When Good Buildings Go Bad

This is not a piece about how much I despise architect Frank Gehry. (Although I am working on a new one of those, so stay tuned.) Rather, I would like you to think a little bit about the relationship between patron and architect, when it comes to how a public building will be used. If you want to have fuzzy 1970’s wallpaper and a sunken fire pit in your living room at home, that is between you as patron and your architect or designer. Yet when it comes to buildings which serve public purposes, such as hospitals, churches, and hotels, sometimes it seems as though patron and architect are asleep at the wheel.

Case in point: the former National Park Seminary here in Washington D.C., which was featured recently in The Washingtonian.

The complex began life as a hotel in the 1880’s, built in the exuberant, historical mishmash style which the Victorians enjoyed. When the hotel failed, it was purchased in the 1890’s for use as the nucleus of an exclusive Christian girls’ boarding school. Over the ensuing decades the school, known as the National Park Seminary, added dormitories built in a range of international architectural styles, in order to encourage pupils to learn more about the world they lived in.

During the Great Depression, when many families lost the ability to pay for expensive boarding schools, enrollment began to decline sharply. With the outbreak of World War II, the Army requisitioned the property for use as an annex to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. For the next several decades, patients suffering from a variety of maladies were treated at the facility.

At first glance, the repurposing of this assemblage would appear to be a good use of a space which might otherwise have gone to waste. Creating a convalescent hospital with more cheerful, less clinical surroundings seems like a kinder way of addressing the needs of those recovering from the horrors of war. In a landscaped, park-like setting, surrounded by woods and streams, it was thought that the patients could make a better recovery from both their physical and their psychological wounds.

The problem was, many of these patients were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”). They had witnessed their friends being maimed or killed, and experienced things which haunted them day and night. So you can imagine, if you were a patient suffering from PTSD, what it must have been like to wake up from a recurring nightmare about something you experienced during combat in an old village in the French countryside, only to find yourself in a setting that looked remarkably like it. The psychological impact must have been terrible.

The Army did little to keep up the property, so that things began to crumble fairly quickly. A creeping decay, combined with whispered stories about medical experimentation, only heightened the sense of gloom about the place. This, combined with the nature of the buildings themselves, had a hugely negative impact on generations of patients, until the facility was finally closed in the 1970’s. The Army had never picked up on the fact that what was supposed to help soothe their patients had turned into something out of a Goya etching.

Although the blame for this must fall upon those who didn’t stop to think, historically it has often the case that the road to architectural hell is paved with good intentions. Carlo Maderno’s main façade for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome for example, hews to the Counter-Reformation ideals which his patron Pope V espoused, and it was completed relatively swiftly. However the structure is also too squat, its bell towers were never completed thanks to poor surveying of the land which they were supposed to sit on, and the whole thing blocks the view of Michelangelo’s dome. Frank Lloyd Wright’s legendary Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, designed to reflect the Mayan love of water-based palaces and bring prestige to a burgeoning industrial city eager to foster greater ties with the West, was able to survive serious earthquakes relatively undamaged, thanks to its floating design. Unfortunately that same, highly evocative design meant that over time, the complex began to sink deeper and deeper into the muck on which it was built, until it had to be demolished.

The National Park Seminary was never a hugely significant piece of architecture, except perhaps for its remarkable main ballroom. Today, its buildings and grounds are in the process of being converted into a mixed use residential community. Yet the example of this strange, little-known corner of the Nation’s Capital does go to a larger point, which any consideration of new or repurposed architecture must take on board. Whatever their vision, sometimes both architects and patrons can get things very wrong, if they do not think of the long-term implications of their decisions.


The Gospel of Happiness

Today I’m very pleased and honored to once again be part of Image Books’ latest blog tour. This time we’re going to be looking at “The Gospel of Happiness”, a new book by Dr. Christopher Kaczor, the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton, and professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles.  My thoughts appear below, but to read what other bloggers have thought of it, be sure to visit the Image website, and click through the Blog tour links to see what other writers – including my friend Kathy Schiffer over at Patheos – are saying about this helpful addition to your bookshelf.

We begin, as we must, with an overview of what the author is trying to tell us with respect to living a happier life. I’m going to ask you to bear with me through this more formalized part of this post, since I think it only fair that I try to give you some general idea of what we’re talking about here. After which, I hope you’ll stick around since, while I don’t often share personal details on these pages, I do intend to share a little bit about my personal reaction to this book, in particular its final chapter, which I found it extremely helpful.

