(Crisis Magazine) Here we have two recent Cathedrals of similarly grand scale and with contrasting architectures. The juxtaposition of the two styles makes an interesting case study for the “traditional versus modernist” debate over which architectural style is most appropriate for worship. Debates of this kind usually begin over obvious characteristics of style. But following a close examination of these two buildings, the less obvious elements turn out to reverse first impressions. The issue then becomes very complicated, and, in my opinion, far more revealing than a superficial debate based upon style. This discussion brings up issues on today’s approach to church planning. First a disclaimer: I have visited neither building in person, yet that is the only sure way of experiencing a structure. For this reason, my review is bound to be incomplete and partial.
There the matter would stand in a limited but superficial comparison: a traditional building versus an innovative building. Both would appear to work well, and if they were not separated by such a great distance, they could offer a choice to churchgoers who had the corresponding philosophy of their own, namely traditional versus contemporary. But things are not so simple. Let us look at the details and interior spaces.
This building is “modern” in every positive meaning of the word. I caution, however, that it comes close to being “cold” in those places where its approach to abstraction is the strongest. What could have been done to improve the Houston Cathedral? The answer is obvious, although not implemented. My friends would have put in those smaller details that come from traditional ornamentation at the smallest scales, even if very restrained. Or its architects could have devised their own form language on those small ornamental scales. The eye needs ordered structure just a little larger than the rich granularity in the natural materials, and that is missing here in some places. By imposing restrictions in its form language on the smaller scales, the hierarchy is lost going down to details.
Harmonious ornamentation achieved through multiple symmetries nourishes our senses and creates in us a healing state. As human beings, we always anthropomorphize our gods, and expect that they share our own higher pleasures. For this reason, our love of God moves us to ornament the place where we worship, and to do so in a totally selfless manner. We wish to create an environment of maximal transcendent pleasure using an understanding that arises from our own physical experience... (continued)