28 September, 2007

Autumn, History, and Gridiron Rosary Intentions

College football is swinging into high gear (Auburn?…Where art thou Auburn?), Halloween is right around the corner and all is right with the world. We’re heading straight into my wheelhouse, the oh-so-happy trifecta that is October, November and December. I love the fall, though down here in lovely subtropical Florida we get none of the pretty colors and I’m just as likely to sweat on Halloween (a sin in my book) as not.

In these three months so full of Christian history, it will be quite a treat to experience them for the first time as a Catholic. Thanks to fellow like-minded bloggers I’ll be kicking off my favorite months with a novena in honor of the battle of Lepanto, beginning this Saturday on the feast of the Archangels and ending Sunday, October 7th, on the feast of the Holy Rosary. It is this immersion into the wisdom and experience of past saints, momentous occasions and even failures that continues to make me fall in love with the Church. So much of American Christianity is about a new road into a glorious new future, free from the shackles (and thus, the wisdom) of the past. In a time when conformity with the spirit of the age is to be desired I am consistently comforted by the Church that maintains a radically new outlook while anchored firmly in her past trials and treasures.

I’ll also include in my intentions for the first Holy Rosary of my Lepanto Novena a swift, sure, and thoroughly humiliating defeat of the Florida Gators at the hands of the Holy Auburn Tigers. Amen and Amen…

A happy Autumn to you all and may your homes be blessed and warmed (…or cooled) in the happy months to come.

25 September, 2007

Sean over at The Blue Boar has stuck a firm pin in the Planned Parenthood family tree. Be sure to check it out, along with all of the other goodies to be found at that fine Chestertonian establishment.

King Alfred's Dark Night

"The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gold,
Men may uproot where worlds begin,
Or read the name of the nameless sin;
But if he fail or if he win
To no good man is told.

"The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.

"The men of the East may search the scrolls
For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God
Go singing to their shame.

"The wise men know what wicked things
Are written on the sky,
They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings,
Hearing the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten seraph kings
Still plot how God shall die.

"The wise men know all evil things
Under the twisted trees,
Where the perverse in pleasure pine
And men are weary of green wine
And sick of crimson seas.

"But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.

"I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

"Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?"

So says the Blessed Mother to King Alfred in Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse. I can’t help but think that much of modern Christianity shudders at that last stanza – afraid of the dark night of the soul. One has only to look at the latest fascination with Mother Theresa to see the fear with which we view a so-called “empty” faith. The Blessed Mother neglects to inform good King Alfred as to the outcome of his trials, choosing simply to ask where his heart lies in the darkest night and highest seas. The faith of Left Behind is afraid of walking blithely into life. It is afraid of the unknowable future and must at all costs pin timeline and table to the unraveling life of Man. To know doubt is to taste death, and the bitter taste of death is only overcome by the signs of sky and scroll. But the One True Faith knows the taste of death is bittersweet, for the bitter blood of Christ is what sends us sweetly singing, uncertain and unafraid, into that dark night of the soul.

24 September, 2007

Papal Forecasting

If this bit of Papal forecasting is true, it could make for a very interesting spring. I for one am pleased that Papa is taking the Barque of Peter into these polluted waters – the Church needs to reaffirm the ability of faith and morals to inform the stewardship of the Earth.

21 September, 2007

Luddite Blogging

Just a quick update to my three apparent readers...

We're still living in the semi-luddite state of not having cable or internet in the house, so I tend to either blog on breaks at work or at coffee shops, etc. If you don't see much activity over the weekends, that would be why. Not that I expect a deluge of comments from you three over the weekend.

Isn't it Ironic...

Politics, Sweet! Our much esteemed and lauded Presidential Wannabes are knee deep in the political two-step nowadays, hitting all of the hot spots and dropping sound bytes like so many tons of lead…which leads me to the recent GOP hit and run on the NRA. (I know, too many puns, I just can’t help it.)

Consider the following gem:

The audience of about 500 people gave a warmer reception to Thompson, the former Tennessee senator who announced his campaign this month. Some stood and cheered as Thompson said: "Our basic rights come from God, not from government.”

