December 11, 2008

Thomas Aquinas College chapel update, Tabernacle revealed

A view of the crossing dome, showing the tondi of the Four Evangelists.
The chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity at my alma mater Thomas Aquinas continues to shape up. Here are some photos I was sent of the interior as it is nearing completion. Do notice that a lot of things have yet to be built so please don't jump to conclusions about the liturgical orthodoxy at TAC. Yet to be built is the baldaccino, and beautiful colored marble altar rails are being crafted right now.

A view down the side aisles. You may notice the carved panels of the Stations of the Cross. The aisles are meant to be used as aisles for regular use, but during special occasions movable seating will be set up to double capacity. (I believe)

Note the Papal Coat of Arms in the floor of the center aisle.

Statuary over the main entry that you can see here.
Now I just got these images today from my special inside source so I'm bringing to the world completely exclusive images of the renewal of sacred art going on at TAC. These are a few images of the Tabernacle that will be installed in the apse of the chapel. Truly a jewel inside a jewel.

Christ Triumphant surmounts the tabernacle,
as St. Charles Borromeo called for in his Instructiones.

"This is my body"

Doors echo those of the Baptistry in Florence.

Domus Dei.

Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil wins Driehaus prize for Classical Architecture

A short time ago, the University of Notre Dame announced that they have awarded the Egyptian architect Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil the 2009 Driehaus Prize for Classical architecture. El-Wakil is rightly praised for his beautiful mosques and homes throughout the the Middle-East, and for his Islamic Studies Center at Oxford. The Oxford building is particularly beautiful and does an amazing job of blending classical Western forms with Middle Eastern motifs.

The Oxford Islamic Centre
Lost however in the justified praise for his buildings is the depth of El-Wakil's thought. I came across the following quotation at work the other day and found it particularly apt, considering what I said in the previous post.

"People who speak of origniality do not really mean to be original, they mean to be different. The very word originality means something going back to its origin. the true path of originality is the path extending from that from which all forms come. What people today mean by original is to be different in a very introverted and individualistic manner... All basic architecture especially the sacred, has followed archetypal forms which relate to cosmological order"
El-Wakil hits the nail on the head with this one. The originality that most architects seek is that of their own genius, the originality that El-Wakil seeks is found in the beginning and is found outside oneself.

This is the most fundemental distinction between the Modernist and the Classicist. The Modernist claims that forms are invented or created ex-nihilo by himself. The causes of beauty are whatever we say that they are because fundamentally beauty is only a product of our mind and our creation.

The Classicist on the other hand believes what we call beautiful is so because it IS. The forms, the order are pre-existent to our being and are actual and there to be found in nature. Beauty is not a construct of our mind, it is the comprehension of cosmological order. In art we imitate nature, not simply drawing animals and plants and such but rather, what we imitate in the highest arts (architecture and music) is the most ORIGINAL of things, the nature of the universe itself.

How do we do that? Well to do that we need to define beauty and how it relates to the universe and metaphysics. That however is too much to write on during my lunch break. More on this later.

December 8, 2008

Swiss National Museum's new wing already out of date

Often a criticism weighed against contemporary architecture is that the buildings built today will within a few years time appear dated, out of style and silly. Rarely has that criticism being levied against a building that isn't even built yet.

The Swiss firm Christ & Gantenbein Architects was reported to have just received funding to begin construction of an addition to the Swiss National Museum in Zurich. The only problem is that in the time waiting to wade through the red tape of government bureaucracy the design has apparently grown mold sitting on the shelf. According to the article in Architectural Record, the critics, and the architects themselves admit the design is a bit stale:
"Given that the design is now six years old, [architect Emanuel] Christ acknowledges that what seemed striking and original may appear less so today."
I couldn't agree more, excepting that the design was probably never terribly striking or original, looking like a rather boxy knockoff of any random Lebeskind museum.

It begs the question whether a more traditional design would have elicited such a response to the design languishing in governmental committee? Would a design that harmonized with the original museum have to resort to such chicanery as the architects propose to repackage their design?
"Indeed, the Swiss Nation Museum extension’s tessellated planes have become a common motif in contemporary design. As a result, currently the studio is considering slight changes to its addition, such as cloaking it in a gradation of color that would dramatize its geometry."
In other words, the design no longer is fashionable today, with its bare concrete walls of angling planes, but rather should be like this years fashionable colored buildings.

Architecture is not fashion. Architecture is the expression of the highest ideals of humanity, those ideals which are unchangeable and as such architecture is unchangeable. Sure, tastes and styles change, but a truly good building will age well and continue to tell the same story and express beauty in the same way, whether it's six years after it's design or six hundred.