In “The Gospel of Happiness”, Christopher Kaczor outlines positive psychology, a concept which has gained significant traction in the field of psychology over the last few decades. Instead of taking a pathological – and these days ultimately pharmaceutical – approach to the study, understanding, and treatment of mental illness, positive psychology looks at ways in which people can bring about self-improvement through the adoption of more positive attitudes and reactions to the circumstances of their lives. Dr. Kaczor certainly does not suggest that *all* people suffering from depression, addiction, and other maladies can be helped through non-clinical intervention. Rather, if I may paraphrase his work, he advocates what the ancient Romans understood, which my Catholic readers will recognize immediately as the motto of St. Ignatius of Loyola (and himself a significant influence on Dr. Kaczor’s own spirituality), of striving for the one-two combination of a sound mind in a sound body.

Positive psychology does not suggest that one must burst into a chorus of “Everything Is Awesome” whenever one is faced with difficult circumstances. Instead, it recognizes that in many cases, people can change their circumstances, or at least their reactions to them, by trying to focus on good things: those benefits they do possess despite their problems, ways they may be able to help others less fortunate than themselves, and so on. Dr. Kaczor takes pains to point out that positive psychology is not the 1950’s Norman Vincent Peale notion of “the power of positive thinking”, nor the “I’m okay, you’re okay” mantra of the Baby Boom generation, as transmogrified by the cult of Oprah Winfrey and her prophets. Rather, positive psychology has its roots in scientific, clinical studies conducted over many years, which show that “[c]ultivating positive emotions can aid us in making wise decisions because when we are in a positive frame of mind, we can take a broader view of what is going on, and can be more open to building healthy relationships.”

Interestingly, as part of that analysis, Dr. Kaczor points out that many of the positive reinforcement ideas and methods advocated by this field of psychology are directly compatible with living the Christian life. While he acknowledges the influence of atheism and immorality in a number of psychological methods and theories, he also shows how, through the words of Christ and the examples of the saints, Christians can lead lives with the goal of more positive treatment of the self and others, and ultimately greater intimacy with God. Studies quoted throughout this volume have shown that people who are not just believers, but active in their faith, on the whole suffer far fewer incidents of clinical depression and other psychological issues, or recover more quickly from such problems, than those who have no faith or who are lackadaisical in the practices.

Here endeth our formal presentation.

On a personal level, I’m going to drop the veil – er, cape – a bit, and confess something: I need to have a good clear-out. There have been quite a number of things going on in my life over the last couple of years, and in particular over the past few months, that have left me in the position of recognizing that I need to do this. I look at where things stand and realize that while certain things are going extremely well, other things most definitely are in need of a shake-up.

Let me put it to you in a more visible way, by providing a single example: my desk at home is an absolute disaster. It is littered with the detritus of a disordered, reactionary, mostly sensual life. New books I haven’t started, unopened and unread copies of magazines, ticket stubs from long-completed travels, restaurant receipts from long-forgotten dinners, junk mail from every Catholic charity known to man, and many other such things are piled in teetering towers, just ready for The Cat to knock over. My desk has become emblematic of many aspects of both my spiritual life and my interpersonal relationships.

What Dr. Kaczor explains extremely well, in the final chapter of “The Gospel of Happiness”, is that when things get to this point, we need to take measured steps, without expecting perfection, and learn from our mistakes. An example he gives concerns gluttony, something which I’m sure even those with the most frugal appetites among us will recognize. He asks us to take a step back from giving in to the short-term pleasure of eating that candy bar at lunch, today, promising ourselves that we will give it up tomorrow. Are we willing to live with the consequences of eating a candy bar at lunch, every day, for 30 days in a row, while promising ourselves that “one day” we’ll give it up? He argues that it’s when we step back and see the whole picture, putting temporary emotions and desires in their place and recognizing as he puts it that tomorrow must be today, that we can learn to master ourselves better.

