INVOKING THE SACRED
It’s rare to see an architect designing Gothic buildings today… how did you come to work in this style?
It began in a very unexpected way, during a major recession in 1987. I had laid everyone off at my consultancy, and remember just sitting in the office by myself… once you reach a certain point in your career, it can be very difficult to have to go back down to that place and completely begin again.
As I was lamenting my fate to a colleague, he said ‘I know this guy who has a firm, they have work, but he needs help running the business side of things… why don’t you go talk to him.’ I took his advice, and when I arrived I found their approach to be extremely luddite—the firm was founded in 1889, their secretary was in her mid 90’s, and the entire place itself felt like an antique.
But then I encountered the drawings—racks and racks of beautiful, artistic drawings, with interesting symbolism and exciting referential things I found to be extremely fascinating. All of it was in such contrast to the minimalist designs of the present time.
The key figure behind this work was a man named Ralph Adams Cram, who played a central role in developing Christian academic and religious architecture to a high art form in America during the late 19th/early 20th centuries. The firm was still in possession of his massive volumes of archives, which offered a complete knowledge base for historical building practices, many details of which had been lost to modern architecture.
I remember thinking to myself that if this firm went under, and all of this material was dissipated and thrown away, the chance of being able to recreate an artistic architecture like this would be greatly diminished. So I felt a kind of obligation to humanity to give it a shot.
perspective and IMAGINATION
Cram also had a very specific philosophy behind his approach, parts of which I found very compelling— particularly how he talked about designing churches, designing spiritual space, and what a spiritual space was. For example, he talked a lot about the importance of leaving darkness within a space; that there should be a place that’s dark inside the room that your imagination can go, where you can feel the mystery of God’s presence.
I thought to myself that this is really what architecture should be—imaginative and evocative. Of course we talked about evocative qualities of architecture when I was in school, but it was often so abstract and overly-intellectual that it really didn’t have any evocative qualities! It was just too minimalist, too far over the edge in that direction.
But an architect really has the opportunity to make a complete environment for someone, to visualize what they want someone to experience —not just in the physical sense, but in their imagination as well— and bring that into being.
You know several years ago I went to Disneyland with my kids, and although many of the intellectual artists are very down on Disney, I believe he was actually a genius; because through the use of very simple materials he was able to evoke things. If you get up close and look at the structures he created, they are simply made of foam and paint; yet he drew from his knowledge of set design and construction, and created whole buildings and towns that were basically giant stage sets.
What I took away from this was that it’s not just about the practical aspects …the stairs are here, the windows are over there, etc… it’s about how these elements come together to influence someone’s perception—when you look at the window, does it seem close or far away? Does it appear big or small? The architect has an enormous ability to manipulate and influence the way we experience a space.
For example the typical French Cathedral is 195 feet high, and although we don’t normally build buildings that high anymore, if somebody comes to me and says they want something that looks a cathedral, I can manipulate the scale in a way that when you walk inside it still feels like a European Cathedral, even though it’s a half or third of the height.
So we do this not be false, but to take what someone may be looking for, and play on that to make the feeling even stronger, so their experience is real and complete. In essence we are trying to give someone a truly spiritual experience.
Cathedral Church of Our lady of Walsingham, Houston, TX.—COMPLETED 2003
And not simply a liturgical experience—because there are people who do liturgical based design, and might say ‘I want this to be based on a book in the bible, with this detail on the outside and this on the inside, and so on…’
But for me this often leaves out the most important part, which is about the real essence that holds a space together—it’s like walking into Stonehenge, which at first only appears to be a few chunks of stone, but then you discover they’re arranged in such a way that the light of the sun hits them at very particular points over time, connecting the space to the cycles of the sun and the seasons… and that’s amazing.
I’ve been to churches in Europe that also have a specific place where a point of sunlight will arrive at the time of the Spring equinox… and all of this really harkens back to the pagan idea that nature is an integral part of your spiritual experience. And we try to honor that.
Syon Abbey, Roanoke, VA.—CompleteD 2007
You know one of the things I love about Gothic is that it’s not a rigid system—Gothic and Romanesque were both looking back at Roman classicism, but took their interpretations in different directions. And Gothic architecture is a little different because it was itself a fad at it’s height—it was something people saw and said ‘hey I want that here,’ but the architects may not have had a very complete representation of what they were copying at the time, so they had to be very inventive in their approach.
This was due to many reasons—perhaps they were traveling abroad and briefly saw a building and made a couple of sketches, returned home some 400 miles away, and then had to build something that resembled what they saw; or the models they had to work with were so degraded they didn’t really know what the structure originally looked like.
Whatever the reason they often had to create their own approach, which to me is quite interesting because they were being very innovative, yet also working with a sense of continuity.
