Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A note of remembrance.

Some 30 years ago I was befriended by a wonderful and ancient priest,  Fr. James Francis Larkin, CSV,  a priest of the Clerics of St Viator who would winter in Phoenix to escape the blustery winters of his native Chicago. 

Fr. Frank, as he preferred to be called, was a remarkable scholar and man of great erudition, packaged in a wizened old and somewhat frail body. His life work was the multi-volume magnum opus of the Tudor Royal Proclamations and the later Stuart Royal Proclamations: the products of years of patient and meticulous research in the British Library; still to this day the definitive works in the field.  He was, by the accounts of his Viatorian confreres, a rather solitary scholar and a stereotypical absent minded professor tenured as a Professor of English at De Paul University in Chicago, but above all a humble man who loved the world of ideas, dusty tomes, and attending to his priestly duties with reverence at Mass.

Why Fr. Frank decided to befriend me, a struggling and thoroughly average young architecture student trying to make sense of life, can only be answered by providence. At the time I was grappling with the very central question of what the hell was I doing? From my early years I had an architectural awakening due in large measure to my father's collection of books by Frank Lloyd Wright, and by age 11 I was determined to follow that profession. I would liberate green graph paper from the closets in my 6th grade science class (eventually dear Mr. Steagall would generously keep me supplied), and draw plans from the Wright books, studying the relationships of geometry, proportion, sequences of spaces, details, and the like. Throughout high school I took every mechanical drafting class and art history class I could, learning the tools of the trade with a T-square and scales, triangles and a bow compass, mechanical pencils and the sandpaper pads to keep the points sharp, and the "pounce" drafting dust vainly attempting to keep the drawings from smudging.

My high school career was surgically, and somewhat myopically, directed toward getting into an architecture school, and I was fortunate to be accepted into my home town program at Arizona State University.  ASU at the time was known to be fine technical school, with a very high rate of success for graduates to pass the required professional examinations for architectural registration.  The faculty were mostly interesting and accomplished second generation modernists with solid local reputations, a few of whom had studied under the greats such as Louis Kahn, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Paul Rudolf. The program was, however, conspicuously light in the whole area of architectural theory and criticism.

I soon discovered that while everyone talked about "architecture", no one was really ready to talk about what it really was.  Now if one were to ask a professor of biology what it was that he studied, he might well reply "the study of living organisms", and if asked of an economics professor she might tell you that "economics concerns the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services", or "how people work within markets to get what they want given the problems of scarcity and competition", or even "how money works".  Yet in asking my architecture professors "what is architecture", I would get the most opaque and pretentious answers:

Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.

 Architecture is frozen music.

The reality of the tea cup is the space within.

Architecture is the art of doing the common uncommonly well.

Architecture is a matter of taste, and our job is to tell you what you should like.

Architecture is commodity, firmness and delight -- (this last definition seemed more applicable to the young ladies in whom I was interested than to what I was designing). 

 In short, none of them could give a reasonable working definition of architecture, and yet were mercilessly dogmatic in our juried crits as to whether the student achieved ARCHITECTURE or not. It was entirely subjective as best as I could make out: Architecture depended on the caprice of the professor. Platitudes were thrown about; definitive judgments made without recourse to any defined standards; the architect was supposed to be some sort of prophet and priest telling others how to live, shaping buildings and whole cities that would shaped peoples' lives for better or for worse, yet with no fixed goals. The study of architectural history concerned what the buildings looked like, what were the defining features of the historical style, but never the 'why were they designed thus and so' question.  There were no objective standards for evaluation (apart from the purely technical and vital aspects of structural stability and how the building responded climatically), no reflection on what it means to be a human being, what it means to live in society, what it means to order raw nature for human habitation, the question of beauty, and how architecture addresses the aspirations of humanity.

In fact, beauty had been banished.  To speak of beauty was to risk incurring accusations of being a fascist, or holding an objective and totalizing world view, or trying to force one's beliefs on others.  Of course, this was precisely what every modernist architect does -- they are all behaviorists thinking that they can design buildings and cities that make people good, or that maximize human happiness, whatever those fuzzy terms might mean for them -- but at the time I was unaware of this contradiction. Symmetry was strictly verboten -- "it was designing only half a building" we were told. Any appeal to traditional styles, let alone the classical orders, was met with hostility.  A Nazi was behind every Doric column; classicism was the architecture of totalitarianism and pretension and was antidemocratic. For some reason, the mechanical aesthetic of steel, concrete, glass, flat roofs, and exposed mechanical ventilation systems that were mandated from Cleveland to Cairo escaped this "totalizing" and "objectivizing" critique.

Yet this was precisely my interest in architecture: to create places of delight, of beauty, of meaning, of well-being. I realize of course that I did not have that vocabulary at the time, but it was a slowly forming intuition of what I wanted for my life.  Why spend the next several decades building a career on something that meant nothing? What the hell was I doing?

