A New Sacred Space: Michael Somoroff’s Illumination I by Donald Kuspit

Is the wish for a sacred space a nostalgic hangover from the superstitious past?  Avant-garde architects have been commissioned to build churches, but however modern their architecture, the churches serve traditional religion.  It is grounded in the ancient idea that transcendence is the prerogative and gift of God, rather than an innate need of human beings that can be satisfied by their own efforts.  Transcendence is traditionally displaced from human beings to the gods, more particularly, regarded as a spiritual realm inaccessible to human beings except by the grace of God.  God is humanity’s alienated need for transcendence, restored to it if and when its prayers are granted.  Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame-du-Haut in Ronchamp, France, 1950-54 is probably the most architecturally original modernist church, but it serves an unoriginal system of belief.  It radically departs from the Gothic churches that have been the norm for nearly a millennium, but the Catholicism Le Corbusier’s church serves has not changed much since the Gothic period, at least not as much as architecture has.

Le Corbusier abandoned the Gothic arch that has symbolized spiritual aspiration until the modern period, when spiritual aspiration became unfashionable—or at least covert for those who seriously aspired, as distinct from those who professed their pro forma faith through public ritual—and Gothic form was corrupted for secular use, becoming simply another historical style.  While “the [modernist] ‘box’ was finally exploded by the external, curvilinear forms” of Le Corbusier’s church,(11) it lacks the vertical thrust and self-supporting integrity of the Gothic church.  The “dark, floating mass of the roof” has a quasi-biomorphic, Arp-like quality—it can be read as an autonomous abstract sculpture, with the white concrete walls of the building functioning as its pedestal—but its free form look suggests a lackadaisical spirituality.  Le Corbusier’s church lacks the spiritual ambition and intensity of High Gothic churches, all the more so because the arch the roof forms resembles a Gothic arch in the process of collapsing.  The roof is a sort of deflated balloon held up by a corner of the building.  Raised by the angular corner, the curving wave of the roof crests in a sort of simulated, hesitant arch—an equivocal, half-hearted, billowy arch that seems to mock the strong, heartfelt Gothic arch that is the architectural core of the traditional church.  It unequivocally rises, as though self-determined and self-propelled, and pointing the way,  toward the God beyond it—the God who cannot contained in any box.  The Gothic arch is a transcendental experience in its own right—a self-generating transcendental experience, as it were.  It is an epic archisculpture, rising upwardness with great resolve, a convincing synthesis of will power and spiritual aspiration.  There is no hesitancy in Gothic steepness—none of the slackness implicit in Le Corbusier’s quasi-lyrical roof, a sort of soft blanket covering a hard structure, perhaps a would-be magic carpet or cloud, that suggests a casual approach to spiritual aspiration.  Clearly Le Corbusier’s anti-climactic arch and pseudo-ethereal roof have little to do with the ribbed vaults that climax in the ascending shape of the Gothic arch.

In contrast to Notre-Dame-du-Haut, the Rothko Chapel, however sited on the grounds of a Catholic college, is ecumenical in purpose, rather than for the privileged Catholic few.  Perhaps the trek up the hillside was enough of an ascent for Le Corbusier, was sufficient to satisfy the need for transcendence, as the fact that his church’s “interior recall[s] prehistoric grave forms,” as Arnason writes.  The deeply set windows seem like crypts in a catacomb, waiting for skulls and bones to make them complete.  Thus death without the transcendence of transfiguration—descent into death without subsequent ascent in salvation from death—seems the perhaps unwittingly ironical point of Le Corbusier’s church.

The Rothko Chapel is open to all believers—all religions—all those of faith whatever the faith they profess.  It assumes they have a common spiritual ground—that they articulate the inarticulate spiritual in a variety of cognitive forms.  However different in shape and purpose, its modernist predecessor is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple, 1906, a Unitarian church in Oak Park, Illinois.  A cube lit from above. Wright’s small church is also a simple stable structure.  The cube is as instantly comprehensible—universally intelligible—as the octagon.  The spectator takes their geometry for granted.  There is no need to analyze it, to think about it.  One intuitively grasps its axiomatic character, and doesn’t bother with it anymore (unless one is a mathematician).  Like all unchanging simple geometry forms, the cube and the octagon are self-evidently eternal, what Alfred North Whitehead calls “eternal entities.”  One comes to Wright’s Unity Temple to worship and pray, and also to Johnson’s Rothko Chapel to worship and pray, but to the God of Art, indeed, to one of the gods of modern art.  One forgets the geometry as one faces the works of the creator, which seem to transcend it.  The Rothko Chapel is a cosmos of Art rather than the cosmos of All Creation  that the Gothic Church is—a glorification of an artist’s creative power, however faltering, rather than a glorification of God’s creative power, which never falters.  (Le Corbusier’s God and Wright’s God seem to lack glory—the aura of radiance that emanates from God, confirming his omnipotence and grace.) 

But one can’t forget the unfamiliar geometry of Somoroff’s archisculpture, a work of architecture and sculpture in one, making it doubly strange, and perhaps estranging and confusing to the spectator.  It has a portal allowing one to enter it, indicating that it is a building—a chapel in its own right, as I have said—and its geometry is not easy to comprehend, certainly not as readily as the geometry of a cube and octagon.  Somoroff’s complex geometry is much more intellectually demanding than Wright’s and Johnson’s simple geometry.  It is an internally as well as externally intricate arrangement of finite curves, each implicated in the other, or perhaps one self-proliferating, infinitely complex curve.  It is rhythmically elated in a way that makes the rhythmic flow—the ups and downs—of Le Corbusier’s roof seem banal.

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Per Contra Winter 2006-2007