December 2, 2008

Capitol Visitor Center Opens

This morning the National Capitol Visitor's Center officially opened. While the ceremony was today to officially inaugurate this project, the Center or CVC as it is banally called inside
has been open to visitors for the past few weeks. I was able to take a tour through a friend here at Georgetown and frankly was unimpressed. While I had heard of horrific rumors about the content of the museum and the experience as a whole, I found it less offensive as I had thought, but then upon reflection found this milquetoast reaction to be the most distressing thing about the experience.

To begin with, the entire center is underground. While I understand that the architects wanted to avoid sullying the iconic profile of the Capitol, I wonder why architects today cannot make an addition to any building without it being political suicide? Because Modernism cannot make buildings that harmonize with their surroundings, and in fact make buildings that ruin anything they touch. Thus, to avoid an inevitable and justified public outcry, they push the building underground, hiding it from view and from criticism, or at least the need to criticise.

I ask, why do architects feel that they cannot make an addition to a building that won't elicit universal scorn, when for generations before architects were able to do just that. Both the Capitol and the White House have been added on numerous times, but yet the buildings were not ruined, but rather enhanced! This is because contemporary architects are so enamored with Modernism/Postmodernism/Deconstruction that the idea of making a truly sensitive and harmonious addition is both philosophically and technically impossible to them. This is because such an addition would necessarily be classical as the classical is the only mode of architecture that allows for both harmony and balance and beauty in a composition, while Modernism allows for only subjection, rejection and subversion.

Ok, so enough on the modernists. On to the building. As I said the building is underground, clearly for aesthetic concerns but ostensibly to allow for visitors to assemble to enter the building under cover and in airconditioned comfort. As Harry Reid said rudely, visitors during the summer come into the Capitol covered in sweat frankly stink. Two questions I have are this, couldn't a visitors center been constructed on the edge of the grounds like a gate house of some sort? This would allow visitors to go through security then roam the grounds as they wait in the shade of the trees of a beautiful park.

Second, why then has the security for the center been placed directly at the entrance, making visitors queue up in the open air anyway? After entering there is a massive area between the immediate security stations and the politically correct Emancipation Hall, why couldn't the security be placed further in the building to allow for visitors to be under cover?

Aesthetically the Hall of Emancipation, the only real "architectural" space of the addition is a sort of mishmash of pre-war Fascist modernist classical mixed with all of the charm of a standard shopping mall. The columns are stripped down lacking any real architectural treatment, while still being covered with luxurious marble constructed in such a man manner to make it clear that the surface is merely a facade. Light comes in through the immense skylights, which is nice but still has the feel of being inside a mall, as you can only see the sky above. Light fixtures are either bland modern or are off the shelf from Home Depot can lights, the worst sort of lighting possible. Decoration is nonexistent other than a few inscriptions of the most politically neutral sort. Thankfully, as BeyondDC had reported incorrectly, E Pluribus Unum was not translated to mean "From One Come Many."

The Emancipation Hall is as said, filled with all the most politically correct statues from the states, from Sarah Winnemucca, Sacagawea, to King Kamehamea, very few white males are represented here. While one may argue about the points of this, it says a lot about the confidence the artists and architects have in the culture of America. Now this being said, full size plaster model of Freedom, the statue that tops the Capitol dome, is magnificent to see right up close and thankfully provides some sort of focus to an otherwise banal experience.

The whizbang museum fits the standard sort of rambling multimedia experiences one comes to expect in today's culture of the short attention span. However the models showing the sequential growth of the site of the Capitol are really quite extraordinary. Not quite as impressive as the McMillan Plan models at the Building Museum, but nice nonetheless. But I may just have the bias to such things as an architect.

Before one enters the Capitol proper however, one is subjected to at 10 minute film in one of the two theatres in the center. Now I was expecting the worst, possibly a preachy type film about how bad America was, but thankfully not. But unfortunately the film as everything else seemed as beige and unoffensive as the rest of the center. It seems they have brought giving no offense to a high art. It seems that one is ashamed of saying that America is a great place.

Now the final criticism of the Center is the most damning in my opinion. The Capitol's original plan by Thornton have the two branches of Congress mediated by a central Hall, the Hall of the People. Now once upon a time, that Hall was the most hallowed and sacred space in our Republic, but as such was absolutely open to all. Anyone could wander into the Hall because in a very real sense it belonged to everyone. The ascent up the steps was an act of civic sacrament, like the Papal Procession climbing the steps of the Campidoglio in Rome, sacramentalizing such a place. But now, one doesn't enter the Hall from the grand steps, one comes in through the ground and rides a set of escalators to the rear entry, climbing only a secondary entry to the great Hall. One cannot say enough about the disaster of such a change architecturally. The entire meaning of the place, the sacredness of the space was because of the People entering it, that they were the core and the enervating heart of the country. Now, we are simply the janitors and visitors to our rulers who have closed off this place to be their fortress, surrounded by moats, guards and walls to keep us out.

