Iconic basilica deserves better setting

Photo courtesy of Seth McCormick


In a recent interview in Mountain Xpress (“Man With a Plan,” Oct. 21), Todd Okolichany, Asheville’s new planning director, was asked about his views on developing the city-owned lot across from the Basilica of St. Lawrence. His response demonstrates a clear lack of vision.

Okolichany speaks about parks and sidewalks becoming an “extension of our private spaces” and advocates “uses that recognize and support that function, like sidewalk dining.” In blurring the distinction between public and private space, he makes the annexation of the former to the latter seem acceptable, even inevitable.

He also talks about the need for development to “respect” historical architecture, as if architectural landmarks were an obstacle to development rather than an asset. This ignores the vital role played by architecture all around the globe in identifying and defining cities in the digital age.

Alongside great people (which Asheville has in abundance), great architecture is the single most important social, cultural and economic asset a city can possess. A city that allows development to encroach upon and obscure its architectural landmarks is a city that, to the visiting tourist or “lifestyle investor,” has no visible past — and its tourism and hospitality industries have no future. What will prospective visitors see first when they search the Internet for information about Asheville? A downtown skyline swarming with cranes and clogged with bland, corporate, high-rise condominiums and hotels? Or, alongside images of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the historic Biltmore Estate, photos of a unique architectural treasure framed by the view from an adjacent park, just as Biltmore’s grandeur is enhanced by its surrounding gardens?

In an age when tourism and investment dollars are directly linked to the results of an image search on Google, it’s not enough for a city to possess great architecture: It must also possess great views of its architectural landmarks. If there’s no space for a photographer to set up her tripod in order to capture that iconic image of the full height and breadth of the Basilica of St. Lawrence, it will disappear from public view, and Asheville will simply be one more 21st-century city without a past, a city whose shiny new amenities — restaurants, hotels, breweries, museums — will seem like castles built on air. Without a secure foundation, those castles will crumble, and so will the livelihoods staked upon them.

The foundation of a city is its community of residents. There can be no hospitality for guests without a community to host them. But a community’s foundation is its history. And when it’s rendered invisible, the soul of the community dies, to be replaced by a mass of isolated individuals and their short-term interests. Life and work become zero-sum games in which common goals are sacrificed to private ambitions.

It wasn’t the zero-sum games of city politics and city planning that brought the Spanish-born Rafael Guastavino to Western North Carolina in the 1890s or that led him to retire here. As an architect, it’s unlikely that he would have elected to settle in a place whose city planning showed no regard for architecture. And if Guastavino hadn’t chosen to remain here, he would never have partnered with fellow architect Richard Sharp Smith to design and build the basilica.

Why is the Basilica of St. Lawrence a landmark? It is said to contain the largest freestanding elliptical dome in North America, spanned by a vaulting system of Guastavino’s own invention. The patented “Tile Arch System,” a uniquely lightweight, stable and self-supporting structure composed entirely of interlocking terra-cotta tiles and mortar, required no centering (wooden bracing) during its construction. It was not only beautiful: It was efficient and economical. This accounts for its extraordinary influence and popularity throughout the United States. Prior to Guastavino’s invention, this country had boasted few public structures with arched vaulting, a construction technique more commonly associated with Gothic cathedrals and the great architectural monuments of the ancient Roman world. Today, Guastavino vaulting is featured in some of the most famous examples of beaux-arts architecture in the U.S., from the Boston Public Library to New York City’s Grand Central Terminal and Carnegie Hall.

Of still greater significance, from our present standpoint, is the symbolism of Guastavino’s achievement. Guastavino tile belongs not only to the history of architecture but equally to the history of craft. It represents the fusion of traditional handiwork with modern industrial technology and mass production techniques. Its “invention” was actually the rediscovery of an ancient Mediterranean construction technique originally developed by craftspeople, not architects.

This technique was already thousands of years old by Guastavino’s time, but it had fallen into oblivion, because it was associated with the dwellings and folkways of ordinary people rather than the palaces of the elite. Guastavino himself was more construction manager than architect, more entrepreneur than engineer. For a city in the heart of Western North Carolina, a region whose economic development has depended on both the construction industry and the rich traditions of Appalachian arts and crafts, there could be no more fitting monument than the basilica, with its seamless integration of art and industry, innovation and tradition.

