Monday, July 4, 2016

Old North Church: a modernist prototype?

What is modernism?

Typical architects' responses:

"Clean lines."

"Spatial fluidity."

"Pure geometric form."

"Clear distribution of parts."

"Little or no ornamentation."

"Honest expression of structure."

"Natural light from large windows."

"Exterior expresses interior functions."

"Load-bearing columns yield open space."

Photo by Adavyd, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Oddly enough, all of the above characterize Boston's Old North Church, though it hails from an era almost 200 years before any of the above could cross anyone's mind. After all, brick, wood, stone and slate were the available building and finishing materials, and Georgian was the design model. Yet Puritanism put a check on the ornamental excess of the kings of England.

Photo by Victor Grigas, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
And this is evident the moment we enter Old North. What greets us is not a hefty eyeful of cherubs, scrolls, leaf-moldings, rosettes, frescoes and statues, but a lithe dance of arches, vaults, lines, squares and slender columns that clearly reveal not only the church's structural system, but also the thinking behind the purity and simplicity.

In the name of the Anglicism with which Henry VIII had declared his independence from the Catholic church, Old North's designers and builders forswore the ornamental indulgence that characterized the abbeys, basilicas and cathedrals of European Catholicism for a clean back-to-basics feel that followed Massachusetts' established Puritan aesthetic, blended with the lowliness of North End residential architecture, and saved money to boot.

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