Architecture is the expression of meaning in stone, we have killed our ability to have it in the heart of the Capitol.

November 28, 2008

Progress photos from Thomas Aquinas College Chapel

Work is finishing up at Thomas Aquinas College's Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel. Some great work by New Classicist architect Duncan Stroik, another major work finished just under a year after Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Here are some photos I was forwarded the other day from a fellow alum. The solid marble statue of Mary sculpted by Tony Visco is being hoisted into place to crown the facade of this great new project. Reports I hear say that the interior is nearly finished, though the baldachino and the altar rail are not yet installed.

UPDATE: I've been corrected, Tony Visco is not the sculptor for this piece, though was to do some work here, circumstances worked out that his work was not used.
This piece is by Giancarlo Buratti as well as all the other exterior sculptural work.

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November 27, 2008

ND Architecture School's redesign for DC's Carnegie Library

Great work here by fellow Notre Dame School of Architecture students for the Carnegie Library in DC. The library has fallen into disuse and last fall, with the help of the National Civic Art Society, graduate students at ND came up with several great ideas for returning the library to its intended use with additions that are designed to HARMONIZE with the existing building.

November 24, 2008

7 Mod Architecture Firms Shortlisted for Eisenhower Memorial

According to BD Online:

"Frank Gehry and Moshe Safdie are among the seven architects who have made the shortlist for the competition to design the £60 million National Eisenhower Memorial in Washington DC.

The other five are Ralph Johnson of Perkins & Will; landscape architect Peter Walker; New York firm Rogers Marvel Architects; Ron Krueck of Krueck & Sexton Architects; and San Francisco-based Stanley Saitowitz."

This news is dissapointing on two levels. First the continuation of the dominant status quo in architecture of whizbang modernism, without any deference or respect for the depth of classical architecture. Doubtless some classical architect out there, and there are many that have the resume of Gehry et al (many in fact have more significant projects built than most of the finalists), submitted some sort of design for the project, but why only modernist firms? The complete disregard of ANY sort of classically minded firm is shameful. Americans love classical architecture, as a recent poll proved, but are sneered at by the press as being ignorant. Why shouldn't America get a chance to have a classical monument, like the ones so beloved by the country that exist in DC already?

The answer? The deck is stacked. Which leads to the second dissapointment, the process. The process to select the design was not as one might expect, an open competition of designs. The commision used the architectural establishment's little dirty secret, the RFQ, a "Request For Qualifications." This process does not weigh competing designs, weighing them on the merit of the proposal, the beauty or the genius of the design, but instead looks for "qualified" architects. This gives you one of two things, a "qualified" but banal designer, who has a lot to show, or apparently in this case, a lot of flashy names who's primary qualification is that they are famous.

The designs? Oh they'll come later. According to "None of the finalists have presented designs, and most likely won't before the winner is selected. 'I haven't really though of it', said Saitowitz. How can one get a great memorial for one of our most distinguished President's and General's if we don't even have a design? I believe that competitions, while not perfect, certainly bring out much better design than simply just naming someone and hoping that because he/she is "qualified we'll get a great place and memorial. I suppose that doesn't matter to whoever the jury were (they weren't revealed), I guess that they just want to have "A Gehry" or something whizbang to show that DC can be stylish like New York or Chicago.

The RFP system should be scrapped for all Federal projects, especially memorials and smaller buildings. Instead we should have open competitions, where common people get to decide. We would open the arts to architects and artists that appear to be now "unqualified" but would be able to adorn our Capital with great monuments again.

November 20, 2008

AIA Discusses Historic Significance of Modern Buildings.

This has been a dominant line of argument of late in the Historic Preservation movement, that "significant" buildings are worthy of preservation. However the confusion of "significance" for value does a tremendous disservice to the state of architecture in the world. After all what is "significant" is not always good, certainly Smallpox is a "significant" thing, but I seriously doubt that anyone would consider it a "good" thing.

A building can be significant in three ways:

1. A moment of history occurred there.

2. The building is an example of a style or movement or an architect's work.

3. The building is great as a building and a part of a larger environ, either rural or urban.

The first two ways of being significant are the most common ways that preservationists argue for the inclusion of modern buildings. These ways clearly are completely extrinsic to the building itself, so then the question of the building's intrinsic value is then apparently moot, or so it would seem.

The problem is that the building is a work of art created for a specific purpose. A building is made as a office building or school or church. A building also has to stand up to the elements and finally, a building as a work of fine art, has to move us to something greater, something that tells us about what it is to be human. (more will be discussed about this as time goes along)

A building must possess all three of these things : (as Vitruvius said: Utilitas, firmitas et venustas) These three things, brought together, lift a building to the realm of Architecture. In my opinion though, venustas (beauty) really is the spark that enervates a dead pile of brick and stone to architecture, but more on that later on.

