La Trahison des Architectes

The French phrase from which my title is borrowed first appeared as the title of a book by the French writer Julien Benda (1867–1956). Most readers of Quadrant will recognise that the original charge of treason or betrayal made by Benda was directed at “les clercs”—scholars or intellectuals: La Trahison des Clercs. Smart journalists and superior commentators are fond of using the phrase to indict those with special knowledge and position in society who are thought to have betrayed us by their silence, or by their collaboration with an enemy. In other words, because they were intellectually gifted they should have known better.

To apply that epithet to modern architects may seem recklessly intemperate and is sure to invite the wrath of members of that noble profession. Or worse, this writer will be dismissed as a disciple of Prince Charles—ignorant, conservative, and poking his nose into professional matters that he does not understand.

The problem with architecture is that it is so ubiquitous that it has become well-nigh impossible to keep even the most deferential nose out of it. As G.K. Chesterton observed:

[Architecture] approaches nearer than any other art to being irrevocable because it is so difficult to get rid of. You can turn a picture with its face to the wall. You can tear a poem to pieces; it is only in moments of very sincere emotion that you can tear a town hall to pieces. A building is akin to a dogma … it claims permanence like a dogma.

We can easily avoid modern art, sculpture, literature and theatre, if we do not like any of them. But we cannot avoid public architecture; it is thrust upon us whether we like it not, and it is a sad fact that most of it we do not.

Although architects can hardly be accused of betraying us by their silence—their works are, after all, only too public and difficult to ignore—it may be argued that the once greatly-revered profession of artist-engineers has betrayed its ancient craft by becoming corrupted by twin ideologies: modernism (and its off-shoots, brutalism and postmodernism); and the demands of accountants. As a result public and commercial buildings of the last fifty years, with a few noble exceptions, are mostly soulless glass towers resembling up-ended matchboxes. Domestic housing—especially high-rise apartments—is often constructed with giant pre-formed concrete slabs with rectangular holes cut in them for windows; and smaller but prestigious homes built on expensive estates ape Mediterranean villas reminiscent of the Lego shapes and blocks popular with children.

Architects have always, to some extent, been bound in what they do by “accountants”—the piper who calls the tune. But it is doubtful whether architects today would object hotly to cost-cutting proposals affecting aesthetic principles, as their architect forebears would have done in the face of some lucrative but ugly public building, university, church, or block of flats. When William Wardell was overseeing construction of his St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, in 1869, he objected strongly to the finance committee’s plea that the aisle vaults be constructed in wood rather than stone as a cost-cutting measure. “The supreme consideration,” he wrote, “is not what is cheaper, but what is best, and if one method is better than another I venture to think it should be adopted.” As we look up at those stone vaults today with their decorative bosses, we can rejoice that he stuck to his principles. Similarly, when the original fellows of St John’s College in the University of Sydney objected to what they deemed unnecessary expense in Wardell’s design for the college, he replied, “You are about to build not for this generation only, nor for the next, but for those who will exist in centuries yet far removed from us [and so] what you do now do well.” The phrase “What you do now do well” has since become a St John’s College mantra.

The second of the twin betrayals mentioned above is the fervent religious-like embrace of modernism and rejection of historicism in all contemporary architectural practice. In his memoir Gentle Regrets, Roger Scruton (blacklisted by the Left but surely the most eloquent writer on aesthetics) describes how

Architectural modernism rejected all attempts to adapt the old language of the city. It rejected classical orders, columns, architraves and mouldings. It rejected the Greek and Gothic revivals. It rejected every written and unwritten rule that has shaped the growth of our towns.

Scruton suggests that modernism rejected those things not because it had any well thought-out alternative, but because it was intent on overthrowing the social order that they represented—“the order of the bourgeois city, as a place of faith, festivity, commerce and spontaneous hierarchical life”.

Surely no age has been so dispirited or more out of sympathy with its contemporary urban environment than ours, with the result that when our business is finished for the day we hurry away, there being no reason for us to stand and admire, as we would in older European city centres. It is in this sense that we have been betrayed by architects. They should have known better.

Scruton argues that modernism was a crusade to rid architecture of any past ideals since no one believed in these ideals any more. The modern age was “an age without heroes, without faith”, and so architecture must “reflect a classless society from which all hierarchies had disappeared”.

It is when we focus especially on modern church architecture that we can witness the greatest architectural betrayal. Scruton’s definition places modernist architecture directly in conflict with the ideals, the traditional teaching, and the hierarchical nature of the church in its Apostolic tradition. We might regret that these revolutionary modernist ideas have so comprehensively infected church architecture—but we should not be surprised. The liturgical reforms which followed Vatican II—although not always sanctioned in Council documents—provided ready encouragement for sweeping changes in church design. No longer would the sanctuary and the tabernacle be an exclusive space guarded by altar rails. Statues, paintings and symbolic decoration were excluded as being too reminiscent of pre-Vatican II liturgy. Hideous re-ordering of interiors was passionately introduced by clergy, often to the dismay of more conservative congregations. In many modernist churches, including those built today, the pews are placed in a semi-circle around the altar on a raked floor like a cinema or lecture theatre. The priest faces his “audience”, in the mistaken belief that this was how the early church celebrated the Eucharist. (A quick glance at a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper should be sufficient to dispel this myth.)