What this has to do with anything was certainly lost on most in attendance who stood and cheered, tears in their eyes, as they thought of God’s big smile down upon the righteous gun aficionados. This would be slightly humorous if not for the oddly twisted fact that I’m sure many in the audience would be less than enthused to hear that same remark in reference to some of the more “nuanced” applications of universal rights so beloved by the Republicans nowadays. Lest I offend any ultra-conservative readers, I’ll avoid using the word tortu…oops.

All that being said I support the right to own guns. (Just trying to avoid the knee-jerk commie response…)

The Wrath of the Whatever...

Alright, those who know me know I have a minor fascination with The West Wing. It's the best television I've ever seen (along with Frasier of course). I was just remembering some of my favorite scenes and I'll post one every once in a while. You owe it to yourself to check it out if you haven't already.

C.J.: The speech is done.
TOBY: Two speeches are done.
C.J.: What's the second?
TOBY: I've got a speech if he wins, I've got a speech if he doesn't.
SAM: You wrote a concession?
TOBY: Of course I wrote a concession. You want to tempt the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing?
SAM: No.
TOBY: Then go outside, turn around three times and spit. What the hell's the matter with you?
SAM: It's like 25 degrees outside.
JOSH: Hello.
C.J.: [in foreign accent] Oh, Mr. Lyman. I see your picture in the magazine. Tell me, if I swallow my ballot, does it still...?
JOSH: A little election day humor-- that's great.
SAM: He wrote a concession speech.
JOSH: Of course he wrote a concession speech. Why wouldn't he? What possible reason would he have for not writing a concession speech?
SAM: The wrath from high atop the thing.
TOBY: He upped and said we were gonna...
JOSH: No, you got to go outside, turn around three times and curse.
TOBY: Spit.
JOSH: Spit and curse.
TOBY: Do everything. Go!
Sam gets up and leaves the room.
JOSH: These things have a half-life. You just can't...

18 September, 2007

The Usonian Piazza

After posting my last little blurb on James Howard Kunstler I did a little more research and found some interesting interviews he’s given in the last few years. He was asked about his opinion on Starbucks and he gave one of the best, and simplest, answers I’ve ever heard on the subject:

Starbucks does what it does pretty well. But it's not hard to run a coffee shop and make it attractive. In the small town where I live, we have a Starbucks, but also a locally owned shop that's probably more popular. This local guy is competing on a quality basis with a chain and he's doing just as well.

Starbucks provides something very simple, in short supply: agreeable public space. They provide a nice place for you to hang out, and you pay an excessive to ridiculously high price for their coffee product, for occupying space in their business. You pay $3.50 for their stupid coffee concoction, but you stay at their table for an hour and a half. There are so few places that Americans can go, especially real public space, not a mall, so little real public space, that if you put in this artificial substitute, it's wildly successful. Starbucks is selling a public gathering place. Coffee is the enabling mechanism.

It’s an interesting thought to ponder - is Starbucks a successful coffee shop or a successful public forum? I would imagine that it started as a place to get decent coffee but has since morphed into the nouveau Usonian pub we know today. Actually, I think I’ll start calling Starbucks the “Usonian Piazza” – our new proxy for meaningful public interaction.

Having lived in Italy I can attest to the social function of the traditional piazza as well as the coffee shop. The piazza is a social gathering space, the coffee shop is a caffeine delivery mechanism. In the absence of the former we have co-opted the latter as the most suitable substitute. In Italy you walk into a coffee shop, order an espresso, dump in a spoonful of sugar, knock it back in about 10 seconds and head out the door. If you want a more leisurely form of caffeine delivery, you make your way to a café located in (you guessed it) the piazza.

I guess it is the peculiar nature of American capitalism to transform the enjoyment of “public” space into numbers, profit and greed - for there should be no enjoyment left un-merchandised.

