Being a tour guide at Trinity Church has its many perks. However, becoming one is a grueling and arduous, but intellectually rewarding journey. Trinity’s docent undergo a 10 week training course during which one is expected to master the art and architectural history of one of America’s most beloved buildings. Surrounded by H.H. Richardson’s massive Romanesque interior, John Lafarge’s awe inspiring murals, and some of the country’s finest stained glass windows, one of my life long dreams came true on Wednesday November 18, 2009.
Pulitzer Prize winning critic Paul Goldberger, former architectural critic for The New York Times and author of several books including On the Rise: Architecture and Design in a Post-Modern Age and the latest Why Architecture Matters elated (at least I was ecstatic) an audience over 100 people with a lecture titled Architecture, Spirituality and the Challenge of Modernism. Goldberger spoke of the sacred and how it relates to modern architecture and relied on Trinity Church several times as an example of a building that is “fresh and vibrant [which] transcends our normal sense of time.”
According to Goldberger, architecture must express what is not material, that is, the idea of God. This must be achieved by using the physical to express the transcending. At Trinity Church, Richardson was able to create a work of art by inventing new ways for buildings to inspire and move us. It is a space where time loses its fleeting momentum and grounds each and every one of us who experience its seductive and sumptuous interior. What architecture has done is to establish a connection between everyday life and the sacred. Who are we to say that Saarinen’s 1954 Kresge Chapel at MIT, or Safdie’s Class of 1959 Chapel at Harvard Business School or Le Corbusier’s Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp are not sacred places? In the end, what makes a space sacred depends on who is feeling the experience. The same way we all experience a building, we can also be moved by it in different ways.
As to the challenges of modernism? Aesthetics have become indistinguishable from the sacred and as an example; Goldberger spoke of Kahn’s Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas as a model of how art institutions have become the emblems of cultural aspirations. These institutions have chosen to attract the beautiful rather than the divine (to illustrate this point, Goldberger questioned whether the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston is considered a sacred place, to Mrs. Gardner it may have been, to others, it may just be another museum).
As a student and a professional, I have been delighted to meet and take classes with well respected scholars in the field of art and architectural history. Having attended this inspiring lecture by Paul Goldberger was not only a dream come true, but it gave me a reason to continue writing, learning and being a critic. Thank you Paul!