A new Roman Catholic church, dedicated to St. Thomas Aquinas, has risen at the Newman Center of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Designed by architect Kevin Clark, the church and center together came in at a cost-effective $25 million. St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church is a classic longitudinal basilica with exterior features nodding to the Italian Romanesque—red brick walls, a tall square campanile, and engaged buttresses. The church's interior, though eclectic, references the Gothic through repeated use of the arch. Clark's design is an inspiring one, which he developed after consulting the congregation's preferences and budget. Nebraska's Catholic students had envisioned a traditional church with a look of antiquity about it. Submitting his creativity to these constraints, Clark has delivered a church that is earnestly traditional, as well as beautiful.
In doing so, he invites critical censure—for the “earnest” and the “traditional” are anathema to the modernist and postmodernist movements in architecture. Clark's design for St. Thomas Aquinas thus defies both of the two major architectural movements of the last seventy-plus years. In doing so, it shows the continued vitality of historical styles in architecture, especially church architecture.
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What's wrong with being traditional, anyway? Modernists and postmodernists would argue that historical styles in architecture are inherently undemocratic, because they assume a high level of humanist education and taste—privileges of the elite. By putting the masses at a disadvantage, historical styles reinforce social inequality. And more is at stake than the architectural version of not knowing which fork to use at a dinner party. Buildings send lasting messages. Post’s New York Stock Exchange (1902) is a Gilded-Age Roman temple consecrated to commerce. What does it say about our ideals when our society spends a fortune to provide a financial organization with accommodations befitting a god?
Offended by the values built into historical styles in architecture, the modernists eliminated those styles. They inaugurated a new style, one that featured clean and efficient lines and machine-made materials. Decoration entailed the restrained use of color and texture, lighting and landscaping. The modernists envisioned the new democratic man, freed of architectural shackles, rising to his mountaintop aeries—like Koenig's Case Study House 22, immortalized by architecture photographer Julius Shulman.
Moral fervor led the modernists to attempt to engineer a better type of man through architecture. Their hubris resulted in Pruitt-Igoe and the collapse of the modernist project, as documented by Charles Jencks. Soon a parade of banal glass-curtained towers confessed the bankruptcy of modernism.
But if historical styles were immoral, and the modernist project was sagging, what was an ambitious architect to do? Historical styles, it turned out, could still be good for something. Venturi's Guild House in Philadelphia (1962), a harbinger of postmodernism, alluded through grossly distorted forms to the Doric temple and the Renaissance Palazzo. The trick was never to use these styles earnestly. Architects could import a historical grammar into their designs, so long as they did it with irony. As a result, we endured thirty years of Highboy chairs and Lipstick tubes, Crystal Cathedrals and other one-upsman stunts, under the heading of postmodernism in architecture.
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After all this, how to explain Clark's design for St. Thomas Aquinas—which is traditional (contrary to modernism), and earnestly traditional (contrary to postmodernism)? By understanding Clark's traditionalism—how it works and what it accomplishes—we will see why, even today, tradition remains a valid source for church architecture.
St. Thomas Aquinas recapitulates, in new methods and materials, a basic form of ecclesiastical architecture dating to Roman times. Originally, the Roman basilica was a large, practical assembly hall used for secular proceedings such as courts of law. Early Christian architects, however, found the basilica plan readily adaptable to their needs. A typical example is Santa Sabina in Rome (ca. AD 430), in which four walls bound a rectangular liturgical space, about two hundred feet long by one hundred feet wide. Since one-hundred-foot spans were difficult for the ancients to roof over (long enough timbers being rare and expensive), the builders raised a narrower set of walls on colonnades, dividing the floor into a central nave under the raised roof and two side aisles under shed roofs. The clerestory is perforated with large windows, lending a luminous quality to the interior. An apse at one end is the destination of processions from the entrance at the other end.
Clark's design for St. Thomas Aquinas retains the narrow raised clerestory of the traditional basilica—as though we still, in our age of steel, had difficulty roofing the span. Broad piers, mostly lightweight sheathing around girders, stand in for the massive masonry pilasters that in an earlier age would support the clerestory. Exterior pilasters pose as Romanesque buttresses.
Perhaps all this posing and pretending is problematic—since no functional consideration compels us to use the basilica form, and choosing to do so requires us to tell architectural lies. Indeed, there is nothing intrinsically “holy” about the basilica plan as such, rooted as it is in secular architecture. The apse, for instance, was originally a bit of Roman architectural grammar, used to focus attention on the emperor's person. By imperial analogy, the Christian apse bears an image of Christ, signaling that He is the focus of the proceedings. Does this mean that the early Christians viewed Christ reductively, as a heavenly emperor? On the contrary, they were adapting the apse for higher purposes, making use of the respect it showed and the power it connoted.
