Abstraction, Contemplation, and the Architectural Imagination

The Question:

The Story at the Heart of Faith: Can abstraction call the person into the fullness of humanity?

The Working Definitions:

Contemplation/Contemplative Imagination:
The total imagination involving all of our faculties: thinking, feeling, remembering, hoping, believing, perceiving, abstracting, conceiving and interpreting. It is the conditional ground for our reception of reality, and hence truth, thereby leading us into the fullness of our humanity.

Proceeding according to a proper proportion or measure. It is the principle of unity in difference between the part and the whole, the particular and the universal, essentia and esse, becoming and being, the finite and the infinite, where the contraries are so integrated and mutually dependent and informing that to preference one to the expense of the other is to distort the way we contemplate, create, and live in the world.

The Response:

The titular question as it relates to architecture, specifically sacred architecture, possesses a rather enigmatic character because architecture is an essentially “abstract” art, at least in any strict use or “icon”ic sense of the term. In fact, “abstraction” in a certain sense is precisely the power of the imagination that renders the entire creative artistic enterprise possible. Thus, defining its usage and meaning as it is more narrowly evidenced in architecture will constitute the first part of this essay, highlighting examples of the types of architectural abstraction realized in built works. Following this, I will suggest that abstraction thus defined, in light of the Christological form given to the world and the specific purpose of sacred architecture in realizing this form, is too limited and narrow to “call” the person into the fullness of humanity, at least if the invitation is understood to be a definite, concrete one (imitation of Christ) in which the voice doing the calling adequately represents the fullness of life into which it is drawing the person. Instead, I will submit that contemplation as exemplified in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, is in fact the proper noia of the architectural imagination, and that this noia is typified by the analogical imagination manifest in the dramatic event-structure of traditional architectural forms.

Abstraction is not the exclusive province of modern art in general or architecture in particular. It enjoys its proper place in both the eastern and western traditions. However, there are essential differences within these traditional forms of abstraction, and furthermore between modern abstraction and traditional abstraction. These distinctions depend on differing worldviews—either implicitly or explicitly—more than mere stylistic preference, and hence the aesthetic concern is actually one of theological provenance. In Balthasarian terms, it is a question of theological aesthetics.

At the risk of oversimplifying and generalizing traditional abstraction for the sake of being succinct, I would suggest that traditional forms of “abstraction” remain predominantly inspired by, and expressive of, natural forms and causes with proportion and measure. As such, they are representative of the analogical imagination. Thus, all traditional forms share many broad similarities reflecting their common dependency on the human form, natural scales, harmonies and proportions, and a belief in a divinely ordered cosmos made intelligible in and through creation. In short, all these traditional forms demonstrate architecture as the art whereby man—as a relational-rational being—manifests, orients, and transforms his relationships with God, his neighbor, and creation through the built world. Here the source of similarities or unities in traditional forms also becomes the summit of notable differences, namely by the result of divergent understandings of human nature, the nature and representability of God, or the human person in relation to the divine and natural forms of the world. The degree of abstraction is proportioned to the entire contemplative imagination. Hence, such abstraction is subsumed within and reliant upon a total contemplative receptivity to analogical forms of creation and inspiration from the divine muse(s). It is a world, as C.S. Lewis states, where contemplation of nature gives meaning and context to our understanding of God, and thus one where “art imitates nature” teleologically and analogically, not simply mimetically.

Modern abstraction manifests a paradigmatic shift from the traditional emphasis on analogical forms and images to abstracted mental concepts as the locus and terminus of the architectural imagination. Here I believe the modern transition in abstraction demonstrates a rational reductionism on the part of the architectural imagination analogous to that which was pointedly assessed and analyzed by Fr. William Lynch, SJ in his book Christ and Apollo.[1] This reductionism comes in three forms: the “indefinite imagination” (my term), the “univocal imagination,” and the “equivocal imagination,” none of which correspond with or reinforce our experience of the real world.

The “indefinite imagination” is usually characterized by simplified forms which preference an “atmosphere” that hints at but never fully develops a formal grammar of ornament, detail, scale, or refined proportional relationships that properly contextualize the whole. In many cases, the indefinite imagination implies a purposeful “blurring” or simplification of traditional architectural forms in an attempt to give an aesthetic “impression.” It is concretized metaphor, as opposed to true analogy.