St. Edward's Chapel, Oklahoma City, OK.—Completed 1949, Transept added in 2012
Speaking of different architectural styles, you spoke of the minimalist/modernist paradigm—how exactly did this style become the standard aesthetic for church design today?
It really goes back to a movement that began in the 1960’s called Vatican II, which intended to break down the rigidity of the Catholic Church in some of the ways things were being approached. Part of this involved rethinking the idea of what a church should be. But those in charge of the process were at that time firmly rooted in the postwar mentality of being very monetarily conservative, so it was actually quite convenient to say ‘let’s do modern churches,’ because it was much more frugal to create spaces without any elaborate artwork or detail; all you needed was to build a sort of minimalist box and place a cross on one end and a door on the other, and you had a church.
Now what’s interesting is the church wasn’t really having much of an issue with attendance at that time, yet after these changes people began drifting away in larger numbers than were drifting toward them, and I believe one of the main reasons for this is that many of these buildings are in fact very impersonal, sterile, and even repellant.
I know personally I can walk into a space and have a negative reaction so strong that I don’t want to go back. And I think even if people don’t often realize it, they can feel the falseness in a place… so that’s something we’re really trying to take into account—to create spaces that don’t deter people from that feeling of connection.
CRAFT AND RITUAL
I feel the artwork and sculptural details found in the older churches often help create that sense of connection…
Yes, and this idea could again be traced back to the pagans, and the Sacred Grove—a place where warriors would sometimes hang shields from their battles on the trees, so there would be this feeling of history all around them... and in a way the church replicates that—it carries forward this idea of a ritualistic space that provides a context of meaning, and serves as your spiritual center.
How do you go about finding craftspeople to create these types of details—the sculpture, the artwork, etc.?
It’s a process we’ve developed over time. At first, I naively said ‘let’s put sculpture on our building, this shouldn’t be too hard to do…’ But it turns out to be very difficult, because almost every student who has studied at a school in the last 30 or 40 years who might have wanted to do representational painting or sculpture has immediately been told ‘look you can’t learn that here, it isn’t done anymore, so just stop thinking about it.’ And so they were generally taught to do non-objective, abstract expressionist art instead.
So now most contemporary artists haven’t been trained to properly depict a face, or accurately draw hands… they just haven’t done the due diligence in these types of crafts. So if you request something you might get painted glass that has distorted hands and faces, or a sculpture that’s too abstract, and doesn’t really work. So it took us a while to find craftspeople capable of giving us what we’re looking for.
And what’s the process like in regards to finding opportunities for new projects?
Well early on I realized I needed to really put myself out there and let people know what I cared about, to see if there was anyone who’d resonate with it enough to want me to design something for them. And luckily there’ve been a lot of people who’ve said ‘I really agree with that,’ and they’ll call me up and say they heard me give a talk in this little church, and want me to help them create something.
And often the surprise of it is who they are—because it usually isn’t someone that I’d say is just like me, that thinks the same things that I do, or shares the same beliefs I have. A lot of times they’re very different, but I believe the deeper values this work speaks to can attract people who have completely different paradigms in other areas.
AN HONEST sanctuary
So I try not to be judgmental about the specifics of the liturgical practices, or whatever they're trying to do. As I’ve said I’m more into the fundamental attractiveness of a space, and how I can make that space so beautiful that in a sense it may not even matter what the liturgy is.
Because looking back to the Middle Ages, if we were to imagine what the total experience of the Church was like, people would have been in this huge space full of darkness and music, and most of them were illiterate, so they wouldn’t have understood the Latin being spoken… yet the colorful stories depicted through art, sculpture and painted glass must have been very immediate, and they recognized in these figures the stories of their faith. And then they would hear the sounds of gregorian chant or be rocked by a very powerful organ, and that must have been a truly spiritual experience.
Which I’m sure helped bring a basic sense of sanity and well being into their lives…
Oh yes, because especially in the early times before the peace of the church, you could walk outside and someone could kill you just like that—there were a lot of things that were out of people’s control.
And today things are in a way spinning out of control again, where you might go to the mall and someone could pull out a gun and start shooting, which is much closer to medieval than modern! Or your house could get flooded, or consumed in a wildfire…
So then you go to what’s supposed to be this sanctuary, this spiritual space, but they’re often trying to reach you through the same mechanisms that advertising does, or as authority figures talking to you like politicians—they’ve become no different than any of these other forces all around us.
But I believe we have to be willing to break down these barriers, and open ourselves up to others. Sharing is really important, because we live in such a fragmented world today. I think we spend too much time looking at our differences, and it’s about time we started looking more for similarities. And through our work I hope we’re able to provide spaces that offer a genuine refuge, where people can experience a real sense of connection to their faith, and to those around them.