>Continuing – after a fashion – a theme from yesterday, with respect to America’s contribution to the arts in the early period of its existence, I wanted to share a few thoughts on the work of English-born, naturalized American architect Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820). Last evening I watched an interesting documentary on his life and work, and unlike the usual bio-pics on PBS shows like “The American Experience”, this particular film featured a significant amount of discussion of architectural concepts that might challenge the average viewer to learn more about the vocabulary of building. Latrobe is universally recognized as the first great architect of the young nation. As the film repeatedly points out, until Latrobe came along most structures in what became the United States, whether they were residential or not, were simply houses of various sizes.
Latrobe’s legacy in creating an American vernacular of architecture is a difficult one to assess, for the simple reason that he left so little for us to look at. His highly influential Bank of Pennsylvania no longer stands, for example; his work at the U.S. Capitol has partially disappeared, and his plans for it not always followed. To get the best sense of his abilities, the filmmakers took a significant amount of time to examine his Baltimore Basilica, as an indicator of what might have been at the Capitol Building had Latrobe been better at playing the always-political funding game with Congress. The end result of his work here, while it may have turned Latrobe into a sacred cow for American architects, did not in my mind bring about the creation of a truly sacred Catholic building.
When the redoubtable Archbishop John Carroll commissioned the Cathedral of the Assumption, as the building was originally titled, he was making quite a statement. Upon its completion in 1821, it was probably the largest public building in the United States, and certainly the largest religious structure. Its location on a hill overlooking the then-prominent port city of Baltimore, and its construction on such a vast scale, were all the more remarkable given the strong anti-Catholic bias that existed even in comparatively “safe” Catholic Maryland.
I can remember my first visit to the Basilica back in the 8th grade on a class field trip, with Sister R. pointing out a number of the important features of the building. I came away with two impressions. First, I very much liked the disintegrating Cardinal’s galeri hanging there, imparting a sense of the history of the place. A classmate had the audacity to ask, after Sister mentioned that when the bishop is made a cardinal the pope gives him a red biretta, whether he also got a red Chevy Beretta (a rather perspicacious pun which garnered him a nasty look and an “I’ll talk to you later.”)
However my second impression was that there was very little about the structure to commend it as a Catholic building. The Basilica has more recently undergone a major restoration, so at the time of my first visit it was definitely more than a bit dingy, but to my young eyes it did not impart a sense of the sacred so much as it did an assembly hall – a grand one, to be sure, but nevertheless, seemingly more of a secular than a sacred space. It was cold and detached, with little of the sense of love that one feels when walking into an older Catholic church or chapel. The restoration of the building, while it has brought it back to life, has not given it an immortal soul, at least so far as buildings go.
During their walk around the Basilica, the commentators in last night’s documentary called attention to the fact that there was a notable absence of Catholic iconography in the space, and that the usual combination of darkness and mystery that one expects in a Catholic church was replaced with the use of light as symbolic of the Divine. As a cathedral from the Age of Enlightenment, they pointed out, its pure rationality was indicative of its times. And this, I fear, is exactly the cause of its downfall as a Catholic place of worship.
From the very first time I visited the Basilica, and even as I look at it now, I kept saying to myself, “You can’t fool me.” Take out the altar and the stations of the cross in the Basilica, and we have a tropaia hall, or a municipal library, or a train station. Indeed, one could argue that to some degree, Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan has a greater sense of the sacred about it (but admittedly that might be going a bit too far.)
A Catholic building can use a combination of light and monumentality in an inspiring way, without sacrificing the sense of the sacred – the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris or the Cathedral of Granada being examples of this, albeit in different styles. As fine a building intellectually as the Baltimore Basilica is, and as much as a great Protestant architect like Christopher Wren might have admired it had he been around to see it, Latrobe’s rational cathedral is a failure as a Catholic house of worship. As The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott points out in his review of the documentary, Latrobe’s structure “is a building happy enough to make one forget about God.”
It is a great pity that, perfectionist that he was, Latrobe was not able to complete his plans for the Capitol Building here in Washington. His love of classical architecture would have created something remarkable, and one can imagine how it might have impacted the look of the city in an even greater fashion than the present, not particularly accomplished building does. Even the fine classical work of John Russell Pope here along The Mall might have paled in comparison. Unfortunately, much as I can muse about what might have been here in D.C. by admiring it as a structure, I cannot bring myself to love his Baltimore building as a church.