By this, I mean that the indefinite imagination represents “like-ness,” a derivative image that can never stand as representative of any seminal form itself. Since the general or universal is only found instantiated in particulars from which they are then abstracted, not the converse, it is only the actual precedent from which these forms are being abstracted that give rise to the “impression” which the abstracted forms are attempting to replicate or allude to; hence, for example, an attempt to realize general “gothicness” will only end in failure unless it is an attempt to be truly gothic in all of its particularity. An example of this can be found in comparing the Ave Maria University Oratory to traditional gothic churches.

The “univocal imagination” is not plagued by the same generalization or vagueness of imagination endemic to the indefinite. In fact, it is absolutized unity, as old as the philosophy of Parmenides. The univocal imagination arises from the rational impulse for abstracting, organizing, and unifying, which can be a powerful logical tool for the architectural imagination in creating points of mental coherence that become intelligible in the architectural experience. The power of the univocal imagination reduces the whole to a singularly essential but ultimately narrow point of reference as the seminal idea from which the whole is originated, resolved, and measured. The parts are externalized and instrumentalized in relation to the whole, admitting of no apparent integration except as unrelated features. The whole work is thereby able to be viewed from a single point whose reference and meaning actually lie just outside of the architectural image, as if imposed from above, as opposed to embedded within it and revealed by a process of unfolding through time and space.

Hence the architectural experience is reduced to a rational grasping of a concept, symbol or a “meeting of the minds” of the viewer and the architect from a vantage point of an “idea” that is above/behind/around the architecture itself. In so doing it precisely delimits the nature of the vision and admits of no further vision. It can only and ever be a sign rather than a symbol, a key signature but never the whole symphony. As Lynch states, while its forms are “certainly the clearest or the most defined representations of human cognition, as images or points of identification with the real, they are the most distant, the most shadowy of all human modes of intelligence.” The St. Josemaría Escriva Shrine in Mexico provides an example here.

The “equivocal imagination,” as the converse of the univocal imagination, evinces the opposite tendencies to emphasize differentiation or separation to the exclusion of unification. It is absolutized difference, or the equivalent of serial music. To its credit, its emphasis on the absolute particularity and individuation of elements grants the forms a powerful autonomy whereby any attempt to reduce the architectural experience to a particular instance or moment or some essential point outside of the present is thwarted. Every experience thus becomes unique and unrepeatable. However, in its attempt to avoid any visible unifying factor, the result is a created world in which discrete parts never amount to an intelligible whole, a creative equation written only with variables, and no constants. It posits a universe without unified meaning, or rather whose meaning is precisely that there is no final meaning, only localized subjective meanings, because it lacks a center through which its gyrated forms hold together, no unifying feature to resolve the points of dissimilarity into an ordered or teleological pattern of experience. It is an imagination haunted by the ghosts of Descartes, Darwin and Schoenberg. Examples of the equivocal imagination can be seen in any building by architect Frank Gehry or the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.

At the heart of these modern abstractions is the worldview that opposes contraries as contradictories, that sees the world of ideas, signs, and concepts rather than concrete forms and images as the source for transcending the finite, where the rationalizing aspect of the imagination is preferenced over the total contemplative imagination, of which abstraction is only a part. As such, abstraction can only reveal or appeal to a partial reality. In every attempt to resolve these tensions of existence into either of the two poles of being—essentia or esse, unity or difference—the proper relationship between the finite and infinite in the architectural image is distorted; hence, the actual theological nature of what is often seen as merely an aesthetic concern. The resulting forms which are given for our imaginative consumption are signs, rather than symbols, which are closed to the reality they are meant to signify, either delimited by the concept of the mind that conceived them, or unable to find the whole that would bind their disparate, unrelated meanings into a meaningful unity.

