A Return to Grace

CATESBY LEIGH

As a designer, lecturer and founding editor of the journal Sacred Architecture, Duncan Stroik has labored long and hard to reconnect Catholic artistic patronage with its ancient heritage.

Though its documents say nothing about abandoning traditional Roman Catholic architecture, the "spirit" of the Second Vatican Council has served as justification for doing precisely that. Hence, for example, the Catholic cathedrals in Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif., erected during the past decade – the one a concrete behemoth, the other a glazed, truncated cone. Is ersatz-traditional schlock the only alternative?

The answer is no, as two new churches designed by Duncan Stroik, a 48-year-old, Yale-educated professor at Notre Dame's architecture school, powerfully attest. As a designer, lecturer and founding editor of the journal Sacred Architecture, Mr. Stroik has labored long and hard to reconnect Catholic artistic patronage with its ancient heritage.

Mr. Stroik's Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, outside the small Mississippi River city of La Crosse, and his chapel for Thomas Aquinas College, northwest of Los Angeles, employ a complex high-classical architectural vocabulary. But they resonate in very different ways; each feels unique. Each also reflects the vision of a hands-on client. In the case of the shrine, which was finished in 2008, that client was Archbishop Raymond L. Burke, formerly bishop of La Crosse and now prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, making him the Vatican's highest judge after the pope. With the chapel, the client was Thomas Aquinas College's president, Thomas Dillon, who was killed in a car accident weeks after the building's dedication in March 2009.

Outside, the shrine is a simple, handsome domed building with a tall campanile, set in a little piazza that was carved out of a wooded hillside. La Crosse architect Michael Swinghamer took Mr. Stroik's exterior concept in a rustic direction, cladding the church mainly in quarry-faced Wisconsin fieldstone. This leaves the visitor unprepared for the splendor of the nave and sanctuary. Here Mr. Stroik has successfully orchestrated a hierarchy of scales in form and space that includes the majestic crossing and apse; the great piers supporting the dome; the pilasters carrying a massive, uninterrupted entablature; the gorgeous baldachin looming over the main altar – and so on down the line.

Decorative painter John Canning worked out an extraordinarily subtle color scheme in which chromatic background wall and ceiling tints "bleed" into one another – from pale yellow into a soft gold in the finely articulated plasterwork of the sanctuary ceiling, and from the greenish hue on the walls and arcade piers flanking the nave into the dark-veined, deep-ochre imitation marble of the pilaster shafts on the piers. A pale olive aura, somber and unearthly, enhances the sense of both spatial depth and mystery in the church, whose nave and transept pews accommodate 450 people. (There is no permanent seating in the aisles, which contain three altars each.) The baldachin, an elaborate canopy modeled on the one in Santa Maria Maggiore, one of Rome's four major basilicas, intensifies the interior's spatial effect and endows it with a monumental focus, while striking brilliant color counterpoints with the background, whether through its rich profusion of golden-hued detail or the ruddy tints of its column shafts of rosso francia marble. (The baldachin also serves to frame a replica, in the apse, of a cherished mosaic of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico.) Silvery swags of roses, partially tinted with rose glazes, thread their way around the church beneath the golden, imitation-mosaic frieze carrying Marian inscriptions. Pilaster and column capitals are tinted silver or gold. Beneath a lantern, the dome is covered with Mr. Canning's turquoise-and-gold star-map, which recalls the Virgin's turquoise mantel and the stars that adorned it when she appeared to the indigenous Mexican peasant Juan Diego in 1531.


While the disconnect between the shrine's exterior and interior is hardly a fatal flaw, Mr. Stroik's Thomas Aquinas College chapel, beautifully situated in the foothills of the Los Padres National Forest, does benefit from its stylistic unity. Slightly smaller than the shrine, the chapel is also a domed structure cruciform in plan. Aisle arcades are supported by columns, not piers. The chapel's exterior and interior palette is largely monochrome – white stucco or plaster walls with detail in off-white or pale hues. The main entrance is configured as a triumphal arch within an elaborate facade centerpiece articulated in limestone. From the flanking three-tiered, 135-foot-tall Spanish baroque tower, bells call the college's 350 students to Mass three times daily.

Inside, the focus is once again on a baldachin. In this instance, swirling bronze Solomonic columns and an exuberant superstructure were inspired by Bernini's baldachin at St. Peter's. Otherwise the decorative program for the interior is much simpler than at the shrine, and the visitor experiences a harmonious fusion of Brunelleschi with Mission style. Given the interior's natural daytime luminosity, Dillon and Mr. Stroik decided to dispense with traditional lighting fixtures to save money. The interior is "uplit" from hidden lights atop a lofty cornice. But a recessed bank of spotlights in the sanctuary vault too easily catches the eye from the altar rail.

Precisely because of the chapel interior's relative simplicity, the consistent refinement of its architectural detail is the more conspicuous. Mr. Stroik adheres to the traditional practice of making large-scale drawings by hand and has a highly developed sense of line and proportion, as demonstrated by the exquisite profiles of the entablatures above the columns and pilasters arrayed throughout the chapel in major and minor orders. Column and pilaster shafts are beige botticino marble while capitals and entablatures are, like the pseudomarble pilasters in the shrine, painted plaster. The aisle columns' monolithic shafts had to be bored so they could be slipped onto tubular steel uprights that had already been erected at the construction site. This was one of the special measures Mr. Stroik and structural engineer Isao Kawasaki worked out to meet the rigorous codes in this earthquake-prone terrain.

The $23 million chapel – the shrine's price tag is not available – conveys a robust sense of mass due to an astute combination of reinforced concrete block with steel framing in its construction. And both churches make extensive use of structural as well as material illusion to cut costs. Leaving aside the pilasters adorning them, the seemingly massive piers of the shrine's aisle arcades are essentially hollow – consisting of plaster mounted on stud walls separated from steel columns by large cavities, the latter making room for ductwork. The chapel belltower and its architectural detail are painted, prefabricated aluminum. Unlike their modernist counterparts, classical architects tend to be more concerned with perceptual effect than material authenticity.

At the shrine, Mr. Stroik marshaled a remarkably ambitious program of figurative painting, sculpture and stained glass that, while appropriate to the architecture, is not wholly successful. The architecture of both churches outshines the sculptures and paintings created for them. The marble statues by Italian sculptors on their fronts are crude. And the figurative painting by American artists at the shrine offers more in the way of eye-catching composition than sound drawing.

Mastering the classical architectural vocabulary, as Mr. Stroik has done, is hard. But these important churches serve as a timely reminder that mastering the classical representation of the human figure is harder still.

Duncan Stroik Architect, LLC
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ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Catesby Leigh. "A Return to Grace." The Wall Street Journal (March 18, 2010).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

Catesby Leigh was born and raised in Washington, D.C. After graduating from Princeton, he spent most of the 1980's as a foreign correspondent for the Atlanta-based Cox Newspapers chain in South America. Visiting many cities and towns in the region, he grew increasingly interested in traditional architectural environments, and was struck by their modernist counterparts' failure – especially Brasília's – to achieve comparable levels of physical or visual amenity. Leigh's first architecture articles appeared in 1991, and since then he has contributed art and architecture criticism to a wide range of publications including The Weekly Standard, Art and Antiques, The American Arts Quarterly, The American Enterprise, First Things, National Review, The New York Post, Touchstone, and The Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Leigh is a co-founder and emeritus chair of the National Civic Art Society, a non-profit educational organization which seeks to improve the quality of the artistic patronage that shapes the nation's public realm.

Copyright © 2010 Wall Street Journal




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