Frozen Music: How Architecture Explains What We Believe

Frozen Music: How Architecture Explains What We Believe

‘I look at a lot of buildings and consider them ugly. Most of them, in fact,’ Frank Gehry, one of modern America’s most famous architects, opined in 1999, ‘so I figure this one building isn’t going to wreck Seattle.’ This one building was his Paul Allen funded MoPOP, the Museum of Pop Culture, a place formerly known as the Experience Music Project, or, more precisely still, the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame; that acronym’s EMPISFM, by the way. Maybe all the letters are there to distract you from this structure being arguably the ugliest building ever built. Maybe you’ve seen it before, it’s not hard to find, close to the Space Needle and Key Arena, former home of the NBA’s Supersonics. While Gehry claimed the melting in on itself metallic brown, red, and pink-silver structure was meant to resemble a ‘smashed electric guitar’ others compared it to a ‘blob,’ ‘hemorrhoids,’ or that it looked like ‘something that had crawled out of the sea, rolled over, and died.’ Perhaps it’s fitting that the MoPOP collaborates on an annual Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Film Festival with the Seattle International Film Festival who’s own SIFF acronym sounds like a venereal disease well complementing the hemorrhoid afflicted Experience Music Project. Or, just maybe, it’s a warning. They’re being helpful, telling us to avoid post-modernity at all costs, stay away if you don’t want to catch some nasty STDs of the mind and soul rendering whatever intrinsic artistic talent you possess immediately and irrevocably sterile.[1]

Is that really the standard today? It’s not going to wreck Seattle. Not, how beautiful can it be?; how can we convey this or that important message?; but, rather, in effect, yeah, we know this is awful but not awful enough to mess up the entire cityscape. Right? Okay. Good enough for me, fellas. Let’s build it. The implications of Gehry’s statement are: 

(a) my building is unbelievably ugly but (b) so is Seattle and (c) so is the entirety of our depressed, meaningless state of being and, so, (d) Seattle’s citizens will surely offer little resistance because (d.1) they’re idiots who don’t know better or (d.2) they’re stoned 24/7 so they don’t know what’s good or bad, up or down anyways or, (d.3) they’re that special type of contemporary art critic who likes something all the more the more obscure, senseless, repulsive it is; but, if (d.3), then this is only a return to (d.1)-we designers think they’re idiots, so, (e) build it. 

If there’s one thing true about buildings, about anything in the built environment, it is the concept of ‘frozen music.’ What we believe gets put into what we build and, conversely, one can extrapolate our beliefs from our buildings. There are no neutral buildings. All of them are signposts and symbols, meaning something or pointing to meaning elsewhere. And the interesting thing about the placement of Gehry’s design is that it is in a very beautiful spot in one of the most beautiful cities in America. The Queen Anne neighborhood has a lot of what many would claim is having it all, not just the Seattle Center and its component parts—McCaw Hall and the Seattle Repertory Theatre of first rate note—but turn of the century houses tucked in snug one next to another,  burrowed into the elevated sides of sloping grades, markets and coffee aplenty, five minutes to Elliot Bay, and Kerry Park from which one can look back down into the Space Needle dominated skyline and out unto Mount Rainer beyond, framing the distant horizon in a picture perfect stereotype of come here, see this, snap the photo. 

All of these realities, on the neighborhood and individual structure level, tell us a story, construct for us a picture of values and value itself. This is why architecture is so important and why Gehry’s seemingly intentionally ugly creation is more troubling than humorous. What is he, via his building, saying about the values contemporary Americans hold? Are such buildings actually built so as to poison our minds and hearts, to corrupt us intentionally? Is there are an (f) component past the (e) build it which might read (?), 

(f) and so we’ll finally kill off the stupid fantasies about transcendent beauty, meaning and purpose. Just give’em nasty buildings and they’ll become nasty themselves, vulgar, stupid, addicted to everything, exactly the kind of mindless wage slave-sex robots we want to keep our wallets fat and our gnawing consciences at bay. 

Yes? No? What if the question is refocused? What if the obvious architectural malaise we’ve been suffering under for the past fifty, sixty, even one hundred years, perhaps dating back to the Great War era, is really a product of something larger? What if it’s the age-old yet ever changing, in vicissitudes and vehicles employed, foundational and fundamentally simple choice between logos and chaos? The one and same question our first parents confronted in the Garden of Eden. Either Logos, order, and rational harmony within God’s divine design or the haphazard mess and subjective missing of the mark, every mark, for the goal’s existence is itself called into question when following our self-designed chaotic call to be like gods ourselves, knowing what is good and evil. Christ, Logos; not Christ, chaos; peace and prosperity via logical restraint, penniless paupery, material and moral, when letting all those lower appetites loose over our communities, canvases, cityscapes and churches. 

