Saint Vincent, Reflection on the Mystery of Place
A student or visitor to Saint Vincent campus has often remarked to me about a feeling of peace that comes by stopping to reflect in a favorite spot. My favorite is the graceful row of crosses that mark the monks’ resting place in the cemetery. A view of the sprawling campus from that special sanctuary evokes a symbolic and mysterious presence, and provokes in me the deepest level of feeling.
My first visit to Saint Vincent was in 1964. I have vivid recollection of coming to Saint Vincent in order to interview as part of the selection process for the architect who would design a new monastery building. Just a year and half before, a disastrous fire had destroyed most of the monks’ living quarters. Many questions flooded my mind as I was escorted through a maze of corridors and spaces. What is going on in this place? How can a monastery, a college, a parish, and a seminary all relate to each other? Is there a unity of intention? What is the fundamental attitude that I as an architect must grasp and express in the design of a new building? Does this environment help develop an awareness and a sense of caring about what a person sees and feels in this world and how one acts in this life? Should the new building be an affirmation for action, or simply a refuge from the world?
Over a period of thirty years as an architect and planner, I have come to recognize and appreciate the great diversity of people and interests that make up the Saint Vincent community. Monks and laypersons, young and old, men and women, students, faculty, administrators, and craftsmen with diverse interests science and religion, art and architecture all exchange ideas as part of their daily routine. A rich architectural heritage underlies this diversity. Some of the buildings which exist today were constructed by monks over a century ago with bricks made by their own hands. One senses in the architecture of those early days a simplicity of intention and a commitment to create an honest, humane environment.
I knew that the character of all new construction would have to respect and be in harmony with the authentic spirit of this heritage. For example, the new science complex, completed in 1969, could not be in conflict with the character of the basilica, completed in 1905. No conflict between the old and the new; no conflict between science and religion. Through intense interaction with many people over the years I have discovered that Saint Vincent is a human energy center, a motivating force through its people and its environment, inspiring both reflection and action. There is recognition that our world is incomplete, and often threatened by violence. In the face of this reality one senses the fundamental attitude of affirmation. Saint Vincent is not a place of despair or cynicism. It is a place of hope.
What is the responsibility of an architect in the Saint Vincent environment? First of all, planning and design must be in harmony with the spiritual affirmation of hope. There must be a natural, effortless integration of the new with the old. New spaces must be sensitive enough to preserve, yet bold enough to proclaim. A respect of diversity, a respect for land and sky and trees. Not a mindless destruction to achieve short-term goals that will gradually impoverish the human spirit. The architect must take the bold risk of defining, enclosing, protecting, and creatively building so as to enable people to celebrate the Good and to dance without restraint. Only in this way will the people who experience the mystery of this place have confidence in themselves, and thus hope and build in the face of the incompleteness and the violence they will encounter.
As an architect whose life-vocation is to study how environment can enrich the lives of people, I have been privileged to participate in creating the ambiance of the Saint Vincent campus. New spaces are carefully woven into the fabric of the community and encourage one to live a centered life. Architecture offers a cultural bridge to expand human experience. It provides an atmosphere for a kind of astonishment that occurs when one discovers a new thought, a new view, a new space. Perhaps even a moment of illumination occurs and the need to share the secret of discovery, which then becomes a shared possession. A love of place. A love of being. There is a spiritual exchange when one is affirmed by the ambiance, and one in turn is inspired by the ambiance to affirm. In this way, learning becomes fundamental inspiration.
The architecture of Saint Vincent is part of a unique cosmos that heralds a declaration of life taking creative possession of space. It is a call to share in the world’s making to enhance what exists by the sheer power of one’s presence and action. We are in awe of the mysterious truth that every woman and man is called upon on the foundation of their own life, understanding, suffering and joy to create and to build for us all.