However we live in a day that these things are really lacking in a LOT of buildings and in a lot of buildings that the critics call the great architecture of our day. There are a lot of buildings however, like smallpox, are so bad that they are the opposite of architecture. These are, seemingly without exception, the buildings foisted upon the world in the past century of the Modernist experiment. These are the buildings that are "significant!"


Now I'll allow, that there are SOME circumstances that allow for a bad building to be preserved for historic reasons. But I think those reasons need to be a lot more significant than "LBJ slept here one night." A hotel where MLK was killed or the Berlin Wall come to mind. These places have such a tremendous historic significance that the place rises above mere encyclopedic record, but it tells us something about being human, which is of course what art should do intrinsically. Here the lesson is extrinsic but somehow overwhelms an intrinsically bad architecture.

But the Berlin Wall, though a historic artifact did such incredible violence to the city that prudence practically requires us to tear it down. Document it, preserve it in memory and in archives, but don't sacrifice the city and our human endeavors to it. We need to have this sort of reason in dealing with the detritus of Modernism. Realizing it may be significant as in terms of a mistake, we should document it and tear them down.


This too goes for the second reason listed above. The significance of a particular work of architecture by a "famous" architect is even more removed from the intrinsic value of a building than its history. The IM Pei Third Church of Christ Scientist is the best example. The building is a failure on almost every level of Vitruvian goodness, but because it was made by "the great Pei" it should be preserved. So what? Because the building was built by a somewhat famous architect the owners and the rest of the city has to suffer an incredibly bad building?

A building's worth should be judged FIRST by its intrinsic worth. Does it work as a building, keeping out the wind and rain and keeping people comfortable? Does it stand up to time, or do we have to spend twice the initial cost every ten years keeping it up? Does it work as architecture, does it inspire us to something higher than the mundane and tell us about ourselves?

Or does it simply serve to stroke the egos of so many architecture critics who know better than the educated rabble?

November 1, 2008

What Beauty Is

Aristotle on Arts
Ethics Bk VI: Ch. 3

“state of capacity to make, involving a true course of reason. ”

St. Thomas on Beauty
Q.5. A.4
“Obj.1 Its seems that goodness has not the aspect of a final cause, but rather of the other causes. For, as a Dionysius says, Goodness is praised as beauty. But beauty has the aspect of formal cause. Therefore goodness has the aspect of a formal cause.

Reply Obj.1 Beauty and goodness in a thing are identical fundamentally, for they are based upon the same thing, namely, the form; and this is why goodness is praised as beauty. But they differ logically, for goodness properly relates to appetite (goodness being what all things desire), and therefore it has the aspect of an end (the appetite being a kind of movement towards a thing). On the other hand, beauty relates to a cognitive power [intellectual virtue], for those things are said to be beautiful which please when seen [or heard]. Hence beauty consists in due proportion, for the senses delight [pleasure being key to learning here] in things duly proportioned, as in what is like them – because the sense too is a sort of reason, as is every cognitive power. Now since knowledge is by assimilation, and likeness relates to form, beauty properly belongs to the nature of a formal cause.”

Aristotle on Beauty
Metaphysics XIII Ch. 3

"Now since the good is distinct from the beautiful (for the good is always s in action but the beautiful may also be in what is immovable), those who assert that the mathematical sciences say nothing about the beautiful or the good speak falsely. For they do speak about and show these, and in the highest degree. The fact that they do not use the names, while they do exhibit construction and theorems about them, does not mean that they say nothing about them. Now the most important kinds of the beautiful are order, symmetry, and definiteness, and the mathematical sciences exhibit properties of these in the highest degree. And since these (that is, order and definiteness) appear to be causes of many things, it is clear that the mathematical sciences must be dealing in some way with such a cause, that is, the cause in the sense of beauty."

“that which is beautiful, whether an animal or any other thing which is composed of a number of parts, should have not only these parts [properly] ordered but also a magnitude, and not any chance magnitude. Indeed, beauty exists in magnitude as well as in order;”

“for the visual grasp of it and of its parts does not take place simultaneously, so its unity and wholeness are lost for the viewer.”

“The proper limit of [a good tragedy or plot] according to its own nature is this: the greater the length up to the limit of being grasped as a whole.”

Leon Batista Alberti
Ten Books of Architecture Bk VI Ch2

"I shall define Beauty to be a harmony of all the parts, in whatsoever subject it appears, fitted together with such proportion and connection, that nothing could be added, diminished or altered, but for the worse."
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