Churches, especially. One can look around the post-Vatican II American churchscape and hear composed in stone and steel—frozen music, remember—chaotic anti-values of disbelief, an absent God not present in an imaginary heaven, empty pews, organ-less choirs unable to send unwritten, unsung notes upwards to the God not there for the flat roofs aggressively horizontal in their spit of the vertical dimension are but ten feet above us. They’re blank, the walls, the ceilings, the churches. They’re blank like our minds, our hearts, our souls. Many of our churches and buildings today are ugly and ugliness in sacred space is the most appalling ugliness of all.

But it’s really all around us, everywhere. And indeed, we need less structures like the J. Edgar Hoover FBI headquarters which the American Institute of Architects described as a ‘swaggering bully of the neighborhood…Ungainly and ill-mannered;’ less of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore, thankfully demolished after more than a decade of abandonment, which looked like a five year old slapped it together from collapsed Jenga blocks and pieces of cardboard; less buildings like the Aoyama Technical College in Tokyo, at first glance resembling a Transformer robot being eaten by a metallic arachnid, described as representing ‘a new order, not achieved through simplistic control from above, but through tolerance of chaos.’ [2]

They’re not even being sly anymore. Ah, no, ma’am, you see there is a kind of beauty here, it just might be hard to see at first; that’s at least trying. Now they just come right out with it. Tolerance for chaos? No. No tolerance for chaos, not if we ultimately care about our centers of worship, our houses of God, the very places men and women come to the fork in the road, come to take in the frozen music about them that will, in mutually exclusive fashion, either rise their hearts and minds into closer union with God or, too often and quite tragically, drive them further and further melting away until nothing remains but a puddle of disconnected doubts. 

It wasn’t always this way. My friends, take heart, I’m here to tell you something hopeful, something positive after too many minutes lamenting our current artistic state of confusion and meaningless. It was not always this way. People, Catholics more specifically, us, we used to compose different types of frozen music. We used to build churches whose architecture declared that God exists, that God is good and logical, that God loves you. Look and behold that stained glass, smell that incense and hear that polyphony honey-smacking the hundred foot roof above you, pause and take it all in and know, without a single word being spoken, that God is love, God is good, God is beauty. 

Know that you too are beautiful, that all of life is beautiful and but that you rest here, that you come to this place and keep God’s law and trust in his divine mercy, you can someday possess a beauty beyond description for all eternity. That is what our church architecture used to tell us. And because it wasn’t always the way it is now it need not be like this anymore. Even around us today there are hopeful examples that we can look to in building the more beautiful churches of our future.  I’m going to speak briefly on four examples of beautiful frozen music, after which I will conclude with that which all of you have come here for: so, what do we do then? What next? 

The first example I present to you is arguably the most famous: Notre Dame de Paris. More than four hundred feet long and half a football field wide, with ten bells, two towers and a since destroyed spire three hundred feet tall, Notre Dame was built over two centuries, from the groundbreaking in 1163 to the final completion in 1345. This because people used to understand that some things, in order to be done properly, have to be done with meticulous attention to detail, without rushing, without the breakneck haste that defines our society today. [3]  

Maybe we can begin here. That if dioceses didn’t hope the construction of a new church could be done within a year, or eight months, or eight weeks, or 3 shifts of eight hours if we want to go on those TV shows where they build a house from scratch in 24 hours, then maybe, relegating this attitude to the trash bin, we might make some progress. It is an uphill battle, one can imagine a church community going to their bishop and explaining that they have the blueprints to create a truly beautiful, authentically worthy, house of God…and it looks like it’ll take about 200 years to complete. No, no, no, we don’t do things that way anymore. That’s true; but is that good? And that it is an uphill battle does not mean it is not one worth fighting. 

Notre Dame de Paris was built over 200 years not just because of technological limitations or the fighting of the Crusades or any other wrench in the mix. It took that long primarily because people cared. They actually believed the faith they professed and would rather die trying to make God’s house perfect than live to see the slightest imperfection. Would that we had some of that latter attitude today. Today it’s about getting it done as fast as possible, period. In sacred and secular spheres alike nothing seems to matter more than the bottom line, the quickest turnarounds unto the next project, the cheapest materials, the most unjust wages, who cares? And so the built environment around us today, it’s frozen music so aggressively discordant and off-key, proclaims those philosophical principles precisely. You people are nothing but mammon worshipping, talent squandering, pseudoreligious imbeciles. The joke’s on you, by the way, and future generations will surely condemn you thanks to us, the ‘monuments,’ you’ll leave to posterity. 

