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Faith & Form

Further on the topic of “Process versus Product”, I should post something on the tentative manuscript toward a monograph on Dakota Territory’s cluster of Episcopal church buildings, one of which—the former St Stephen’s church in Casselton—had sparked my curiosity. Never an Episcopalian and barely a Christian at the time the project began, my own spiritual point of view has drifted ever leftward to the point of no return. Religion and I are not even in the same book, let alone the same page.

That being said, it is an ongoing fascination to me why I spend (invest?) so much of my research energy in religious architecture. Churches (and for that word you should also read “mosque”, “temple”, etc.) may be my favored building type because they, as a species, represent some of the best and much of the worst in recent architectural history—say the last two hundred years.

Take, for example, the Anglican cathedral at Coventry, a Modernist design which replaced the 14th century original destroyed by German bombing on 14 November 1940. A 1950 competition—whose full results have never been published, to my knowledge—resulted in what might be called a “compromise candidate”, a design neither fully Modern, not sufficiently derivative of the Middle Ages to satisfy traditionalists. Basil Spence (now Sir Basil [1907-1978]) bridged the mid-century gap betwixt the streamlines of the modern and the traditions required by liturgical needs and the wants of heritage, of continuity with the church founded by Henry VIII. There is a book about it in my library, though I haven’t laid eyes on it in years, titled Phoenix at Coventry, and there was, as you might imagine, considerable coverage in The Architectural Review, still my favored English-language architectural periodical. The foremost British critic at mid-century was Rayner Banham [1922-1988] whose assessment of the Spence design is lodged permanently in my rolodex as the single most incisive observation of late 20th century religious architecture in general, if not Coventry in particular: He called it “a gosh awful, ring-a-ding God box.” Take that, Modernity, and put it where the sun is unlikely to cast its warmth.

Coventry_Cathedral_-from_above-8

Happily, I have been to Coventry—twice, thank you very much; first with my friend Marilla Thurston Missbach and again with Richard Kenyon, a.k.a. Crazy Richard—and each encounter put me at odds with Banham’s renowned and incisive criticism (who was never knighted but should have been). In this borrowed Wikipedia image, you can detect Spence’s strategy to link past and future: the ruins of the earlier building lie at the lower right, liturgically oriented east-west, while the Spence design stretches north-south, with a porch bridging between them. I won’t burden you with details of the full program(me); suffice to say there are more than a few nods to emerging post-war Socialism and remarkably few direct references to established class structure, Coventry being a solid working-class city.

michael and lucifer

Art played an enormous role in the new cathedral, with contributions by major British artists such as John Piper, John Hutton, Graham Sutherland and the notorious sculpture of “St Michael and Lucifer” by American-turned-British sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein—yeah, he’s Jewish, but so was Jesus. The question becomes whether the whole, the entirety of the cathedral complex, surpasses the sum of its parts. Speaking as an outsider—neither British nor Christian—I’m inclined to say yes, without much qualification. But you might look it up and give me the perspective of a younger, less jaundiced eye.

But what, you may well inquire, has this to do with Dakota’s Episcopal churches, other than the denominational connection? I’ll get to that in a minute.


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