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When Does Architectural Consistency Matter?

Most modern people (if they are not trained as modernist architects) have imbibed the idea that architectural consistency is the highest form of order. But what if the additions are ugly, falling down or inhospitable?
church alter

Most modern people (if they are not trained as modernist architects) have imbibed the idea that architectural consistency is the highest form of order. This means that college campuses should all use the same color brick, Gothic buildings should never have classical additions and modernist churches should only have modernist additions. But what if they are ugly, falling down or inhospitable?

Where is our purported love of diversity when it comes to building in neighborhoods or renovating churches? We worry what the neighbors would think if we tried to build a Romanesque church among Prairie school apartment buildings. “It might not fit in,” we say. Yet it seems that when traditional churches get additions from other historic styles they survive.

How did the master-builders of the Gothic cathedrals regard consistency of style? In many Gothic cathedrals there are abrupt changes in style as new designers and patrons took over. Why then does the basilica of St. Peters in Rome, though it took approximately 150 years to complete, seem all of one piece? More than 20 architects (most of them famous) and 21 popes had a hand in it. If you know what to look for you can see their individual talent: Bramante’s plan, Antonio da Sangallo’s aedicules, Michelangelo’s dome, Maderno’s nave, and Bernini’s bronze baldacchino being among the most famous. How did this happen? It would seem that their egos were balanced out by an appreciation of architettura antica, a shared love of tradition.

Thus, stylistic consistency is not necessarily a bad thing. In my own firm, we have often tried to design new things that look original. But what should we do if the existing building is a mediocre example of Midwestern Gothic or an incompetent essay in Beaux-Arts Classicism? Couldn’t we improve these historic buildings by bringing something more elegant, simpler or even more complex into the mix? Could the renovation of a church enrich it by adding stylistic elements, materials or art forms that the original architect could not countenance or afford?

The vitality of disparate architectural traditions is manifest in the work of English ecclesiologist Sir Ninian Comper who practiced architecture up through 1930s. Comper’s early works are essays in pure English Gothic which he learned from G.F. Bodley (designer of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC) and others.

Comper’s designs manifested a unity by the exclusion of all other styles. As he matured and traveled to the Middle East, he fell in love with an architecture of palimpsest, churches which had been added to over the centuries. He began to embrace aspects of the classical tradition, such as the Early Christian baldacchino, the basilica type, and baroque statuary within a generally medieval church body.

He called it “unity by inclusion” rather than “unity by exclusion.” Previous ages had practiced inclusion without ever naming it. You see this in the Early Christian basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin with its Gothic baldacchino, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris with its baroque altar and at the Gothic duomo in Florence with its Renaissance dome.

“Unity by inclusion” allows baroque side chapels and Neo-Classical altarpieces to be inserted into high Renaissance churches like the Gesu. If we are to be stylistically consistent we should reject the use of stained glass in classical churches, yet we have come to accept it whether in colonial churches in New Haven or neo-baroque churches in Chicago.

For all of our pride in America’s variety of ethnicities and rhetoric about diversity we often prefer unity by exclusion in our architecture. A Renaissance high altar in a Gothic hall church would never do. Yet, what could be more beautiful than to have Titian paint a huge Renaissance altarpiece complete with a classical frame in the apse of a Gothic church in Venice? A true masterpiece is at home in a traditional building of any style and traditional styles, if well executed, it can absorb other traditional styles.

For many, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome may be acceptable because it seems stylistically consistent. Yet, across town at St. John Lateran, we see everything that is wrong with inclusion: a cruciform basilica from 318, a cosmatesque floor from the 1300s, a Gothic baldacchino from 1369, coffered ceiling from the 1500s, a baroque nave from 1650, a Neo-Classical façade from 1735 and, would you believe it, a neo-Medieval apse from the 1800s.

Too much variety, inconsistency and chaos. Or is it? Along with this incredible stylistic diversity there is also a great unity. We see the history of Christian art and architecture in one building, a gift from saints and sinners throughout the centuries. Looking at it that way, it makes sense that St. John Lateran has so much variety.

Consider the wonderful complexity and harmony that results. Not the consistent beating of a drum but a variety of instruments and themes that make up a majestic symphony. It is not the cacophony that often happens when contemporary architects add on, but a four-part harmony of the sacred. At St. John Lateran, each architect says it in a slightly different way, like so many voices in a choir.

This Christian church, the oldest in continuous use, is perhaps the most striking example of what happens when a house of God is built over the centuries. Whether it is the addition of a Romanesque church to a colonial city, such as at Trinity in Boston, or the beautification of a Midwestern Gothic church using classical vocabulary, traditional styles can speak to one another.

Modernism, for all of its strengths, cannot do this. It cannot converse with the past, except to disparage or destroy it. This is not because modernism values simplicity. Simplicity is a legitimate theme in sacred architecture, particularly the monastic or the mendicant orders. It is more that modernism denies the human figure and all that it represents, it rejects traditional architecture, ornament and decoration thus becoming the ultimate expression of “unity by exclusion.”

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