While all of Dr. Kaczor’s book is very much worth your time, it is in this final chapter, on strengthening the will, that I find he really hits the high notes, both in terms of practicality and spiritual counsel. When he looks into how and why we fail, and allow our feelings to overwhelm us, we can see that he is making a great deal of sense. It’s not enough simply to want to change certain negative behaviors or patterns in our lives, but rather understanding on a practical level what we can do about it, that Dr. Kaczor tackles brilliantly. With the help of prayer, spiritual direction, and not beating ourselves up all the time, he gives many examples and an outstanding summary of ways to move forward in your own internal life, as well as in your external relationships, so that God, neighbor, and self are all in balance.

So many books of popular psychology start out well but then fizzle out by the end. So many more simply overlook the experiences of people of faith as being irrelevant, at best, or antipathetic, at worst, to the practice of psychology. Neither of these characterizations apply to this book. For me personally, Dr. Kaczor has provided a bit of a way forward, for me to start cleaning things out and start moving rather than reacting again. Perhaps this work can do the same for you, or for someone you care about.


What Lies Beneath: Technology Reveals Hidden Art Treasure

In a study published today in the journal Applied Physics A, scientists have revealed some fascinating discoveries concerning a work by the great Dutch artist Rembrandt von Riijn (1606-1669) – revealing a painting which has not seen the light of day for nearly 400 years.

Art researchers were long aware that underneath The Getty’s portrait, “An Old Man in Military Costume”, painted circa 1630-1631, another portrait existed. The image was first perceived in the 1960’s through x-rays of the panel, but until now only a ghostly idea of the appearance of the original painting was known. Forty years later, using a number of modern imaging techniques, scientists have been able to digitally reconstruct what remains of the original image, which is reproduced below.   

This is not the first time a Rembrandt has been perceived to lie beneath a Rembrandt. If you’ve seen – and if you’ve not, you should – the very interesting Frederick Wiseman documentary, “National Gallery”, about London’s finest art museum, you’ll recall that as a result of cleaning and study of Rembrandt’s equestrian portrait of Frederick Rihel (c. 1663), another painting by Rembrandt was discovered. Not only did the artist re-use the painting itself, but he incorporated a few elements of the first image into the image we see today. Strangely, this was possible even though in doing so, Rembrandt rotated the canvas 90 degrees, from a horizontal to a vertical orientation.

Rembrandt was not the only artist to use old paintings as the base for new ones. In addition to which, museums have been x-raying pictures for decades now, trying to understand their composition and oftentimes determine their authorship, through close examination against known examples by the same artist. Yet because of the possibilities offered by high resolution scanners and the like, more and more researchers are finding themselves having to reconsider what they thought they knew about artists whom they have spent their entire careers studying.

The first point to be made about this, quite naturally, is an easy one: ain’t modern times grand? Technology has advanced to the point where, without invasive techniques, scientists are able to go about their work without irreparably damaging what it is that they are studying. In archaeology for example, until comparatively recently the only way to tell whether anything was inside a tomb was by excavating it. Now, in one of the most intriguing theories in contemporary Egyptology, there is serious discussion about using ground-penetrating radar to determine whether Queen Nefertiti, purported mother of King Tut – i.e., the Pharaoh Tutankhamun  – is buried in a hitherto unknown sealed chamber next to his burial in the Valley of the Kings. This latest theory regarding the final resting place of the most famous of all Egyptian beauties, as it happens, only came to light through the use of modern technological analysis of the tomb, in combination with existing research on architecture of the period.

Now for those who are not particularly interested in art or archaeology, these advancements with regard to perceiving things which we cannot perceive with the naked eye can be of tremendous personal benefit. For example, if you have undergone a sonogram to examine the health of your unborn baby, you know that catching potential problems early can make a tremendous difference in the outcome of your health, as well as that of your child. Not to mention, of course, that you will be able to carry around a photographic still from the sonogram to show family and friends.

For those who *are* interested in the arts however, the use of technology to gain greater insight into the means and methods by which great works of art were created, and ancient buildings constructed, is only going to improve over time. One suspects that more museums and galleries are going to seek analysis of their paintings, to try to figure out what is sitting in front of them, covered by a thin veil of paint. Perhaps it will even be possible, one day, to remove the top layer of paint on a molecular level and transfer it to canvas, and for the curator to suddenly find himself the proud caretaker of not one, but two Old Master paintings.

Admittedly, that might be going a bit far, but who knows? Fifty years ago, no one knew that the Getty Rembrandt was painted over another Rembrandt. It took forty years to be able to “see” that earlier Rembrandt properly. We have no idea what the next forty or fifty years will bring.