"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Orthodox Architecture in North America: An Interview with Nicholas Denysenko

I count it a great gift to have Nick Denysenko among my friends. I have happily interviewed him on here over the years about his many books, and 2017 must be something of a record for him insofar as he has two coming out this year.

He has recently moved from the so-called city of angels (who are, after all, the lowest-ranked in the celestial hierarchy) to the state of Indiana where, it is reported, the dominions and thrones, if not exactly the cherubim and seraphim, are sometimes inclined to take their annual holidays. So he's moved up in the world, or at least to the Mid-West, and that allows me to bring him to town next year to lecture on his book Christmation: A Primer for Catholics. I interviewed him about that book here. You can read other interviews here and here.

So now to the first of two books coming out this year: Theology and Form: Contemporary Orthodox Architecture in America. It is a fascinating study, and just the sort of scholarship that makes this academic life all worthwhile: a serious, sustained look across a number of disciplines to see what stories they tell. Since studying Jane Jacobs more than twenty years ago, I have had an amateur's fascination with buildings and street-scapes, and the messages they convey, the agendas they have, and the stories they try, sometimes badly and sometimes well, to tell. So Nick's newest book is especially interesting as he ranges quite literally across the country to many and very diverse buildings and communities, looking at their architectural design, iconography, and underlying theology, seeking to analyze the stories those buildings tell, and the communities of which they are a part.

Following my usual practice, I e-mailed him some questions, and here are his thoughts.

AD: What led you from books on Theophany, Chrismation, and liturgical reform to now architecture? Are there links between all these works?

ND: In the earlier studies, I encountered several references to seminal studies on the Byzantine liturgy and architecture. I was particularly intrigued by the evolution of Byzantine liturgy and the relationship between the 'cathedral' and 'monastic' liturgical types. As I examined the literature, there seemed to be a consensus that the received tradition of the Byzantine rite could--and should--be celebrated in any given space.

To be honest, it was a series of personal experiences that inspired this study. In 1997, I participated in the consecration of St. Katherine's Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Arden Hills, Minnesota. Again, in 2008, I served at the consecration of the Orthodox Church of St. Matthew in Columbia, Maryland. The time I spent in these parish communities permitted me to experience the process of planning the building of Church complexes. There were so many factors contributing to the desired edifices that were outside of liturgy. Certainly, raising the needed funds was a major factor in both cases, but there were also questions of parish history, architectural models of the past, and the unique mission of the individual parishes in comparison with other Orthodox parishes in the area. These factors came to be inscribed on the actual architecture, and it occurred to me that Orthodox architecture in America just did not conform to the principle of form following function. So, I decided to look at a sample size of parishes to learn more. The outcome taught me a lot about liturgy, but even more about the mosaic of Orthodoxy in America.  

AD: Your introduction notes the common assumption that "architectural form follows liturgical function" but a little later suggests that your research has uncovered other "factors contributing to the architectural design besides liturgy." Were you expecting to find this when you set out on this project, or was it a surprise? And of those other factors besides architectural design, is there one that stands out as the most important? 

I was expecting to find other factors contributing to architectural form. In my study, I identified a handful that stood out: cultural memory, liturgical renewal, and mission in an American context. I think one could synthesize these into a more general factor that contributes to architectural form: the local community's core values.

AD: You've got six chapters focusing on seven different buildings and communities across the country. How did you choose these? 

I was familiar with most of the communities in one way or another. I decided to examine Annunciation Church in Milwaukee because of its unique history, and the story of the building of the Church really pushed my imagination, because it was clear to me that the architect was considering elements that weren't really a part of the community's vision.

In my reading, it was apparent that including Holy Virgin Cathedral (ROCOR) in San Francisco was absolutely necessary. The community has a longstanding reputation for fidelity to liturgical tradition, the iconographic program is truly extraordinary, and the community's new identity as the home of St. John Maximovich added a new dimension, because so many pilgrims come to the Church for veneration of his relics and prayer.

I added Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir's Seminary because it was a good opportunity to consider liturgy and architecture in light of Alexander Schmemann as the preeminent father of liturgical renewal in America, and Fr. Alexis Vinogradov as a practicing architect who designed spaces for multiple communities with a vision for Orthodox mission to America in the background.

The Church of the Holy Wisdom at New Skete Monastery was a special opportunity to see how an Orthodox monastery used liturgical scholarship to construct a building hosting a liturgy founded upon the cathedral tradition. I had also served in a handful of Orthodox missions, and had reflected at length on the significance of mission communities worshiping in non-traditional spaces.

Finally, Joy of All Who Sorrow mission in Culver City was a wonderful way to examine all of these issues in a mission context. I'm particularly pleased with the outcomes of the study, because some of them were surprising.