The analogical imagination accepts that the paradoxical tension at the heart of our existential condition is not a problem to be resolved but the very source of our creativity whose tension must be maintained so as to avoid a reductionism into the extremes of abstraction just delineated. It reinforces our natural experience of the world as constitutive of images and patterns that cannot be reduced into an either/or: either an absolute unity or multiplicity. In traditional architecture, what are known as the “orders” are in fact the realization of this analogical imagination, a conceiving of architecture, like existence and life itself, as proceeding according to a pattern whose unity emerges from a series of individual parts with their own measure, scale, and proportion even as they provide the same to the whole. The whole and the part interpenetrate so completely that one cannot be conceived or understood without reference to the other except to the distortion of both, and it is contemplation, rather than abstraction, which by its very nature avoids this dichotomy. Here space and time become the locus for the unfolding of the relationship between the finite and the infinite.

Musically, it is symphonic.

It is the unique contribution of Christianity that this precise response to any attempt at a reductionist abstraction is “analogized” at the very heart of faith. For the scandal of the Incarnation demonstrates the choice between the universal and the particular, the abstract and the concrete, the finite and the infinite, action and contemplation, essentia and esse, to be a false or illusory one.

Theologically speaking, this is evidenced in that any reductionism of what Hans Urs von Balthasar terms the “concrete universal” Christological form results in heresy, for it cannot be abstracted except to its distortion. The Christological form is not primarily an appeal to our “rational faculty” (ratio) as in abstraction, but rather to our entire imagination (intellectus). Recognizing this, the reception of the Christological form by our imagination, and subsequent imitation, constitutes the heart of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, as we are called to put on the “noia” of Christ. This is achieved through grace by calling the imagination to proceed according to a proportion (analogically) through the entire procession of Christ’s life—words, silences, deeds, image—as it is presented in the Gospels.

This contemplative procession ultimately reminds us that every point of the finite is open to the infinite. And if the two can and do fully interpenetrate, then the old maxim that art imitates nature (in the analogical sense) can be more profoundly understood and restated as art imitates grace perfecting nature. The role of art thus becomes a visual safeguard of gratuity over and against every functionalism or reductionism or essentialism, a continual reminder that everything is gift, and that our every response should be one of gratitude (for art is essentially a response of gratitude for creation arising from a love of beauty). It is here that sacred art and architecture are called to bear specific witness by calling the individual and the community to a universal act of gratitude in the imitation of the Christological form through the highly personal, specific, ritualized form of the liturgy.

For sacred architecture, the analogical imagination reveals that the premise of our gratitude and the ground of our liturgical action is our creaturely-ness, and the recognition that it is only through this finitude that we come to the infinite. All theology, all imagination, all prayer, for which the liturgy is the source and summit, must begin with that simple realization: “I am not God, I am not my own creator, I did not create the world.” Proceeding according to the analogical mind, the scholastic dictum called the “analogia entis,” formally defined by the Fourth Lateran Council, posits that no matter the similarity between Creator and creature, the dissimilarity remains greater. Thus, there must be a balance between unity and difference expressed in sacred architecture, and yet a difference which is overcome not by a unity that destroys our nature, but one that elevates and perfects it while allowing each to remain “other.” Because this unity does not destroy our nature or work outside of it, only an architecture whose forms reinforce and “imitate” the way we experience reality according to our nature as a unified pattern of diverse relationships, or a proper event structure, can draw us into that which their forms are attempting to express. It is only here that we can fully participate in the continuation of creation that makes us at home in the world because it is a world created according to the nature of man as God’s image and likeness. This balance is finally, intelligibly achieved when the architecture leads us not into conceptual truths and abstracted ideas, but rather into a state of simultaneous intimacy and distance proportionate to the relationship between Creator and creature which is experienced as reverential awe—when we are not grasping God, but being grasped by him.

For architecture, and by extension for the fine arts, this means that abstraction by itself cannot fully manifest the Christological form given to the world. In the end, such abstraction represents either an escape into, or a limited correspondence with, the top of the head, and thus it can only give the world half a Christ—the half without his heart. In the tradition of St. Ignatius Loyola, it is the analogical imagination typified in “contemplation” rather than “abstraction” which should guide the architectural imagination if such an imagination seeks to extend and transform the Church in the image of Christ and the world rather than their abstraction.

Featured Photo: Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels (Los Angeles, CA); Joe Wolf; CC-BY-ND-2.0.

[1] William Lynch, SJ, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960).


Joel Pidel

Joel Pidel practices architecture in New York City.

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