We Must Restore an Architecture of Greatness

To those seeking the names of the architects responsible for our cultural decline, a few words of advice: Do not round up the usual suspects. Do not look for a cabal where none exists, because there are no minutes from a secret meeting that never happened. There is no security camera footage of a rendezvous that never occurred. There are no witnesses to an order that was never given.

The architects who have decimated our national landscape do not wear Masonic rings, nor do they rig elections and remove legitimately elected officials. Rather, the architects are, well, architects—though they are the designers of some of the most soul-destroying buildings to have ever darkened our senses and disrupted our sense of history.

Their victims are the church, the cinema, and the public library. From the liturgy of God to the literature of man, the shrines of communities are no more. Razed without regard to history, and rebuilt without respect to the sacraments or the sacramental order of things, these boxes differ only in their poverty of ornamentation; a bare cross here, a ticket machine there, a lack of humanity everywhere. Gone is the grandeur that enables the transcendence of the soul, the heart, and the mind.

Gone is the construction of cathedrals that house many mansions; that aspire to achieve godliness by inspiring parishioners to be one with God; that induce a sense of awe and communion with the majestic; that manifest a degree of detail that humbles all before the Lord Almighty. A cathedral of this kind—with its Gothic spires and stained glass windows, with its bronze doors and bass reliefs, with its marble pulpit and mahogany pews, with its papal charter and its Stations of the Cross, with its renderings unto Christ, and its freedom from having to render anything else unto Caesar—in this place even the most militant atheist would concede the beauty of this art.

Perhaps that is the problem.

What we have now is the minimalism of the East, elegant for what it is and congruent with what its congregants believe, but incongruent with Christendom and the West. What we have is the abandonment of the crucifix for a statue of a Buddha. Where we are is closer to the philosophy of Steve Jobs than the principles of the Book of Job, where consumers have an apple for a Eucharist and Apple’s fruitless orchards of glass.

We have ourselves to blame, when we hire the faithless to design havens for the faithful. We are the architects of our own destruction as we labor to interpret so many blatant and imperial displays of nakedness. For that is what these buildings-by-Onan are, exercises of self-gratification that strip Christianity of its character by treating it as something no better (as something far worse) than some half-empty strip bar. Thus does the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine yield to the wedding chapels of the Las Vegas Strip, where Elvis impersonators perform marriage ceremonies.

If these assaults upon faith make it hard to believe, the attacks against the movie palaces of yesteryear make it difficult to suspend disbelief. Instead of murals and motifs, instead of a marquee as luminescent as the luminaries who pass beneath this sign, instead of crystal chandeliers and Corinthian columns, instead of organs and orchestra pits, we have darkened closets that feel as cramped as any airplane cabin.

We pay $15 per ticket to sit for two-plus hours, so we may suffer the indignities of mass transportation. From the compact seats and crowded rows to the smell of oil and grease, we are passengers aboard a flight that never leaves the ground; grounding us with delays and grinding us down with depression.

What a contrast from the days of the Great Depression, when people escaped the squalor of the streets for the Technicolor effects of the cities’ greatest movie palaces. What a contrast, indeed, when at least one-third of Americans found salvation from church services and received sustenance through the silver screen. It was a time when hope was a real rather than rhetorical, when a wafer fed the hunger of the spirit while motion pictures soothed an anxious public. It was a time when America triumphed against all enemies, foreign and domestic. What a time to have been an American.

What a time, too, to have visited the library. To have seen that hill and scaled those steps, to have entered that building of brick and stone, where the granite rotunda—with its green dome and gold capitals, with its Roman pillars and Greek points of knowledge—brightened the space with sunlight and welcomed patrons with the gifts of the Enlightenment. To have slowly ascended this continuous spiral of arts and letters, from the lower floor to the highest level under the guidance of Providence, to have enriched the mind so freely—to have done this from morning till night, all for free—is a thing no one who was there can ever forget.

The quiet was contagious. The few sounds were like the beats of a metronome; the slide of movable ladders, with their brass wheels and custom casings, the flipping of pages, the opening and closing of drawers, the shelving of books, and the tintinnabulation of the metal rings of pencils and pink erasers.

The ambient noise of the past fades before the noise pollution of the present. It is the noise of the know-nothing who has no taste for culture and no appetite for art, while he has no respect for language, literature, history, or religion. It is the end of architecture that honors our best instincts by suppressing our worst impulses.

It is the end of architecture that elicits—and encourages—a performance. It is the end of theatricality, from the recitation of Latin words and phrases to the celebration of the life and resurrection of Christ the King. It is the end of the pageantry of an institution that elevates man by revealing the light of all mankind. It is the end of mystery, due to the end of the belief in miracles. It is the end of wonder.

It is, however, more than the beginning of the end of manners. The gentleman still exists, but he is a minority among the ignorant, the indifferent, and the ignoble. He is a preservationist and a conservationist, eager to save the old and unwilling to vandalize the eternal.

He does not oppose change, but he protests needless change. He favors continuity of style, provided the style is neither fleeting nor flimsy; provided we build our buildings to last; provided our buildings represent everlasting truths.

When our buildings cease to excite us, when their commercial appeal exceeds their power to appeal to the better angels of our nature, when we desecrate our buildings by decommissioning their architectural status, when we let our buildings fall into disrepair, when our buildings become a danger unto themselves, we endanger the lifeblood of our country.


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