of the mid-20th century. Compare it to Duncan Stroik’s chapel at Thomas Aquinas College in California, which I’d suggest is the most important U.S. Catholic building yet erected in the 21st century. Stroik, not Breuer, is the future, because the TAC chapel’s classicism and decorative beauty call us out of ourselves and into the Kingdom; the Breuer church depresses the spirit.

Back to the future, then, in both civic and ecclesiastical architecture.

COMING UP: Full transcript of Pope Francis’ Urbi et Orbi blessing amid coronavirus pandemic

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Below is the full text of Pope Francis’ Urbi et Ordi blessing delivered on March 27, during which he prayed for an end to the coronavirus pandemic.

“When evening had come” (Mk 4:35). The Gospel passage we have just heard begins like this. For weeks now it has been evening. Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void, that stops everything as it passes by; we feel it in the air, we notice in people’s gestures, their glances give them away. We find ourselves afraid and lost. Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. On this boat… are all of us. Just like those disciples, who spoke anxiously with one voice, saying “We are perishing” (v. 38), so we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.

It is easy to recognize ourselves in this story. What is harder to understand is Jesus’ attitude. While his disciples are quite naturally alarmed and desperate, he stands in the stern, in the part of the boat that sinks first. And what does he do? In spite of the tempest, he sleeps on soundly, trusting in the Father; this is the only time in the Gospels we see Jesus sleeping. When he wakes up, after calming the wind and the waters, he turns to the disciples in a reproaching voice: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (v. 40).

Let us try to understand. In what does the lack of the disciples’ faith consist, as contrasted with Jesus’ trust? They had not stopped believing in him; in fact, they called on him. But we see how they call on him: “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” (v. 38). Do you not care: they think that Jesus is not interested in them, does not care about them. One of the things that hurts us and our families most when we hear it said is: “Do you not care about me?” It is a phrase that wounds and unleashes storms in our hearts. It would have shaken Jesus too. Because he, more than anyone, cares about us. Indeed, once they have called on him, he saves his disciples from their discouragement.

The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities. The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly “save” us, but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us. We deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity.

In this storm, the façade of those stereotypes with which we camouflaged our egos, always worrying about our image, has fallen away, uncovering once more that (blessed) common belonging, of which we cannot be deprived: our belonging as brothers and sisters.

“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” Lord, your word this evening strikes us and regards us, all of us. In this world, that you love more than we do, we have gone ahead at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything. Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste. We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick. Now that we are in a stormy sea, we implore you: “Wake up, Lord!”.

“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” Lord, you are calling to us, calling us to faith. Which is not so much believing that you exist, but coming to you and trusting in you. This Lent your call reverberates urgently: “Be converted!”, “Return to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12). You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing. It is not the time of your judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others. We can look to so many exemplary companions for the journey, who, even though fearful, have reacted by giving their lives. This is the force of the Spirit poured out and fashioned in courageous and generous self-denial. It is the life in the Spirit that can redeem, value and demonstrate how our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people – often forgotten people – who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines nor on the grand catwalks of the latest show, but who without any doubt are in these very days writing the decisive events of our time: doctors, nurses, supermarket employees, cleaners, caregivers, providers of transport, law and order forces, volunteers, priests, religious men and women and so very many others who have understood that no one reaches salvation by themselves. In the face of so much suffering, where the authentic development of our peoples is assessed, we experience the priestly prayer of Jesus: “That they may all be one” (Jn 17:21). How many people every day are exercising patience and offering hope, taking care to sow not panic but a shared responsibility. How many fathers, mothers, grandparents and teachers are showing our children, in small everyday gestures, how to face up to and navigate a crisis by adjusting their routines, lifting their gaze and fostering prayer. How many are praying, offering and interceding for the good of all. Prayer and quiet service: these are our victorious weapons.

“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith”? Faith begins when we realise we are in need of salvation. We are not self-sufficient; by ourselves we founder: we need the Lord, like ancient navigators needed the stars. Let us invite Jesus into the boats of our lives. Let us hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them. Like the disciples, we will experience that with him on board there will be no shipwreck. Because this is God’s strength: turning to the good everything that happens to us, even the bad things. He brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies.

The Lord asks us and, in the midst of our tempest, invites us to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering. The Lord awakens so as to reawaken and revive our Easter faith. We have an anchor: by his cross we have been saved. We have a rudder: by his cross we have been redeemed. We have a hope: by his cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from his redeeming love. In the midst of isolation when we are suffering from a lack of tenderness and chances to meet up, and we experience the loss of so many things, let us once again listen to the proclamation that saves us: he is risen and is living by our side. The Lord asks us from his cross to rediscover the life that awaits us, to look towards those who look to us, to strengthen, recognize and foster the grace that lives within us. Let us not quench the wavering flame (cf. Is 42:3) that never falters, and let us allow hope to be rekindled.

Embracing his cross means finding the courage to embrace all the hardships of the present time, abandoning for a moment our eagerness for power and possessions in order to make room for the creativity that only the Spirit is capable of inspiring. It means finding the courage to create spaces where everyone can recognize that they are called, and to allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity. By his cross we have been saved in order to embrace hope and let it strengthen and sustain all measures and all possible avenues for helping us protect ourselves and others. Embracing the Lord in order to embrace hope: that is the strength of faith, which frees us from fear and gives us hope.

“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith”? Dear brothers and sisters, from this place that tells of Peter’s rock-solid faith, I would like this evening to entrust all of you to the Lord, through the intercession of Mary, Health of the People and Star of the stormy Sea. From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, may God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace. Lord, may you bless the world, give health to our bodies and comfort our hearts. You ask us not to be afraid. Yet our faith is weak and we are fearful. But you, Lord, will not leave us at the mercy of the storm. Tell us again: “Do not be afraid” (Mt 28:5). And we, together with Peter, “cast all our anxieties onto you, for you care about us” (cf. 1 Pet 5:7).

Featured image: Vatican Media