If Scruton is only partly right in stating that modernist architecture reflects a moral vision of “a society from which all hierarchies had disappeared, a society with no absolutes and only relative values”, it is surely legitimate to ask to what extent the revolution in church architecture, so warmly embraced by church leaders and their architects, has contributed to the decline in church attendance, and general ignorance of the traditional teaching of the church. There are many good reasons cited for this decline but seldom is modernist church design apportioned any of the blame; rather it is expected that modern design creates an informality, breaks down barriers, and encourages community friendship and togetherness—all supposedly more attractive to young people. Worthy concepts perhaps, so long as one can ignore the negative and more iconoclastic agenda implicit in modernist architecture and those who adhere to it.

Buildings have a far greater effect on morale, and on our attitudes to authority and learning, than is generally acknowledged. This has long been admitted by those responsible for the mid-twentieth-century waste lands, the high-rise slums on the edges of European cities where lawlessness, drugs and despair have made them into no-go areas. Conversely, buildings of great beauty arouse feelings of joy, awe and well-being and can influence behaviour. Beauty and tradition in church design can elevate our spirits and suggest the Divine presence. As the dominant mid-nineteenth-century church architect Augustus Pugin wrote in defence of his Gothic designs:

The Mass, whether offered up in a garret or a cathedral, is essentially the same sacrifice, yet when surrounded by all the holy splendour of Catholic worship, those august mysteries appear ten times more overpowering and majestic … while the senses are rapt in ecstasy by outward beauty, the divine truths will penetrate the soul thus prepared for their reception.

When John Henry Newman—no admirer of Pugin’s rigid views on Gothic architecture—entered Pugin’s new church of St Giles at Cheadle in Staffordshire he was overwhelmed by the beauty and described it as the most splendid building he ever saw, and the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, the Porta Coeli—the Gate of Heaven. It is unlikely that anyone entering a modern church today would confuse any part of it with “The Gate of Heaven”.

In her recent book No Place for God, the architect Moyra Doorly, a critic of modernist church design, is uncompromising in her view that the modern age has witnessed the construction of the most banal and uninspiring churches in history: “Contemporary church buildings, as well as being the ugliest ever built, are also the emptiest.” Citing much supporting evidence, she maintains that modernist churches deny the transcendent, that they neglect their original purpose which was as a place of worship, sacrifice, and prayer. In these churches, she says, “there is [now] no place for God”.

“That’s all very well,” replies the modern, ambitious architect, “but would you have us reject all contemporary building techniques and materials, return to the past and merely reproduce ancient styles of architecture, denying the natural continuum of artistic creativity?” It is difficult to answer this with a simple yes or no. John Hawes, the architect-priest who worked in Western Australia from 1915 to 1938 and who built the largely Renaissance-style Geraldton Cathedral, answered the question in this way: “In the design of modern buildings, the aim of the architect should be to avoid, on the one hand, any straining after originality but be reminiscent of the past without being fussy.”

Pugin answered that the Gothic style—the pointed style as he called it—was the perfect church architecture embodying and proclaiming the truths of the faith as no other style could do, and therefore should be employed always. William Wilkinson Wardell agreed and employed this style for his two great cathedrals, St Mary’s in Sydney and St Patrick’s in Melbourne, and in all his smaller churches elsewhere—although adapting and modifying his designs to suit Australian conditions and limited funds.

Some inventions, styles and discoveries in the past have proved so satisfactory that no modification has been thought necessary. The violin is one such example, so perfect in design and beauty that it has defied any but the most subtle changes since the eighteenth century. An eighteenth-century book looks much like a book published today. A similar case might be made for the Gothic style in church design. It is certainly the best-loved and longest-surviving. To those who argue that it is impossible to put the clock back, Chesterton has argued that, on the contrary, it is perfectly possible for us to do so, but the will to do so is wanting. We have become confirmed neophiliacs—worshippers not of God, but of all things new. When the German poet Heine stood with a friend before the glorious portals of Amiens Cathedral he was asked why churches like that could not be built in their day. He answered: “Men in those days had convictions; we moderns only have opinions. It requires something more than an opinion to build a Gothic cathedral.”

Whether or not a return to Gothic is the answer to improving church design is a contentious question and an unpopular one with architects, and probably just as unpopular with church leaders who want church architecture to move with the times. However, the very nature and purpose of the church is not to move with the times, but to move the times. At the very least it should be a requirement, surely, that the architect of a new church should be a practising member of that church with a thorough knowledge of the faith and respect for its traditions. Only in recent times has this seemed not to be a requirement.

The crusading architect and father of Modernism, Le Corbusier, a self-proclaimed agnostic, wrote that “Architecture is stifled by custom”—and his disciples cried in support, “Down with the past!” His futuristic chapel at Ronchamp (1950–54) subsequently became an exemplar, much praised as a work of art, and a powerful influence on forward-thinking church architects since that time. After its completion and the publication of Le Corbusier’s famous manifesto, historicism was dead. From that time forward church architects never looked back.

They should have known better.

A.G. Evans is a Perth writer whose latest biography, William Wardell: Building with Conviction, is to be published shortly by Connor Court.

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