AD: All seven are Byzantine Orthodox temples. Was that deliberate? Were you tempted at all to look at the theology and form of, say, Armenian or Coptic churches--or even Byzantine Catholic ones? 

Yes - I had planned on an ecumenical volume to enhance the dialogue and make comparisons across traditions. My interest in ecumenical dialogue prodded me to include Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant traditions. Practical considerations led me to limit the study to Orthodox churches, and in this sense, the comparisons were somewhat "apple-to-apple." It certainly would have been fine to include Byzantine Catholic congregations as well, or Oriental Orthodox communities. I see no reason to exclude the possibility of a follow-up article that might examine a variety of Churches in a particular urban, suburban, or rural region. One could learn a great deal about the way diverse congregations in the same region negotiate the economy, politics, environment, and demographic patterns.

AD: You note repeatedly the role that immigrants and immigration played in shaping Orthodox architecture and communities in the US. Among those diverse groups--Ukrainians, Greeks, Serbs, Russians and others--are there commonalities in their experience and in their shaping of their churches? 

Yes, absolutely. I think the most important commonality--or to return, again, to the notion of a "core value"--is continuity. The outcomes are not alike, but the rationale is the same. For example, Holy Virgin Cathedral values continuity of liturgical tradition and fidelity to the ordo established by its founders and primary figures.

St. Katherine's values continuity in establishing programs and spaces devoted to sustaining cultural identity. The core value of passing on beloved traditions that symbolize identity features is a hallmark of immigrant groups, which is one reason the secondary and tertiary spaces of the properties are so important. These spaces are devoted to the non-liturgical and they exist because they're important to the people. For example, the bandura showcased in the museum at St. Katherine's is placed prominently to promote the connection between life here and in the Ukrainian homeland. The same is true of the original iconostasis at Annunciation Church in Milwaukee, in a different way: the iconostasis marks the progression of the community through its generational history.

AD: In addition to the immigrant experience, you also repeatedly note another significant factor shaping architectural decisions: extra-liturgical usages, such as food fests or community events. Tell us a bit more about this factor. 

It is so convenient to put this topic aside and focus only on the liturgical space. It's irresponsible to ignore it, though, because the community also gathers in these non-liturgical spaces, and the people's use of the space discloses the vitality of the community. In Byzantine circles, we tend to refer to such gatherings as 'liturgy after the liturgy'. For some people, this 'liturgy after the liturgy' is coffee hour. For others, it is the liturgy of daily life. I think there is an important point to explore here, and that is the matter of strong, poignant life experiences that occur in non-liturgical spaces.

For example, I recall several community gatherings that contributed to my formation that occurred outside of Church and worship. Liturgy was never the only part of the community's gathering. There were lectures, meetings, sporting events, concerts, picnics, and classes that took place in the other spaces of the Church community, and these encounters were real, meaningful, and formative.

Our mutual friend Michael Plekon, in his book Uncommon Prayer, demonstrates the power of encounter and engagement in his narrative about making pierogies at St. Gregory the Theologian Orthodox Church in Wappingers Falls. These experiences are formative and we need them: there is a certain vitality to meaningful exchange with people outside of the liturgy that is fed by liturgy, and also contributes to it. I'm not trying to undermine liturgy here, but to show that the non-liturgical spaces of a community tell us a lot about the parish profile, if we would just pay attention to it. When we learn that the parish hall is occasionally larger than the church building, we re-examine our assessment of parish life.

The same principle can apply to a parish that is in the process of planning its property. Let's say that parish devotes an ample amount of space to something non-liturgical, like a food shelf, or for more ambitious communities, a retreat center. Those spaces would have the potential to become fixtures of the local neighborhood and create relationships with the surrounding community that make the parish a true neighbor to the people who live there. Parishes that have the courage to think like this have a strong sense of a pulse for contemporary Christian mission.

AD: Popular discussions of church architecture and design almost invariably include a comment about pews. In the communities you surveyed, was the question of pews ever a question for them, or were they just assumed to be part of the American ecclesial landscape? 

The question did not come up, although I have heard it in mentioned in casual conversation about interior Church space. I do think that pews give us an insight into the arrival and establishment of Orthodox communities in America. On one hand, parishes that adopted pews adapted to the larger local liturgical culture. You could think of an Orthodox Church with pews as conforming to organic development, Orthodoxy acclimating to the local cultural conditions.

