The Archivist’s Nook: The Brutal Archives

1920s CUA Brochure to Prospective Students from the CUA Archives Photographic Collection Ca. 1887-1999: Box 71, Folder 7.

The construction of a Brutalist building at The Catholic University of America marked a departure from the existing architectural style previously seen at CUA and it was a departure from original conceptions of the growth of the university taking shape in a form that resembled a medieval village.

How did this shift in architecture challenge the ideas of public space? Was it a social experiment that was well suited to the academic environment?

I recently chatted with Eric Jenkins, a Professor of Architecture at Catholic University’s School of Architecture and Planning to get the answer to this question:

It was very expressionist; a lot of architects in the 70s were not concerned with making a typical campus, such as Yale, with its unified and orderly sense of space; they were concerned with making a modern statement” This modernist statement was invoked in the form of Aquinas Hall, the current home of The Catholic University of America Archives and 1 of 4 Brutalist expressions currently on campus.

The grand entrance stairway consists of a set of angulated right vertices and rectilinear striations of concrete whose descent to a planular surface of alternating rectangles adds an ethereal level of depth to the viewer’s field of vision.

Washingtonians are organically familiar with the Brutalist Aesthetic, due to the ubiquity of Government Brutalism in Washington D.C. In fact, The District is home to extremely beautiful examples of the Brutalist architectural style. From the trip to work, to the work place itself, a Washingtonian’s daily routine is saturated by the atmospheric essence of Béton Brut, which can be seen in the ceilings of the Metro’s cavernous stations and seen deep within the bowels of Downtown.

Washington’s Brutalist buildings are a communique of power, impenetrability, and the performative use of materials to create a remarkable psycho-social demarcation through jarring exaggerations in building scale that coerce the viewer to process the architectural form from a macroscopic perspective, in what Professor Jenkins noted as “object-oriented landscaping, in which the building becomes a landscape object.”

The atrium central staircase is an act of paradox: an acute involution of inflexible materials around a softer hexagonal social area presenting an unusual mix of refined textiles and raw materials.

Brutalism was the Federal Government’s de rigueur style during the 1970s; but tucked away at The Catholic University of America, a new player entered the field, in the form of a quieter, more pensive expression that emerged in divergent transition to the Federal Government’s translation of the Brutalist aesthetic.

In 1965, candidates for the Master of Arts in English, at The Catholic University of America, were asked during their comprehensive examinations to ruminate on a complexly layered observation made by Mark Shorer in the foreword of Society and Self in the Novel, a 1955 treatise edited by Shorer in which he made the following annunciation:

“…the problem of the novel has always been to distinguish between these two, the self and society, and at the same time to find suitable structures that will present them together.”

The central staircase appears dramatic in the morning sunlight due to the striking contrasts created by the deep shadows of the opposing faces.

From an interdisciplinary standpoint, the ontological consideration of the parallels, partitions and implications of what is real, what is imagined, and what can become, is one of the core considerations of designing a building—in other words: how to reconcile between anthropocentricity and design aesthetics to create a unified conversation between these aspects that are at times in harmonious communication and at other times in discordant miscommunication. The design of CUA’s Aquinas Hall squares this circle because the building was not designed through a psycho-social lens but rather as a form of psycho-geographical praxis in which scale is downplayed and the viewer’s gaze is shifted to the granular level. In this context, the juxtaposition of raw, coarse, unpolished, imperfect, cacophonous materiality results in theatric, unexpected geometries.


A melodic, psychogeographic exploration of the geometry and materiality of the Brutalist home of The Catholic University of America’s Archives.

Images and video of Aquinas Hall are by the author, Juan-Pablo Gonzalez.

