By Brandon Sanders
Brutalism: It was a word with which any student attending St. Paul’s in Madison would become intimately acquainted; This concrete-bunker of a structure would become my parish home for the four years I was in medical school (the bare gray walls of the basement greatly facilitated my preparation for medical boards). I was initially aghast at its austerity in comparison with the Polish Cathedral style parish I grew up with, it lacked the warmth of the wood clad ceiling of the Newman Center I attended in college; but with time I grew to appreciate that within its radical design, was a profound emphasis on the liturgy.
Age had not been kind to the structure, and a demand for space, the growing urgency and need for repairs (and at least to me, the abysmal acoustics) finally lead to exploration and planning of a new church and student center. What was only a hope when I was a student, has recently become a reality and the new St. Paul Catholic University Center had its Mass of dedication on November 12th, 2017. Gone is any trace of concrete, brutalist aesthetics, or antiphonal seating. The plaza is now dominated by a red brick structure with a mosaic of Christ and Mary on the front. It is an undeniably warmer space, a more familiar architectural language, and very obviously, a church (a claim the former building could never make), and I am sure it will serve the community of St. Paul and the parish very well in the coming years. However, the new design evokes some interesting observations.
The exterior of the church dominates the space, conveying a certain Catholic exceptionalism and dominance over the nearby Lutheran and Presbyterian churches. The interior leaves me feeling even more conflicted. The space does not reflect the time, place, or the people that this building is intended to serve. The design is mostly neoclassical and Eurocentric, and the human depictions are predominately Caucasian. The space is adorned with disharmonious decorum; a Byzantine Pantocrator hovers over a replica of the 16th century Sistine Madonna. The focus from the nave seems to the Madonna rather than the ambo or the altar (there actually appear to be two altars). Finally, having not been in the space myself, I can’t say with certainty, but it also seems as though the sanctuary is not ADA accessible.
I offer these observations not as a condemnation of the new building, but because I think we must ask ourselves some difficult questions about the identity and messages that we want to convey through our architecture. Does this space suggest a reverence for tradition, or is it a self-referential yearning for an ahistorical past? Is the church ultimately European in its character and culture or global? Who is the church? Does it include our Protestant neighbors through our common baptism, communities of color, or the disabled? Are we a church that engages with the present and looks towards the future, or bound nostalgically to the past?
Brandon Sanders is psychiatrist at Hines VA Hospital and Psychiatry Resident at University of Illinois College of Medicine. He sang in the National Catholic Youth Choir in its founding year in 2000.