Their ancient grammar is still valid, even if most churchgoers today are ignorant of its historical meanings. Traditional church architecture may have sprung from contingent roots, but it has been refined by millennia of observation: God is omnipresent, but we perceive the divine presence better in some places than in others. It may be due to nurture as much as nature, but lofty, light-filled basilicas feel numinous to us—and their functionality, in eliciting a “religious” response, surely justifies St. Thomas' traditional form. Form here does follow function. Where church architecture is concerned, the modernists' repudiation of traditional forms is invalid on its own terms.
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Within the parameters of a traditional basilica, Clark has made prudent choices in reconciling his commission with his budgetary constraints. Mass-produced materials are cheaper, so economy dictates flat surfaces and straight lines. Apart from the Gothic arches, most curves have been suppressed. The apse is reduced efficiently to flat surfaces. The lantern that rises above the crossing, giving the impression of a costly dome, is in fact octagonal with a flat soffit, and the pendentives on which it rests are triangular planes. The flatness of the soffit is relieved by gold-stenciled stars on a blue background, reminiscent of the central dome of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna (early 5th century).
The organ at St. Thomas Aquinas was purchased from a closed Methodist church in Lincoln. The ambo was purchased in London, while the reredos is made of the sectioned and rejoined pieces of two old altars from a church in Youngstown, Ohio. A third altar from the Ohio church serves in the separate chapel to Mary north of the crossing. Reclamations of this sort, lending an antique cachet, were typical of early Christian architecture. Occasionally, mismatched spolia (as these reused pieces are called) give the impression of cost-saving scavenging, but more often sensitive selection has yielded breathtaking results, as in the church of Sant' Agnese fuori le mura (second quarter of the seventh century).
At St. Thomas Aquinas, the spoliated woodwork, exhibiting the craftsmanship of another age, might have stood out clumsily against the plainer aesthetic budgetarily required in the rest of the church. But paneling in the presbytery nicely eases the transition from the reredos to the church's painted walls, and a wooden sheath over the altar picks up a Gothic fleur-de-lis motif. These elements, along with the Gothic character of the purpose-built stained-glass windows and rood cross, provide a plausible context for the spolia, which can thus serve their purpose of adding value without stealing the show. The congregation's plan to extend the stained glass out into the church when donations allow will further unify the decorative scheme.
The generally spartan interior in ivory and tan is relieved by spare decorations, in chevron and losenge motifs, that articulate the window frames, the intrados and spandrels of the large transverse arches, and other architecturally significant points. The pendentives of the lantern sport a set of arresting images corresponding to those below the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome—Saints Veronica, Helena, Longinus and Andrew. These images warm the central space of the church with varied earth tones.
Granted, domes and lanterns are foreign to the Gothic. Further, the images on the pendentives evoke the early Christian or Byzantine styles—and their execution in a nontraditional literal representationalism renders them even more eclectic. In this respect they are a rare misstep, deviating from the coherent traditionalism of the rest of the interior space.
Aside from this overzealous eclecticism, my only other complaint is with the design of the side aisles. The architect's drawing shows the aisles open all the way to the shed roof, preserving the free-flowing space typical of a basilica. Some practical consideration, however—such as a need to route ducting—must have caused Clark to drop the transverse walls between the exterior walls and the pillars supporting the clerestory, thus reducing the aisles to a series of small bays connected by low rectangular doorways. Because these transverse walls coincide with the large arches spanning the interior, they allude to the flying buttresses of classic Gothic cathedrals—which is a nice conceit. But the human-scaled rectangular doorways appear banal in an otherwise magnificent interior.
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Tradition is a powerful force in Christianity. (Take Basil of Caesarea's argument that the Holy Spirit was an equal part of the Godhead because He had always been so worshipped.) Precedent can be theologically meaningful, and a respect for the traditional not merely sentimental. Not every venture into architectural traditionalism turns out rose-tinted, like Walt Disney World's Main Street, USA.
Despite its minor flaws, St. Thomas Aquinas is an inspiring and transcendent design—one that may encourage ecclesiastical architects to save spolia from the wrecking ball and bring the best of historical architecture to bear on more such numinous houses of worship.
Gregory Bucher is associate professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies at Creighton University.