World Made by Hand

There is a new novel coming out early next year that should be extremely thought provoking - World Made by Hand. Here is a blurb from the publisher:

In the best-seller The Long Emergency, James Howard Kunstler explored how the terminal decline of oil production had the potential to put industrial civilization out of business. With World Made By Hand Kunstler makes an imaginative leap into the future, a few decades hence, and shows us what life may be like after these coming catastrophes—the end of oil, climate change, global pandemics, and resource wars—converge. For the townspeople of Union Grove, New York, the future is not what they thought it would be. Transportation is slow and dangerous, so food is grown locally at great expense of time and energy. And the outside world is largely unknown. There may be a president and he may be in Minneapolis now, but people aren’t sure. As the heat of summer intensifies, the residents struggle with the new way of life in a world of abandoned highways and empty houses, horses working the fields and rivers replenished with fish. A captivating, utterly realistic novel, World Made by Hand takes speculative fiction beyond the apocalypse and shows what happens when life gets extremely local.

Sounds pretty interesting to me. While I'm not a fanatic on the climate change front, my recent foray into the world of Distributism has me very interested in this novel. I love Distributist thought, but I think I'm with Kunstler that it will take a series of global catastrophes to bring that thought to the forefront of public life. It could be a total flop of a book but I think I'll give it a shot.

H/T: Veritas et Venustas

17 September, 2007

R.I.P. Regionalism

As you approach universality, you also approach non-specificity. The emergence of a global culture is causing the increasing abandonment of local culture in favor of a more universally palatable homogeneity.

Though readily apparent in many areas, I will of course use architecture as a prime example. In times past architecture was a reflection of the responses of a local population to its environment, climate, and cultural heritage. As communication has increased, architecture has dealt with a perpetually increasing (though increasingly non-specific) scope of influence on its design. Where you could once identify the region a particular American home was built in, you now encounter a huge number of “custom” homes with no regional character. More accurately, you find homes employing the watered down usage of just about every regional character – a Chimera of non-specific American regionalism. There is little regard for cultural memory as a depository for solutions to common regional problems. In Global Culture, Frank Gehry works everywhere, from L.A. to the Czech Republic. The only difference is the amount of the heating/cooling bills.

Even when you can find reference to local culture, it is not as a solution to some regional problem but as a surface nod to the past. This is not to say that all architectural precedent is purely functional, but that such precedent embodies a cultural reality of climate, geography, spirituality, or organization. Architects are good at making the obligatory head fake towards the preservation of local character and then lobbing the Hail Mary in hopes of getting their latest “critical” interpretation of post-modern humanity in the pages of Architectural Record.

The final question boils down to this: Is globalization killing culture? Does the virtue of “tolerance” coupled with a desire to create the global village inadvertently smother any condition under which local culture can endure or progress? More importantly, does the new interconnected, universally acceptable culture provide as much enrichment or value as local, backwards, ethno-centric, existing culture?

Obviously that’s way too many questions without answers. Maybe some of you out there can help me out on that. Extra credit if you can help me figure out how Christianity plays into the same issue.

13 September, 2007

Groundhog Day

Ah, subjectivity, the bane of architecture students everywhere. I have been intrigued by the notion that modernism only allows the truly talented and inventive to reach the level of “good”. I have felt for a while now that contemporary architecture has defined success out of its routine reach. The push for relentless innovation and formal invention has been directly responsible for many “good” architects failing to achieve what modernism has defined as “great” (and therefore taking on the unfortunate and unwarranted mantle of a failed visionary).

I don’t think that the architects of the past were any better than the architects of today. I do however feel that our predecessors were given what we largely lack today: a mastery of the architectural solutions that we already know to be successful and a public that valued stable, time-tested architectural solutions. Given these two things, architects were prepared to provide the public with a nearly endless stream of “good” architecture. Every once in a while a visionary would appear and successfully introduce something incredibly novel or inventive that would then provide a new tool for the community of architects. Today is a different story altogether. We have defined “good” architecture as being innovative and new, creating a huge building catalogue of failed social interventions and innovations undertaken by “good”, but less than visionary, architects.

You can see this same process at work in the great Renaissance schools of painting. Artists were taught the techniques of visionaries in the hopes of producing many people who could create beautiful art. Unfortunately our modern cult of the lone artistic visionary has produced an army of talented people trying in vain to be the latest and greatest thing at the expense of true beauty and cultural precedent. We have also so successfully instilled the principle that imitation is the greatest taboo of our art that students are scared to cite so much as a precedent for any project whatsoever. Once again, if we could just get over ourselves maybe we could get back to creating “good” art and architecture.

