In today’s Wall Street Journal (Thursday 18 March 2010), a review of two recent church projects designed by Duncan Stroik. Here are a few excerpts:
Two Churches by Duncan Stroik
A look at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Thomas Aquinas College chapel.
A Return to Grace
By CATESBY LEIGH
La Crosse, Wis. and Santa Paula, Calif.
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.
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.
Thomas Aquinas College chapel.
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
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.
Mr. Leigh writes about public art and architecture for the Journal.