The Archivist’s Nook: Embodiment – Becoming the Spectacle of the Opera

Sample of Novak’s North African/Moorish/Al-Andalus image study for Lakmé

Joseph Novak was The Chief Scenic Artist of The Metropolitan Opera Company in New York City, from 1910 to 1952—an approximately 40-year tenure. His archival papers consist of a collection of artistic works and associated documents that were originally donated to The Catholic University of America’s School of Music to become a part of the Luce Library in 1976; however, the collection was housed, processed, and exhibited at the Mullen Library. The collection consists of approximately 500 sets of opera models, 100 photographs, 600 drawings, uncounted numbers of clippings, and associated documents produced by Novak. Among the many intriguing projects undertaken by Novak was his set and costume design for the 1932 revival of Lakmé —a tale of the Orient…

Embodiment: Becoming the Spectacle of the Opera.

In 2013, Gerard-Georges Lemaire wrote a compendium titled Orientalism: The Orient in Western Art. He opens the monograph with a meditative preface by Genevieve Lacambre who ponders: “Where exactly was the Orient that was so vividly depicted by the Orientalists?…we ought more accurately speak of the Orients”—a place of multiple iterations. The Orient is difficult to define because of the supernumerary of cultures that were swept up by Europe’s non-stop quest to capture the ontological essence of The East and to become the author of its authenticity. The Orient was an imaginative state, channeled by nearly the whole of Western society, across an astonishing temporal reach, in which “For over two thousand years the Orient has exercised an irresistible fascination over Western minds…” The Orient meant different things to different Western cultures and within each respective culture there was a great deal of intra-cultural variegation as to who and what were referred to as Oriental.

Orientalist art was the materialization of the push and pull between a Europe that was arrested by its profound fascination with the other and a Europe whose cultural mythos had set it diametric to the vast array of cultures that comprised world around it. These opposing energies engendered the desire to recreate other cultures through the visual arts and imposed a layer of cultural semantics through the establishment of a visual vernacular that was steeped in decadence and violence.

Orientalism penetrated the visual realm from fine art to advertising. This advertisement blends the emerging trendiness of art deco with the continuing rage for all things Oriental.

The orient was conjured by those who had visited the regions that unwillingly carried the pseudonymous “Orient” moniker and was remixed by those who had never visited beyond the borders of Europe. By the 19th century, Orientalist art entered a grotesque stage—a semiotic shift that arose in response to new geopolitical occurrences. European’s Colonial expansion had created a new impetus through which “Some of the first nineteenth-century Orientalist paintings were intended as propaganda in support of French imperialism, depicting the East as a place of backwardness, lawlessness, or barbarism enlightened and tamed by French rule.” The striking paradox of the French artist’s use of the Orientalist genre to create sociological delimitation, was that Europe’s obsession with the Orient had driven its artists into a memetic state, wherein Europe began to see itself as the embodiment of The East: the owner of its peoples, its lands, and its luxuries.  

The Metropolitan Museum of Art notes that “Male artists relied largely on hearsay and imagination, populating opulently decorated interiors with luxuriant odalisques, or female slaves or concubines (many with Western features)…” It was quite a twist, as Europeanized women began to appear as subjects in Orientalist works that were less about the patriarchal exercise of choreographing women’s sexuality and more about the prismatic renderings of whiteness and the subjugation of dark skinned persons. Whiteness had become an actor on the Orientalist stage, signifying a shift in the political attitude towards The East—from one of fascination, to one of possession and control. Darker skinned women began to be depicted as naturally born to please the European subjects in such works as the blandly titled Works Odalisque and Slave.

The desire to subvert other cultures while simultaneously consuming their artistic, intellectual, and cultural capital, in what The Metropolitan Art Museum notes as “…architectural motifs, furniture, decorative arts, and textiles, which were increasingly sought after by a European elite”, is the precarious intersection at which Joseph Novak undertook the task of creating the world of Lakmé —an operatic revival of the story of an Indian woman who viciously gives her life—and by extension her nation—in the name of Britain, embodied as a solider. According to Lakmé ’s father, the British solder is an oppressor who must be expelled from the native lands; however, the fantasy transfigures British oppression by dressing it in drag and having it masquerade as a mechanism that can grant Lakmé  love, freedom, and power.  