Enter Fr. Frank, a mutual friend of Dr. and Mrs. John X. Evans, whom they had met on one of Prof. Evan's sabbaticals in London. When I most needed a mentor (Mentor, that friend of Odysseus who advised young Telemachus, and who helped form him mentally), they invited Fr. Frank to winter in Phoenix. Fr. Frank took me under his wing and engaged me in the question of architecture.  Though not trained in architecture, he was a man of great erudition and great ideas: the stuff of the Tudor and Stuart kings and queens who governed a powerful nation during the heights of the Renaissance. Conversationally he would explain to me the relationship between one's world view and what one produced: he knew personally both Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright from his tenure in Chicago, but more importantly he understood them. He instructed me on the way Wright's panentheism formed the basis for his Organic Architecture, and how Mies' reading of Spengler influenced the sense of linearity in Mies' architecture: the infinity of the line receding into the distant horizon was a bridge to avoid the imminent winter of civilization and to renew the exhausted mental habits of the West that were now architecturally and philosophically spent of all vitality, reduced to rehashing old tricks of historical styles.  For Mies, the clean line was the solution to the problem of human civilization. 

"All great architecture springs forth from philosophy", Fr. Frank would tell me again and again, "Get that philosophy!"

And so Fr. Frank would have me read: the documents of the Second Vatican Council on the role of the laity; the great midcentury neo-Thomists Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson on art and architecture and poetry and scholasticism; Eric Gill on beauty and craftsmanship; Aelred of Rievaulx on friendship; Josef Pieper on the relationship of culture to the cultus; even Teilhard de Chardin's The Phenomenon of Man to think about the relationship of faith to the modern world. And we would talk: about what qualities to look for in a spouse, about what wines to drink, about St. Thomas' five-fold correlation of love to the part of man, about English history, about his childhood life on a farm and his priesthood...

And when I had the opportunity to travel to London on a semester abroad architecture program, Fr. Frank would send me letters with explicit instructions of what buildings to visit, what museum exhibits to see, what plays and operas to attend, where to eat and drink well, and always including a £50 note to make sure that I had funds to do what he thought I would enjoy. When I made it to Rome, Fry Frank arranged for me to have wonderful accommodations with his Congregation in their mother house for a couple of weeks, again with a full itinerary of what a young Catholic architecture student should see in the Eternal City, and supplementary travel funds in lira.

From this most unlikely friendship of an elderly retired priest-professor to a budding young architect, I acquired an understanding of architecture that my university could never provide, and I acquired a vision for my life that was to be vocational: a response to the challenge of the Vatican Council's  Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity to "renew the temporal order" with the Spirit of Christ and the values of the Gospel. I developed the habit of thinking architecturally and as a Catholic, and came to understand how these are so deeply intertwined in the human experience.

Not too long after I graduated, Fr. Frank suffered a series of heart attacks and died on February 20, 1986. I had only recently visited him in the hospital, and was somehow aware of his passing that evening. When I heard he had died, I recalled the exact moment I thought about him the night before.  I suppose this is the sort of thing that Aelred would consider befitting of a spiritual friendship, which is a sacrament of God's love.

A year or so later I had the opportunity to continue to "get that philosophy" when, through the generosity of Rotary International, I was able to pursue the Master of Architecture at the University of Bath as a Paul Harris Fellow.  My focus was a continuation of my conversations with Fr. Frank: what was Catholic architecture? What is the Church asking of her architects in the design of churches?  Why are so many modern churches so ugly and devoid of meaning? How ought we to build churches that support the authentic vision of the Second Vatican Council for the liturgy and divine worship, for the parish community, and for the spiritual life of the lay faithful?

From that time in Bath, under the guidance of Prof. Michael Brawne, and with the criticisms of my readers Joseph Rykwert, Ted Cullinan, and Robert Tavernor, I was able to form a coherent understanding of how architecture in the Catholic sensibility is a sacramental enterprise-- all the more so since the church building itself is a sacramental reality intended to assist the lay faithful understand the things of God through the liturgy, sacred art, devotion, and architecture. That time of study led me to writing on the topic of church architecture, which then led to clients asking me to design churches, and in time I decided that vocationally this was to be my service to the Church.

These are the ideas the form the framework for this blog: it is a personal quest for architecture and art, liturgy and theology, beauty and life.

I hope you enjoy my reflections.

In memoriam
Rev. James Francis Larkin CSV
August 25, 1912 - February 20, 1986

In paradisum deducant te Angeli; 
in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, 
et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. 
Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, 
et cum Lazaro quondam paupere 
æternam habeas requiem.

Who in your life has mentored you? 

Who has helped you most make sense of your life and your own vocation?

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