Thinking about this has helped me immensely to reconcile some things in my head. I realize now why I have such an admiration for some truly great works of modernism while at the same time harboring a newfound respect for the classical tradition and those attempting to re-introduce it into our architectural heritage. The crux is this: there are great artists and architects out there that produce great work that is then viewed with an awe that prevents it from being replicated and absorbed into the greater whole. We are so scared of copying greatness, of being unoriginal, that we will continue to produce crap in the unending quest for the greatness we have already been shown numerous times…welcome to Groundhog Day!

12 September, 2007

Swimming the Tiber

Some things in life are easy to pin down. At the Easter Vigil this year I fulfilled a call on my soul that first took hold as I walked into the Basilica of San Pietro for the very first time. I experienced this warm, peaceful call of home twice – first as a Methodist and secondly as a non-denominational Evangelical. Both occasions inspired a complete and comfortable feeling of tranquility in the loud and tourist-filled center of the Roman Catholic world. For that reason my entry into full communion with the Catholic Church this Easter was more homecoming than radical change. Though it probably came as a shock to many, it was as natural as a trip down the hill to the local Trattoria for this one-time adopted son of Italy.

I am a lover of Beauty. Beauty is one of the last great truths to stand against the tide of mediocrity and relativism. Beauty IS Truth. I worry about false sincerity, false ideology and false advertising – but not false Beauty. There is much Beauty in the Catholic Church. It may be obscured under a couple layers of dust and forgotten by a large number of the faithful in well-worn pews, but it is there - a reminder that beautiful things can be created in honor of the Truth of our Lord and his amazing sacrifice. Though the Church may clothe herself in the Beauty of the past as one might wear an old, threadbare sweater - with little notice but with a profound sense of history - She will eventually learn to knit again.

Though I could write of the myriad reasons for making this journey (and I most likely will at some point) – it is sufficient for me now to say that I found the spiritual home I’ve been looking for ever since setting foot in the seductive streets of the Eternal City. Deo Gratias.

Pope on Fides et Ratio

There is a great post over on Amy Welborn's new blog about the Pope's recent trip to a Cistercian Abbey. He had some fine remarks, I'll quote a little piece here:

The father of the Cistercian Order, Saint Bernard, in his own day fought against the detachment of an objectivizing rationality from the main current of ecclesial spirituality. Our situation today, while different, nonetheless has notable similarities. In its desire to be recognized as a rigorously scientific discipline in the modern sense, theology can lose the life-breath given by faith. But just as a liturgy which no longer looks to God is already in its death throes, so too a theology which no longer draws its life-breath from faith ceases to be theology; it ends up as a array of more or less loosely connected disciplines. But where theology is practised “on bent knee”, as Hans Urs von Balthasar urged, it will prove fruitful for the Church in Austria and beyond.

This fruitfulness is shown through fostering and forming those who have vocations to the priesthood or the religious life. Today, if such a vocation is to be sustained faithfully over a lifetime, there is a need for a formation capable of integrating faith and reason, heart and mind, life and thought. A life devoted to following Christ calls for an integration of one’s entire personality. Neglect of the intellectual dimension can give rise all too easily to a kind of superficial piety nourished mostly by emotions and sentiments, which cannot be sustained over a lifetime. Neglect of the spiritual dimension, in turn, can create a rarified rationalism which, in its coldness and detachment, can never bring about an enthusiastic self-surrender to God. A life devoted to following Christ cannot be built on such one-sided foundations; half-measures leave a person unhappy and, consequently, also spiritually barren. Each vocation to the religious life or to the priesthood is a treasure so precious that those responsible for it should do everything possible to ensure a formation which promotes both fides et ratio – faith and reason, heart and mind.

The neglect of the intellectual dimension is one of the major problems I've had with many contemporary Christian denominations. A culture of self-help Christianity is only affective as long as the help is helping or as long as the person desires to be helped. When assent to faith is based on an emotional response or therapeutic benefits, there is always the danger that those emotions and benefits will be found through other outlets outside of the faith. When faith can offer nothing above self-help, we will find the same help elsewhere with fewer strings attached.