How did Novak imagine an Orient that would match the gravity of the vocal, symphonic, and narrative spectacles of the operatic stage? Not only would Novak need to imagine an already imaginary world, he would have to play upon these contortions to manufacture the woman who would inhabit it—the singer Lilly Pons, a European woman, would have to become the fantasy, of the fantasy, of the fantasy– a perpetual, indefatigable figure who was without a past and without a future. A mythical other—embedded in a tortuous hierarchy of somatic servitude but blissfully trapped in her prison of sensuality, luxury, and the desires of Western men for her.

Enter the World of Lakmé…

One of hundreds of photos used by Novak to develop costuming for Lilly Pons (right) as Lakmé circa 1932..

The final 1931 Lakmé set featuring the cast with Pons seated center. Bottom from the left to right: Shwe Dagon in Burma; Ruins of the Al-Hakeem Masque in Egypt; The Moorish Architecture of the Great Mosque in Cordoba; Unlabeled. The final set for Lakmé is a fusion of Moorish and South East Asian architectures.

Click here to see a Pons performing The Bell Song from Lakmé, as was featured in the 1935 movie “I dream too much.” Apart from Pon’s brilliant Coloratura performance, in which she gave the audience everlasting life, the finalized Lakmé set can be seen, as well as, extras donning clothing that appears to be a fusion of Moorish and South Asian, as is consistent with Novak’s visual studies of North Africa, Moorish, South Asian, and South East Asian peoples’ textiles.         

The Archivist’s Nook: Catholic Archives in the Digital Age – Religious Order Archives Edition

Panelists discuss the importance of religious order archives to Catholic scholarship

March 29, 2017 saw a gathering of more than 80 archivists, librarians, and information specialists working with religious order archives at The Catholic University of America to discuss the status and future of Catholic religious order archives. The conference marked the third in a series on “Catholic Archives in the Digital Age.”

The gathering began with presentations by four well-known scholars in the field of American Catholic studies discussing the significance of religious order archives in researching and writing Catholic, American, and global history. Leslie Tentler, Emerita Professor at The Catholic University of America, kicked off the day’s first panel, “For Posterity: Religious Order Archives and the Writing of American Catholic History,” with observations on the worth of religious order archives to the scholar seeking to understand basic structures of American Catholic institutions. Diocesan records cannot be used solely to tell the full story of Catholic education in the U.S., for example. Why? Many schools were run by religious orders, and where diocesan records often have little in the way of religious order records related to discipline, pedagogical ideals, student socialization and the emotional climate of schools run by religious orders—these archival materials have historically been kept by the teaching religious themselves.

Participants listen to panelists discuss Catholic Archives in the Digital Age

Carol Coburn, Professor of Religious Studies at Avila University, followed this thread in her talk—religious order records help tell a story that can’t be told otherwise. As Director of the Martha Smith, CSJ, Ph.D., Archives and Research Center at Avila University in Kansas City, Missouri, Coburn works with Archviist Adonna Thompson to preserve records of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet. Coburn maintains that “to fully know the story of American Catholicism, you have to know what religious orders are doing at any given historical time period.” As Mary Beth Fraser Connolly, lecturer at Purdue University, pointed out in her discussion of the journal of Sister Justina Segale of the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati, resources such as these offer insight into the everyday lives of religious. Sister’s journal entry for April 4, 1968 reads: “While eating dinner, a flash came over the TV that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. Only minutes later a special news report confirmed: Martin Luther King Jr., has been assassinated!” Far from being removed from the concerns and interests of everyday Americans, the journal shows, here and elsewhere, that women religious were of course tied into the daily lives of ordinary Americans. And yes, they watched TV. Malachy McCarthy, Archivist for the Claretian Missionary Archives in Chicago, Illinois, took a different approach in his talk. Using the example of a scholarly monograph on Mexican Americans, he illustrated the pitfalls of not consulting religious order records, in this case the male Claretian missionaries, who were heavily involved in ministry to Mexican Americans. In his otherwise solid Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945 (1993), historian George Sanchez was unable to access records related to the Claretians’ work with a key Los Angeles population in which the La Placita parish is situated. Instead he examined secondary works and diocesan records related to the population with the result that his chapter on religion could not include valuable information from the Claretian archives (not open to the public at the time) in his work.