If Guastavino is nonetheless remembered as an architect, it’s because he was something akin to the Frank Gehry of his age, a visionary who fused vernacular and traditional forms with cutting-edge technology. The Basilica of St. Lawrence was his Guggenheim Bilbao, bringing landmark architecture to a geographically isolated city whose very survival depended on tourism. His construction techniques are still studied today at places like MIT, where professor (and MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner) John Ochsendorf has created a website (architecture.mit.edu/class/guastavino/about.html) devoted to Guastavino’s work.

Who will be Asheville’s Guastavino of the 21st century? Perhaps, in a city whose architectural jewels are set off to advantage by the natural splendor of their surroundings, there will be many Guastavinos, each inspired to contribute to its continuing cultural and economic development.

Or perhaps there will be none.

Seth McCormick is an associate professor of art history at Western Carolina University.


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7 thoughts on “Iconic basilica deserves better setting

  1. Hauntedheadnc

    It’s been noted before, but is worth noting again: If the massive Brutalist wart of the civic center, directly across from the street from the basilica, did not destroy its setting, neither will a structure with an attached plaza across the street from the basilica. For that matter, when the St. Justin center was standing directly across the street from the basilica, that did not destroy its setting despite the fact that it blocked more of the view of the church than any new building with a plaza would.

    • The Real World

      Good grief, this whole ‘park for the Basilica meme’ has become such a yawnfest!

      The worshippers are definitely guzzling some potent kool-aid…..they’re so far into thinking whatever happens is actually a BFD. (okay my bad, for not realizing it’s actually some wicked 420 producing these obsessive views). Well, their meetings must be fun anyhow.

    • Tom Williams

      The frontal façade of The Basilica of St. Lawrence is of symmetrical design. It is best viewed at a distance directly in front of the portal. That is where there is a “sweet spot” to view the entirety of the structure and from. From that piazza location, one could also see, Battery Park Hotel, The Grove Arcade, The Asheville Civic Center. It is also a prime sites, to still see bits and pieces of the skyline from a downtown street level. Even The BB&T and Akzona Buildings have a plaza space in front of them. To compromise that spot is entirely short sighted. Think of the space in front of Buncombe County Courthouse and Asheville City Hall. Would we better served with a park there or another hotel? Don’t blow this opportunity of a lifetime. Have a vision for the future before it is too late. Save the skyline of the Land of the Sky.

      • hauntedheadnc

        Tom Williams, can you explain why a plaza attached to a building of some sort (and please note that the building need not be a hotel; it could just as easily be offices or residential space) would not offer an adequate framing and view of the church?

  2. NFB

    “Would we better served with a park there or another hotel?”

    Once again this is a false choice. It is NOT either/or. It is not either a par or a hotel yet the backers of a park continue to frame it that way. Why do so many of them continue to insist on this intellectual dishonesty?

    “Have a vision for the future before it is too late. ”

    Perhaps that vision of the future might include to people of that future and not burdening them with the cost of years of maintaining a park. I am not flat out opposing a park but thinking of the future can mean many things.

    Honestly, sometimes I think park supporters have just decided to wear everyone else down with their obsession through exasperation, by ignoring the most pressing problems Asheville has (five words: rapidly accelerating affordable housing crisis)and by repeating the same mantra (hotel or park) no mater how many times they are told this is not the choice.

  3. Architecture Maven

    The writer is correct. Whatever building the city and its private partners construct across from the the basilica should itself be an architectural gem to match the masterpiece status of the church. Instead of a park across the basilica, let’s advocate for “another architectural gem across from an existing architectural gem.” The way the H.H. Richardson church in Boston’s Copley Square is reflected in another masterpiece, the iconic Hancock Building, is a perfect example of a solution that’s right for Asheville. That’s something that I.M. Pei tried for with the way the Biltmore Building reflects the former Pack Library, now Asheville Art Museum. “An architectural gem across from an architectural gem.” A new meme.

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