The New Radicals

I’ve been stewing thoughts from my previous post for a while now and I might be ready to put some of them into a coherent form. I was thinking about what makes buildings successful or not successful in our culture and realized that we have radically lowered the bar of success, as we have in just about every other area of our culture.

I found some notes from an old article in Metropolis by Andres Duany in which he gives a critique of the (then) new IIT Student Center by Rem Koolhaas. It was probably the best and most honest critique I’ve seen of Koolhaas, and it draws a line in the sand for Architecture as a whole that I think we all need to recognize. I’ll give you a couple of the highlights (it’s a bit lengthy, but worth it):

…By chance the building opens at the moment that I arrived. I am watching students as they use it for the first time. It is a big complex. They are wandering about, looking around and then simply getting down to inhabiting the espresso counter, computer terminals, billiard tables, cafeteria, sitting on the steps. They get comfortable quickly.

The scene is inhabited by kids who look, dress, move, sit, have haircuts and talk just like the building looks. They are as integral as those elegant little figures in the Schinkel plates.

The building is exactly designed for them. This is the generation that uses "random" as an ambiguous term of praise and opprobrium. They are content to be there, and the building is easy on them, and absorbs whatever they are doing.

It is a perfect embodiment of the fundamental "whatever" sensibility. The plan is random, except where it is very rational. The details have a certain integrity except where they are junky. It is laid back, except for certain edgy moves. It is artless except in those places where it is stunningly clever. It is impossible to dislike because it is not trying to be liked. It's, like, OK, cool. . . whatever.

The building is as appropriate to our nerd/tech jocks as Mies' campus once was for the neat, white-shirted engineers of the second industrial age.

Mies’ buildings are now trashed, of course. But not as a matter of maintenance--it is that these students by their very presence trash them. So long as Western culture continues its dismal run, Rem's building is immune. It will absorb decline with the dignity of Rome ruined by Visigoths. This building will never be trashed because its technos is already trashy. The aluminum floor is MADE to be scuffed. It is a scuff magnet. Its fatalism is stunning. Rem describes it as junk space. Scuff is the new patina; delamination is the new rustication. It is one of the most resilient buildings that I have ever seen.

At the opening there was a display describing the design intentions. The building fulfills them perfectly. Rem is one of the very, very few architects who builds what he says. The bullshit quotient is zero. The execution is absolutely honest. It may salvage modernism yet--even if that is achieved by lowering the bar so.

…Modernism--which is a history of failure--must evolve at a tremendous rate in order to evade the taint--the stink--of failed expectations. That was then. . . look at this now! It will work this time. Trust us... Society continues to grant modernist architects one more chance again and again. Well, Rem's epicenters approach success. They may yet save the reputation of modernism, perhaps they will even justify three-quarters of a century of cities destroyed and landscapes consumed. But, then again, they may also exhaust modernism, because what is being proposed is so conventional.

…He is the most useful of our researchers. He is correct. It is just that some of us do not agree to tolerate the situation described. Of the engaged intellectuals, Rem is one of those who is critical by revealing the reality. But then there are also those who are critical by attempting to change that reality. The IIT building reflects reality--the buildings of say, Yale, reform it.

Yes, the students at Yale dress down and slouch like those at IIT, but their buildings engage them differently. While the IIT building makes them comfortable in all their slovenly goofiness, the buildings at Yale make them look out of place--somewhat ridiculous--as if amiable but clueless barbarians were inhabiting the constructions of a great vanished civilization. At Yale the students and the architecture are at odds. But there is the chance that the architecture will prevail; that some of the students, over time, will sit straighter, dress more fittingly, converse and socialize in a more sophisticated manner. These buildings engage in a civilizing mission, and the young learn to respect the mastery of their predecessors.

In this war for western culture, there are those who consider the Yale campus a famous victory, won against astounding odds. For them Rem's IIT building must be a great defeat. We should salute Rem for a brilliantly conceived and executed 30-year campaign. We will not soon recover from the impact of this building.

