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Friday, October 9, 2009

Faith and Design

I launched this blog about a year ago because I was turning 50 and wanted to share what I was interested in. My father had his first heart attack at 50 and nearly died. So death and faith have been in my thoughts.

A few people have told me that they are surprised that my blog is about faith and design. Design, sure—I’ve been interested in buildings, furniture, and cities since I was a little boy. But faith? My friends don’t mean to suggest that I am a heretic, but they do know that I am irreverent, not exactly beatific, and generally agnostic.

Faith—by that I mean faith commonly associated with religion—has to do with the transcendent, something unknowable beyond ourselves. And yet so much discourse about religion is quite personal, often psychological. This is something that Dorothy Day spoke about: the idea of serving others without any anticipated reward. In the Jewish faith, the tahara, the washing of the deceased, is considered a great deed because the person being served cannot express appreciation. That is an aspect of faith that interests yet eludes me.

We have friends who are strident atheists, and Paul subscribes to a newsletter called “Freedom From Religion.” I think of it as freedom from the folks who decide their faith is the right faith. But how can faith be comprehended without some structure? How can one person make sense of an entirely blank page?

Faith may be most effective when practiced in solitude or a small community so that institutional self-perpetuation does not take hold and interfere. Herein lies one conflict for me. I don’t necessarily want the organizational infrastructure, but I do enjoy the buildings.

Since I am not a regular member of any faith community, I often pray or meditate when I am swimming or in the shower. This year I visited two religious structures that had water in common. The Catholic Cathedral of Christ the Light (2008) by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) sits on the edge of Lake Merritt in Oakland. The architects sited the church so that water’s reflection can influence the light on the interior, but the vista of the shimmering lake is seen as one exits the doors and looks out, not from within the sanctuary. We watched it being built outside our window. They started with the compression ring at the top, placed the tall wood ribs, and then glazed it all. (A visual timeline can be seen at www.ctlcathedral.org.) Craig Hartman, design partner at SOM, integrated a lot of symbolism into the seemingly abstract sculpture. The main focus is on the light. How Hartman and his team at SOM filter the light defines the experience within. The extensive use of wood relates to stories from the bible as well a shared idea of inhabitation. However, there are more direct biblical influences to be found as well. The geometric structure of the sanctuary is created with the intersection of two arcs. In the plan of the cathedral, the Vesica Pisces form is visible. (It looks rather different in plan than on the back of a car.)

Oakland Cathedral photos by Cesar Rubio

In addition to the complex geometries that create this marvelous space there is the Omega Window, which transforms an image of Christ from Chartres Cathedral. At first, some people think this image is a hologram or pixilated image. Although it took a great deal of technology to create the image on perforated metal, Christ himself is just light and shadow.

Some large churches, like Pietro Belluschi’s and Pier Luigi Nervi’s St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, inspire awe but also intimidate. (Although I love Richard Lippold’s baldacchino). At Christ the Light, I felt awe, shaped in part by the beautiful wood interior structure, the ethereal image of Jesus, and the enveloping light. But the gentle geometry allows the individual to relate to the immediate community of worshipers. My eye returned to the pews, to the people around me. There is an intimacy on the ground.

The other religious building that moved me deeply in the last year was Eero Saarinen’s nondenominational chapel at MIT in Cambridge, across the Charles River from Boston. A perfect cylinder built of ragged brick reminds me of that Buddhist saying that only God is perfect. The curving form stands on a few piers in a shallow reflecting pool. Inside the cool, dark space, the walls undulate, and the pattern of the water dances up on the walls. In the center, a shimmering metal screen, by Harry Bertoia, encircles the simple marble altar. A small circle of light from the ceiling illuminates the marble and reflects on the small pieces of bronze. They look so delicate, so fragile, but they are not broken, they endure. It was a perfect place to pray for a few minutes.

Recently I returned to the Unitarian Church in Kensington, California, designed by Wurster & Bernardi (Emmons was not a partner at the time). They brought hints of the mission style, Asian architecture, and the eclecticism of Bernard Maybeck (who donated the land) into a simple and inspiring structure that feels much the same as it did when I was growing up a block away. The water fountain centers the atrium. I was pleased to see the parking lot and sanctuary full. This is where I first felt the possibility of church architecture. In a religious structure the architect has to satisfy the congregation’s program but also find something ambiguous, unknowable.

Earlier this summer in Provincetown, I sat by myself under an umbrella on a folding chair looking out at the Atlantic and the long empty beach at the end of Cape Cod and thought, this might be the perfect church. Maybe it’s the water.


Julie Kim said...

I love this post, Kenny. I have always been fascinated by the role of bricks and mortar in taking you somewhere spiritual, immaterial -- this almost paradox that lies at the heart of religious architecture. But like you, I've had near 'religious' experiences in non-temples and non-churches. These come to mind: The Musee d'Orsay, Luis Barragan's house in Mexico City (practically a church) and a Janet Cardiff installation, 40-Part Motet, at PS1 in Queens. For me, it's all about light and sound (which I guess is just another way of saying, it's all about the architecture!)

Paul Crabtree said...

I cherish reference-free holy places. The new Oakland Cathedral is refreshingly free of the usual blood-soaked Catholic paraphernalia, but then the window appropriates an apocalyptic 12th Century interpretation of Christ's Second Coming, literally from The Dark Ages. Were there no 21st Century artists with a vision beyond this "Beam me up, Popey"?