Blessed Newman Beatification Altar

Before Pope Benedict XVI's recent state visit to the UK, I posted a couple of renderings showing the design of a temporary sanctuary for the occasion of the Beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman. In case you missed it, here is one of them. Newman Altar Rendering

Now that the event has passed I am able to share a few photographs by Simon Knott who was in Cofton Park by 3am or the event.

Papal Visit: Beatification by Simon_K, on Flickr

Keep reading for design analysis and some thoughts on alternative designs after the break...

After the vitriol that turned up in the initial search, I foolishly searched again for any information on the design of the structure, a search which only resulted in tears. All that turned up were even more "angry, derisive and juvenile" comments from the blogosphere, conspiracy theories about vindictive progressives designing the altar as an insult to the Pope, the photoshop monstrosity below, and a link to what I thought would be insightful comentary that only rick-rolled me onto a the page for the vapid book No Place For God. (By the way, where do you get off deciding what places are worthy enough that God would want to visit, the same God who in his time here incarnate frequented some unsavory places in the eyes of those with the traditionalist liturgical Good Taste of the time?)


A link promising an alternative design would have hopefully led to something constructive, an honest attempt to suggest something more reflecting the time and character of Cardinal Newman. I myself had considered having a go at it, since it would be an interesting design problem. But no. What I got was this:

Sanctuary Revised Vincenzo Sancte Pater

It is a good illustration of the lowest common denominator assumption of what makes a church Roman Catholic. I'd like to give the author the benefit of the doubt and hope it was a well intentioned joke, but I have my doubts. Either way, it is a great illustration of the lowest common denominator assumption of what makes a design "Roman Catholic" (or at least one version of it). The striking thing is that the form is essentially the same (that is, no better), the altar no longer functions for the purpose, and the whole thing is meaninglessly cluttered without adding to the significance, monumentality or identity of the event. Less is more ... Less is a bore ... More is a mess.

But back to reality. Here are further photos of the event as it happened.

Papal Visit: Beatification by Simon_K, on Flickr

Papal Visit: Beatification by Simon_K, on Flickr !!One of the choirs from either side of the structure

Papal Visit: Beatification by Simon_K, on Flickr

Papal Visit: Beatification by Simon_K, on Flickr

The most important thing is that it happened. The architecture is not what is important, and anyone so fixated on the mediocre design of a temporary structure as to be distracted from an eternal event may want to check their priorities. What is important is that the church is richer for adding Blessed Newman among those she counts as blessed. The exposure of his works to a new generation and attention to his teachings, as well as the challenges of his ecumenical implications, can only strengthen the church.

Which is not to say we should not consider the architecture in the light of these priorities. The first thing I am struck by is that I was wrong in thinking that the structure would recede. It did to some degree, most notably in the closer photos. But the wide shots are very close to the renderings. The sea of people helps, and the whole thing seems better proportioned and therefore a bit less ridiculous.

Looking back, I noticed that the renderings were done with the camera eye level at the eye level of the Pope's chair. This seems an absurd choice, over-objectifying the structure and losing the potential drama of the ground level view. The second observation, and perhaps something of a saving grace, is that this thing was designed more for a media than a physical experience. The scale of the patterning, lighting, color palette, and the geometric simplicity and scale of the furnishings all point to this. And for this purpose it is quite effective. Note how visible and prominent the Pope is in all of the photographs.

The criticism that this structure looks like any outdoor concert stage is problematic. On the one hand, the association and phenomenological analogy of performance does not sit well with the liturgy and creates undesirable expectations. On the other hand, the only temporary need and the existence of affordable, ready-made technology and tectonics is pass up. Much of the form of the thing comes from the language prescribed by this solution. While something like a Lutyens arch over a memorial altar might be a more fitting structure to create a permanent site, such a solution would be as inappropriate as it is impractical. The adaptation of an available temporary structure is a more appropriate solution. Let us not forget that several permanent chapels, shrines and memorials are either recently complete or in progress, and more are on the way I would suspect.

The critical question, then, is the nature of the adaption. It seems to me that the camera was the primary factor in guiding the design and is the only central guiding principal discernible. As such it is insufficient. As a whole, the form lacks proper hierarchy; it is exceedingly flat and the relationship between the parts, especially regarding the strangely isolated shelf for the priests' seating. The steps are effective, but considering their similarity to the bleachers for the choir (my guess is that they are in fact made of bleacher structures) and the fact that bleachers are modular and readily available to a supplier of outdoor venues suggests that the designers missed an opportunity to use this feature to integrate the whole. Take a look at sports stadiums and parade grounds from between the World Wars and there is an indication of how that might go.

The design included a reasonably successful integration of the screens behind the altar and above the choirs, which appear to be led curtain displays. The abstract stained-glass referencing pattern worked as a contrasting backdrop and showed well on screen. But the colors do not coordinate well with the vestments or the furnishings. This is a strange oversight for a design so obviously theatrically-minded. And in the end what is the pattern? It is well constructed and not a bad design. It is abstract and a certain type of modern, but still referential as it is universally recognized as related to stained glass. And in all of this, only the portrait occasionally shown on one of the screens and the motto "heart speaks unto heart" are the only references to Blessed Newman in the entire architectural component of the event.

Textile and generative patterns are a significant feature in the leading edge of contemporary architecture and design. LED textiles and technological displays are one means of employing them. Of course textile patterns are nothing new; in fact, they are one of the more universal principles in design. And as it happens, during Newman's time and as an extension of the Oxord Movement, English Christians produced a vast vocabulary of patterns for vestments and liturgical cloths as well as architectural features in bricks, mosaics, tiles and stencils. I for one would love to see the early 19th century patterns inform contemporary design. They are one of the treasures of church tradition to be passed down and maintained. Somewhere between these two traditions lies a meaningful and uniquely appropriate solution to the adaptation and covering of an outdoor stage for the beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman.

As a more broad consideration, the design of temporary structures for large outdoor liturgies remains a pregnant problem worth considering. Trips like this and events like World Youth Day seem to be on the rise. Could they not have their own accompanying architecture based on standard performance festival technologies but more wholly adapted to the liturgy? Perhaps the Vatican could invest in modular structures that could be moved around the world. This is already done with the popemobiles, so why not with sanctuaries?

It would be informative to know what Blessed Newman's take on architecture would be. In a quick search, I found very little of his thoughts on architectural issues other than what can be inferred from the places he left behind. This is a line of inquiry I hope to pursue in the future.