Saturday, August 4, 2012

Inspirational Ancient Future Building

If the new permanent cathedral is going to cut the mustard in Christchurch, it is going to need to at least nod in several different directions simultaneously. These directions concern the affections of people. A hint that the new cathedral will connect with these affections is contained within the words of Bishop Victoria cited in my post below. Here I cite what I think are vital words at this stage in the design process:
"we do not want to build a replica but rather a mix of old and new. A renewed ancient vision that does reflect our past but also looks to our future ... build an inspirational building that gives glory to God"
Canterbury is a region with a strong sense of its historical founding, which include an unembarrassed and ongoing connection with England, the place where the plans for the Canterbury settlement were hatched. I sense that a strong part of the motivation to save the cathedral is a motivation to remain connected through physics to our past. I believe we can nod in that direction.

Another part of the angst some are feeling about the cathedral is that, irrespective of the history of Canterbury it has become part of the history of New Zealand. We do not have many truly great New Zealand buildings, where greatness is measured not only in terms of architectural merit, but also in terms of people's affection. That is we have few buildings we really ought to do just about anything to keep in good repair and if damaged to restore. The cathedral is an icon of New Zealand (the argument goes) and we must not lose that icon. I won't rehearse the reasons why it has become all but impossible to restore the building to its former splendour (but if you would like to resist those reasons please offer $100m now, and don't just talk about fund-raising for it). I believe we can create a new icon: a bold, striking visual statement of the gospel for the 21st century which will excite the imagination of all New Zealanders. We can nod in the direction of the historical importance of the cathedral by creating a building which generates a new history of affection. Such a building will connect with England, but also with Maori, the South Pacific and with Asia. 

So far we are dealing with general affections of the NZ public. What about Christian affections which are involved in an inspirational ancient future building? To be honest, I am not sure that I am particularly enamoured with the cathedral we have had as a place to be affectionate about as a Christian, as compared with being a Cantabrian! A bit dark, a bit cold (all that stone), and, in terms of aspects of modern worship (bands, projection screens), a bit restrictive. Surely we can do better in respect of light, warmth (wood?), space (i.e. the space from which liturgical, musical, dramatic, and kerygmatic leadership comes to the congregation as all engage in worship of God). We should nod in the direction of the way we worship today. Whatever was good in Neo-Gothic architecture, 21st century Christians worship differently to the Neo-Goths. 

But a cathedral (like any church building) is a statement through physics. In a secularised culture with spiritual aspects (such is our multi-cultural society), can we make a statement about the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ? That is quite a challenge. In secular terms an inspirational building is one which sets our hearts soaring. A Sydney Opera House (to give an example of a building I have seen in person) or the Louvre (so I believe). In gospel terms an inspirational building is one which enables the Spirit of God to meet our spirits. The movement of the gospel is the movement towards us of God who seeks to save the lost rather than waiting for the lost to find him. I have no idea how a building is inspirational in the sense that when we enter it we meet the Holy Spirit, and when we look at it we find ourselves coming home to the God who seeks us.

But I am sure it can be done!* We need to nod in the direction of the core message of the Anglican expression of Christianity: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son ...

Speaking generally of modern church architecture in NZ, my advice would be to look at Roman Catholic churches built in the last fifty years before any other churches. Speaking of cathedrals in NZ, I believe that we can learn from mistakes made in the building of Auckland (should have demolished the old part), Wellington (worst acoustics in the whole wide world), and Nelson (beautiful in Takaka marble, but horrendous bills looming re maintenance) cathedrals.


Pageantmaster said...

There are few truly iconic buildings which have stood the test of time. Even those that were hailed as iconic, those on the cutting edge, or the very best the time and technology could produce, often end up looking dated or overtaken by technology.

In my time, or just before, those buildings hailed as iconic, now just look, well, of their time: the Pompidou Centre, the Lloyds building, Brazilia, Coventry Cathedral. All now look rather bland and dated, although interesting as statements of their time and thinking and of our parents' tastes.

Those which are iconic are often the product of one determined vision, rather than something designed by committee to be a bit of this and a bit of that, something ancient, something new.

There is one iconic modern building I can think of, and that was innovative, has stood the test of time, and was the product of one man's determined vision, even though it was not built as he wanted it and he did not finish the project. That is the Sydney Opera House. But that was over time, over budget and very very expensive as the truly iconic buildings invariably are.

The principles of what looks good in cathedrals were worked out over a long period of time - we have about 40 of them and most are gothic. We never really followed the Continental fashion for the Baroque or the Italianate.

Better to concentrate on the function of the Cathedral and fitness for purpose, rather than making a pastiche, a mishmash of cultural references or an iconic statement of this time which will date. I suspect that the iconic statement will follow that, much as happened with the Royal Albert Hall, hated at the time, but much loved now.

And of course, you already have a proven iconic cathedral, though in bits and with no Humpty in sight it seems.

Father Ron Smith said...

Contrary to 'Pageantmaster's experience here, of iconic buildings;
beoinf a native of Coventry - before the Blitz - and at the time if the new Cathedral of St.Michael; I don't believe it has yet 'dated'.

Sir Basil Spence, its designer, who invited artists of the time to contribute to the design; wrought an epic reminder of how both ancient and modern can live side by side with no apparent contradiction

Having re-visited the City of Coventry several times since, my experience was that the number of visitors is constantly high. The relevance of such a building can hardly ever be surpassed.

Anonymous said...

I would prefer if they just stuck with good old fashioned Victorian Gothic. Whenever I hear the word "modern" I assume it means soulless and garish. We have enough 70's Stalinist chic in NZ as it is.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter,

One has to admire the vision of the neo-gothic movement, even though I think that vision is no longer tenable in today's world. But the principle of a cathedral that narratives the relationship between heaven and earth and the role of the Church in that connection still holds.

The move from high altar to nave table just demonstrates the way the church was trying to embody a new vision for the church within a building from a previous era.

We have to think hard as a church to articulate this new vision. This task is made more difficult today by the confusion within the church as to our proper function. As long as Church and Culture continue to be conflated, that confusion will continue to reign. But if we do our work well, we will know how to build.

My ideal would be for a building that from the outside narratives its purpose to the observer and on the inside facilitates the church as it goes about its godly work.


Pageantmaster said...

Fr Ron Smith
"being a native of Coventry - before the Blitz - and at the time of the new Cathedral of St.Michael; I don't believe it has yet 'dated'."

I withdraw my suggestion that Coventry Cathedral has dated, and indeed recognise that the relevance of such a building can hardly ever be surpassed; along with the merits of melamine, tupperware and as we saw in the Olympic opening ceremony, Lindy Hop.

My apologies - I meant no offense to another monument from the New Elizabethan age.

Father Ron Smith said...

Dear Pageantmaster, Thank you for your gracious retraction of your 'dated' remark about the Cathedral of St. Michael & All Angels Coventry.

I am privileged, here in Christchurch, to be part of the parish ministry of another Saint Michael & All Angels, so have to keep up the good name of our Patron - we are perhaps the only inner City church still providing Daily Mass - post quakes - certainly in the Anglican Tradition.