On the other hand, pews are foreign to Byzantine liturgy: they constrict space for ritual movement. And they're uncomfortable, at least in my opinion. When the discussion about pews becomes a liturgy war, we need to step back and consider the practical issue at hand. We're talking about seating. An appropriate seating arrangement should be part of every interior church space, and that arrangement needs to honor the need for ritual and devotional movement, and provide an opportunity for people to sit. As for the parishes in my study, the seating arrangements varied. Some have pews, others have chairs, and others have open spaces in the nave with no seating for ritual movement with chairs or benches in the rear for those who need or choose to sit in church. There is no resolution to this debate: on this matter, liturgical pluralism will continue to prevail in America.

AD: Of the seven churches you focus on, do you have a favorite? If so, why?

I have a sentimental attachment to St. Katherine's in Arden Hills because my grandfather was the pastor of the community for eighteen years, and I spent my childhood there. I also sense that St. Katherine's captures the journey of Orthodox people in America: a parish established by immigrants moves to the suburbs and builds a temple based on the model of Kyivan baroque. When I'm inside the church at St. Katherine's, I see room for new icons on the walls of the temple. Will thee future icons continue to honor the heritage of the Kyivan Church? Or will the new icons join the living in prayer with North American saints? So for me, St. Katherine's illuminates the opportunity to understand the unique challenges of immigrant communities to cultivate parish life for several generations to come.

All of the parishes in my study inspire me in some way. Holy Virgin Cathedral is an iconographic wonder and a true liturgical center. St. Matthew gives us a sense of how the Orthodox Church might adapt to contemporary conditions. New Skete sheds light on liturgical creativity. I could go on, the point being that each parish has something to offer.

AD: If a community currently renting a school or community hall were to hire you as a consultant on the design of a new church building complex, is there one piece of advice you'd give them as the most important thing to keep in mind? 

I don't think I can reduce this list to one item, so I'll try to prioritize. The first item is probably the most obvious, but it's worth repeating: sustainability over a long period of time. Communities need to be honest with themselves about what they CAN do, and this requires avoiding the temptation to build a massive edifice because "if we build it, then they will come." Communities have to face the realities of our current world: people are more mobile than ever, and children will move for employment, so no parish can simply count on the next generation continuing parish life apace. Plan a realistic structure the community can actually sustain over the course of multiple generations. It's not necessary for the founders of the structure to run into the courtyard shouting "I have outdone Solomon and Justinian!" Don't build an edifice emphasizing verticality for the glory of God; design a church that inspires the people to glorify God. If your community is fortunate enough to outgrow its space, don't fret--just encourage people to build a new church in a neighborhood that has space.

The second item I'll mention here is mission. How will your community carry out its mission? Larger communities with generous benefactors might consider how they can witness to the people in the neighborhood. We need more parish communities that offer education, service to the community, food shelves, and a space in which the parish interacts with the neighborhood in normal fashion. Perhaps a larger community might have a retreat center with rooms or even a restaurant that invites the public into the space hosted by the Church. Smaller communities can take on humbler approaches that are equally powerful: the point is to build a space that makes contemporary mission in America possible. And that mission is to be a good neighbor to all in our local neighborhoods.  

One bonus item for consideration: how can a community modify a space to make it truly appropriate for worship when options are limited? Orthodox missions in America are constantly confronting this issue, and the textbook answer is to simply take the received Byzantine rite and fit it into that space. But I wonder if there is room for a new creativity, especially when some communities accept the fact that they're never going to purchase land and build, and that a parish community can be vibrant without owning property? We don't know what is coming to us over the horizon.

Two years ago, I heard a fascinating presentation by Stephanie N. Gilles, who is working closely with the Catholic Church in the Philippines to design quality worship spaces in shopping malls. Her work is not a gimmick or a fad: it is a reality driven by limited real estate and the need for the Church to find a suitable place for liturgy. In our context, some people might grumble about the lack of financial support to buy property and build a Church. It could be that the lack of finances for building is offering a more meaningful opportunity: for the Church to gather and worship in non-traditional spaces, and to learn how to witness through those spaces.

AD: Having finished Theology and Form: Contemporary Orthodox Architecture in America, and undertaken some significant changes in your life recently, what comes next? What projects are you at work on now? 

I am currently in transition. This Fall semester, I am taking on a research fellowship at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota, where I will be examining Greek and Slavonic liturgical manuscripts. I hope to learn something new about the blessing of waters on Theophany and to focus on the history of liturgical offices appointed to the fifth week of Lent in the Byzantine tradition.

Additionally, I'm finishing a book on the religious identity of the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine and am writing a new book titled "The People's Faith," a close look at how Orthodox laity in America understand and experience the liturgy. I'm also preparing for a new position: I have been appointed as the Jochum Professor and Chair at Valparaiso University in Indiana, effective January 2018.

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