But it wasn’t always this way. This can be easily deduced from the western façade of Notre Dame, its circular window within a square outer border verifiability living the maxim that a picture is worth a thousand words. Here is beautiful frozen music 101. The square symbolizing limited created space, the world, now holding the transcended circle representing infinity, representing God. In one glance at just one piece of this architectural marvel one comes to know exactly what this space is about: Christ’s Incarnation, the infinite Word made flesh come to dwell within space and time, the circle within the square, entering the square so as to redeem it, elevate it, perfect it, perfecting us and this fallen world. And that rose window circular in its infinite reach? Rose for a reason, for the rose is the symbol of Notre Dame herself, the Blessed Mother, whose long ago fiat[4] to the angel Gabriel made it possible for the circle to dwell within the square, for the infinite God to so love the world that he could send his only begotten son into the square[5], into the very heart of our time-bound, temporal quotidian vale of tears. Right behind this striking symbol is the circle and the square theme raised to the loftiest heights. God Himself truly present in the Holy Eucharist, the circle and square on the façade an invitation to step inside this time bound sacred space to feed on the Bread of Angels, the very Infinite God’s infinite gift of his body, blood, soul and divinity, just waiting to us poor sinners to repent, to turn to him, and begin to eat and drink our salvation. [6]

Now that’s good architecture. But, as you know, that’s but one percent of a beautiful cathedral called the liber pauperum—‘poor people’s book’—and if there’s one litmus test for good church architecture it might just be this: can you build something magnificently grand and elaborate yet simultaneously readily understandable to the most rude, uneducated, and illiterate peasant, that such a person could come and read his faith in stone and so begin to trod the path towards salvation? Notre Dame de Paris is indeed a liber pauperum, with the Last Judgment tympanum over the central portal of the already mentioned western façade, a sculpture showing the coronation of the Blessed Mother as Queen of Heaven, another of Saint Anne, rose windows embellished with medallions, segmented into, themselves, narrative pieces from the Book of Genesis, the Gospels, the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, the Saints Peter and Paul. The list is practically endless, the architectural riches impossible to exhaust, even the demon-like gargoyles, grotesques, and monsters of the most imaginative nightmares are there for a theological reason, in support of ‘orthodox’ frozen music, to remind the faithful of the battle for our souls raging ever fiercely from cradle to grave. This is good church design, good architecture, period.[7]

So are the following three churches that I would like to speak to you about tonight. Each of them offering something instructive without words, speaking from the silence of their constructed Logos. Kościół Mariacki (St. Mary’s Basilica) on Krakow’s Main Square, a 13th century Gothic church like Notre Dame, has the architectural bones to make sinners strivers and searchers soon unto saints. Go ahead, walk into that church, your eyes having to rise up and up and up to the 260 foot ceiling above, take in all the iconography and smell the dampness and the musk of wooden columns half a millennium old and soon your ears are enveloped in auditory assaults by the organ music itself going up and up and up and then back down, back down to you and, I promise you, you just ‘get it.’ You understand, even if you couldn’t name the most basic facet of Catholic theology, that this building is silently screaming to you: God exists. God is all-powerful and all-good, beautiful too. All this before you even reach the forty foot high Veit Stoss altarpiece, the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world, illustrating the Assumption of the Blessed Mother unto her coronation, a veritable national and worldwide treasure completed three years before Christopher Columbus set sail for America.[8]

But you don’t have to go that far, neither geographically to Europe nor into the past so many years ago, to find examples of nice, theologically stimulating, architecture here on the Palouse. Anyone here been to Saint Boniface in Uniontown? It is the first Catholic church consecrated in the state of Washington, built by German immigrants beginning at the end of the nineteenth century. This strikingly red brick neo-Gothic church has towers, real wooden floors and pews, a communion rail not ripped out but handsomely preserved, statues and iconography and columns breaking upwards onto a vaulted roof within. There is even a rose window at Saint Boniface and it, like the church in sum, is beautiful. My wife and I have taken our two young boys to many Masses in modern and postmodern churches, some with the most spacious and toy-filled cry rooms, and yet still, chaos eventually ensues. [9]  

