Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Church designer's work praised, condemned, but never ignored

Hailed by his admirers as a creative force and reviled by his critics as a “deconstructionist,” the Rev. Richard Vosko labors in the idyllic minefield of religious architecture and design.

Although his work has been known to elicit swoons, traditionalists tend to regard his ideas as iconoclastic. For them, the mention of his name in association with a church renovation or construction project is synonymous with trouble, and many have mounted campaigns to protest his plans for churches in communities around the country.

At the same time, however, Father Vosko's work has been singled out for national recognition. His renovations of St. James Cathedral in Seattle and the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville have won awards, as has his design of Toledo's Corpus Christi University Parish, where he spoke Tuesday night.

About 300 people turned out to see Father Vosko as part of the parish's spring lecture series. After his presentation, he withstood several challenges and even was heckled as a “con man” by one listener, but his supporters rose to defend him by praising his work or simply asking him to elaborate on his approaches to church design.

Father Vosko, a priest based in the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., has been a religious building designer and consultant in the United States and Canada since 1970. Among his current projects are the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles and the renovation of San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas, the oldest Catholic cathedral in the United States. In addition, he has worked in the Jewish community as a consultant on several synagogue projects.

He believes strongly that places of worship affect how people pray and is a strong advocate of seating arrangements that enhance participation in communal worship. In general, he favors seating arranged around a focal point, whether it is a Christian altar or Jewish bimah.

During his lecture, which was accompanied by a slide presentation, he said that the church building and art and architecture are not the most important elements in the process of designing a worship space. Rather, he said, “It's about finding out about who we are and where we're going.”

Father Vosko said that in designing worship space, art and architecture are mere helpmates that can aid as well as hinder the process. “Art and architecture are not containers for ritual objects or even people; they are not places where God dwells only, but metaphors that put us in touch with a particular story.”

He said worship spaces should reflect the movement implicit in a spiritual journey or search for the sacred, the mingling of groups of people coming together, the memory or story they keep alive, and the way they imagine heaven or other spiritual realms.

They also should incorporate the notion of a threshold so that people entering the worship space experience the shedding of cares and a sense of passage and transformation. He said Corpus Christi, a church built along busy stretch of Dorr Street across from a bustling university campus, does this by offering those who enter a sense of refreshment as they pass into the worship space, which features a baptismal pool flanked by images of modern-day saints.

With the Corpus Christi project, Father Vosko was charged with designing a completely new facility for a parish community that, accustomed to worshiping in rented campus facilities, was sympathetic to and appreciative of his artistic sensibilities.

There was no tabernacle to move, no cross to redesign, and no altar to relocate. What emerged was a cutting-edge contemporary design with moveable chairs arranged around a moveable altar, cross, and lectern set atop a labyrinth in the floor.

During his lecture, Father Vosko praised the design, saying that the circle as a place where people can mingle is a powerful symbol, as is the labyrinth. He also likes the church's moveable wooden cross which he described as a “powerful totem that puts us in touch with that which can be.”

Father Vosko defends his ideas about church design by attributing them to the Catholic Church's teaching that lay people are to be active, conscious participants in worship. “This is not a show the clergy do for us; it's something we do together,” he said.

Churches and synagogues are not museums, but places for the ritual activity of communities, he said, adding that he questions to what extent a building for community worship should be set aside to honor the private prayers of individuals.

When he is asked to advise a parish on redesigning an existing worship space, he said, “Sometimes you have to strip away things ... that get in the way, things that are just habits.” But he claims that in working with a parish, “I don't insist on a lot” and that all final decisions are left to local committees and bishops.

Asked how inner-city parishes could get their European-style buildings to reflect the experience of the current inhabitants, many of whom are African-American or Asian, Father Vosko said he would recommend that such communities begin to fill their churches with stories and icons of their own. “You need professional help to do this in a way that is aesthetically satisfying,” he said, but over time, new icons should be incorporated to reflect the group inhabiting the building.

In response to another question, Father Vosko said he thought the decline in Catholic belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or communion, since the 1960s, could be traced to the way the concept is being taught rather than to a trend toward relocating church tabernacles, which house the reserved communion bread, from the main altar to ancillary chapels.

Father Vosko's apparent preference for a coat and tie over the Roman clerical collar was challenged by one questioner who addressed him as “Mr. Vosko” and expressed his dislike for the priest's taste in church art and architecture, which he said does not reflect Catholic traditions.

Although Father Vosko did not respond to the challenge, he later ended his presentation with a quotation from Pope Celestine I that he said he carries with him at all times: “We [the bishops and clergy] should be distinguished from the common people by our learning, not by our clothes, by our conduct, not by our dress, by cleanness of mind, not by the care we spend upon our person.”

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