There are buildings that reflect society, buildings that comment on society, and buildings that endeavor to change society. The fact that so many of today’s star architects are more interested in reflection or commentary than in true change is itself reflective on a modernism that has lost its edge and decayed into a simple status quo. This is what we do--turn out more commentaries on materiality, fluidity, and the power of 3D modeling software to interpret how an analysis of particle physics can create my next building skin. While we sit in our studios and attempt to shove our next brilliantly innovative analysis of modern man down our client’s throat the public cries out for a few simple things: firmness, commodity, delight.

I find myself thinking of G.K. Chesterton and his defense of Orthodoxy as the true radicalism. Why do many of the buildings of our past continue to delight, comfort, and inspire while the majority of our current inventions offer so little of substance? We seem to be clamoring for real change in many other facets of our society (government, most notably), yet we continue to accept esoteric social commentary from our “star” architects (yes Eisenman, I’m talking to you, the one who admittedly wouldn’t occupy his own work). There are people that are just beginning to realize that we have made a conscious break with our architectural tradition and it just might be time to examine the schism again. This is not Classical Revival; it is another Renaissance for everything beautiful. All hail the New Radicals.

11 September, 2007

The Wow

As I look at the state of contemporary architecture through the lens of orthodox rather than evangelical thought, I am finding that my ideas of a rigorous modern approach to architecture are beginning to change as well. You have to understand that this has been a bit of a tough pill to swallow; my architectural education was rooted in classic Bauhaus modernism, though in the later years the computer was beginning to introduce a definite post-modern, relativistic bent with all of its blobs and Gehry-isms. Classicism, however, was out of bounds – it just didn’t exist in any meaningful way. It was there to be admired, but never emulated. It was as if architectural precedent began with Corbusier, anything before that was neatly contained in the history classroom and wasn’t to be unleashed in studio. With that background, I began to take a hard look at contemporary church architecture and made a realization…modernism forgot to bring The Wow.

The Wow is admittedly a vague architectural concept, but it’s one I would certainly be fluent in were I involved in designing sacred spaces. Loosely defined, The Wow is the act of unconsciously stopping conversation upon entering a sacred space – often accompanied by a tingling in the spine and goosebumps. While I’m sure there are callous souls out there that will never know the joys of The Wow, I’m sure most people can relate to being in a space that made you just stand silent and realize that life can in fact be transcendent. Interestingly enough, The Wow can also often be experienced at places of supreme natural beauty – Niagara Falls, The Grand Canyon, seeing the Milky Way on a clear night. The bottom line is this: beauty is not always subjective. If you tap into The Truth you unleash The Beauty, because as it was once known: Veritas et Venustas. Truth is Beauty.

Modernism lost The Wow along with its organic link to the past. You can look through architectural history and see the gradual development and evolution of forms, spaces, and ideas – always standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before. But something different happened with Modernism. Faced with a Brave New World and the promise of clear sailing in the machine age, modernism abandoned the ballast of historical precedent and sailed on as if the storms of the barbaric past were left behind. Modernism is utopian; it proposes an untenable ideal that rejects the idea of classic beauty (Truth) precisely because it rejects the idea of classic evil. Then of course post-modernism piled on by proposing many beauties but no truth. Thus the strip mall is beautiful to those who admire the wealth gained by spending as little as possible on as much as possible.

Where does that leave me as I look at contemporary architecture? I am forced to rethink my modernist aesthetics. Notice I didn’t say “reject” my modernist aesthetics, just rethink them. Modernism embraced the Machine Age by abandoning precedent and forging a new path. I need to embrace the Digital Age while restoring precedent and an organic link to human history.
In short: What would Bauhaus be if it brought The Wow?

Welcome to Pillar and Foundation

We’ve finally taken the plunge...Starting today we will be subjecting our poor readers to an inconsistent and possibly incoherent collection of thoughts, musings, ramblings, critiques, and treatises on the state of the Church and its relationship to culture.

Well, at least that’s the plan. We’ll probably also delve into who’s playing the best football right now (hopefully not Alabama or Florida) and why we love that episode of The West Wing we watched last night for the fourteenth time. Because in the end we can’t always wax eloquent on the virtues of sacred polyphony or the effects of modernism on contemporary church architecture.

We will do our best to provoke some discussion and entertain at the same time. Don’t be afraid to leave your comments and let us know how we’re doing. Help us understand the Church in its proper relationship to Truth...Pillar and Foundation.