At Saint Boniface there is no cry room, no toys, only the statues, stained glass, columns and a communion rail. More than enough for any kids, even the rowdiest, to sit still and look around, to keep quiet, for beauty is real and it matters. We even have our very own Notre Dame de Moscow right here in town, St. Mary’s in the Fort Russell district on East 1st street between Polk and Howard, a Tudor inspired English Gothic church, with a parish establishment dating to the 1880s and Ursuline Sisters as the founding, spiritual active ingredient, has much to recommend it. One doesn’t have to cross oceans to find good church architecture. And once we know what good frozen music is, we can start making more of it for the generations to come.[10]

Okay, so then what do we do, where do we go from here, how do we do that, make more ‘sacred’ sacred spaces for our children and grandchildren? What are the solutions, the prescriptions? Are there any solutions and prescriptions? Hearing me I’d imagine you might guess I’m advocating for a strictly pre-Vatican II church architecture and simply, simplistically, taking the proverbial time machine back some eight centuries. He just said all these nice things about the Gothic style. So I think that’s his advice: just start building churches in that exact same style, just do that. I can imagine you sense the previous phraseology is a set-up. Yes, it is, and no, in fact, no I am not in any way suggesting an attempted return to the 13th century and assuming an ahistorical, imaginative posture that nothing has changed since then. 

The answer comes from combing the wisdom of two books I assigned for my UI-Augustine’s architecture class this spring: Michael Rose’s Ugly as Sin and James Howard Kuntsler’s The Geography of Nowhere. Rose claims all good church architecture has three features—permanence, verticality, and iconography—while to mine the most important takeaway from the Kunstler’s book just substitute ‘somewhere’ for ‘nowhere’ in the title. Kunstler argues that one of the most depressing features of the contemporary built environment and landscape is that in every place looking like any other place—the strip malls, the fast food joints, the outlet stores, etc.—any real sense of place, and therefore meaning, has been lost.[11]

So instead of geography of nowhere churches that look like they were purchased from a pre-made kit at Home Depot how about we take seriously the timeless geography of somewhere approachputting in the time and requisite effort to create something unique and thought out, something original and teeming with a sense of place and rootedness. If we want good frozen music, well-built Catholic churches today, no need to return to the 13th century or whine about today’s art and architecture scene, distasteful though it might be, just follow, or at least begin with, these four principles. Make sure to build permanent structures under the philosophy of geography of somewhere that will stand the test of time, quality structures whose verticality directs one’s mind, heart, and worship up to where it belongs, to the heavens to God, and, like that famous western façade at Notre Dame, or the Veit Stoss Altarpiece at Kościół Mariacki, eschew the whitewashed and blank walls of a blank faith for vivid iconography that can still today, for the literate and illiterate alike, be a true liber pauperum once more. 

[1] Devin Alesso, ‘These are the Ten Ugliest Buildings in the World.’ Elle Décor. September 16, 2016.; Erica C. Barnett, ‘EMPty: The Experience Music Project is a flop on all fronts—financial, musical, and intellectual.’ The Stranger, June 17, 2004; Lawrence W. Cheek, ‘On Architecture: Corrugated Steel is Nice Wrinkle,’ Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 26, 2006; Jonathan Raban, “Deference to Nature keeps Seattle from becoming World-Class City,’ The Seattle Times, April 4, 2004. 

[2]Alesso, ‘These are the Ten Ugliest Buildings in the World.’

[3] The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, ‘Notre Dame de Paris.’  Encyclopedia Britannica.; No author listed, ‘Notre Dame de Paris.’ General Information site (in French)

[4] Luke 1:38. 

[5] John 3:16; John 1:14. 

[6] John 6, ‘The Bread of Life Discourse.’ Encyclopedia Britannica, ‘Notre Dame de Paris’; No author listed, ‘Notre Dame de Paris.’ General Information site. 

[7] Ibid. 

[8] No author listed, ‘Historia Bazyliki.’ General Information site (in Polish).

[9] Robert M. Lambeth, ‘Saint Boniface in Uniontown.’ Spokane Historical.; No author listed. ‘St. Boniface Catholic Church.’ Uniontown, Washington Information Site.; No author listed, St. Boniface and St. Gall Parish information site.

[10] No author listed. ‘History of St. Mary’s Moscow.’ St. Mary’s Moscow Parish Information Site.

[11] Michael S. Rose, Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces and how We Can Change Them Back Again (Bedford, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2009); James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (New York: Free Press, 1994). 

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Written by
Gracjan Anthony Kraszewski