Participants listen to panelists discuss Catholic Archives in the Digital Age

Our second session featured a panel of some of the most well-respected archivists of materials related to the Catholic experience in the U.S. The Associated Archives at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, Maryland is the home of a collaborative effort of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, St. Mary’s Seminary and University, and the U.S. Province of the Society of St. Sulpice, or the Sulpicians, and serves as the repository of these three organizations’ archives. Its archivist, Tricia Pyne, offered the group a genealogy of how several Catholic institutions worked to make that collaboration happen. Ellen Pierce, Consulting Archivist with the Maryknoll Archives offered an overview of holdings there, with an emphasis on the importance of producing value in maintaining archives for institutional stakeholders. Denise Gallo, Provincial Archivist for the Daughters of Charity Archives in Emmitsburg, Maryland, focused her talk on how the Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives merged records of that order from multiple locations, emphasizing the role in communications among various stakeholders in achieving optimal archival goals and visibility. Emilie Gagnet Leumas, Director of Archives and Records for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, focused on her Archive’s effort to work out temporary agreements with those institutions or individuals who may want to make short-term agreements with the Archdiocese. Finally, Patricia Lawton of the Catholic Research Resources Alliance (CRRA) at Notre Dame University gave a fine overview of the many unique services offered to the Catholic archival community by the CRRA.

The afternoon session wrapped things up with an overview of a survey of Catholic archives done by Young Choi, Professor of Library and Information Science (LIS) at the Catholic University and LIS Graduate Student Emily Nilson. Many of the issues that have plagued Catholic archives for decades continue to pose as challenges. Most collections, for example, remain hidden and inaccessible to potential users, in part because there is no information on such collections on the internet. Still, almost all Catholic archives have some web presence and staff are eager to gain training in born-records collection, digitization of materials, and to continue processing. The reportage of the results led to a lively discussion among audience members, who eagerly shared and sought out information.

The Archives will be posting a website with resources and the presentations of scholars and archivists this summer—stay tuned!

Also see:

Catholic News Service: http://www.catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2017/panel-archives-of-religious-orders-tell-history-of-us-church.cfm

The Fate of Religious Order Archives: http://www.lib.cua.edu/wordpress/newsevents/8901/

The Archivist’s Nook: Catholic Archives in the Digital Age – The Fate of Religious Order Archives

Franciscan Sister Mary Aquinas Kinskey, pictured teaching at CUA in the 1940s, received a special citation of honor from the U.S. Air Force Association in 1957 for her contributions to the advancement of air power in the interest of national security. She taught aerodynamics here at Catholic University during the Second World War.

Catholic religious orders hold a unique place in the European settlement of what is now the United States, indeed some of the earliest Catholic colonial settlers came as members of religious orders. The Jesuits, for example, founded in 1534 by the Spanish Ignatius of Loyola, was the first order to send missionaries to propagate the faith among Native Americans. Franciscans followed soon after. The record of the interactions between these two orders and the Native American populations forms an important record of the early encounter between the two groups.

Women religious, for their part, also settled in the territory that became the United States, with French Ursulines arriving in modern-day Louisiana in 1727 and Elizabeth Seton founding the Sisters of Charity (later the Daughters of Charity) in Maryland in 1809. These two orders played a unique role in the establishment of Catholic women’s presence in the U.S., and helped lay the foundations of the American Catholic education system.

Fortunately, we have well-cared for records and wonderful histories of much of the Jesuit, Franciscan, Ursuline, and Sisters/Daughters of Charity experience. But this is not the case for all religious orders and their records. Religious orders in the U.S. held different missions, locations, and administrators. Many held houses in multiple provinces and countries. As they have expanded and contracted over time, their archival records have experienced a range of fates.

Father Gilbert Hartke with a CUA student in an undated photo. Father Hartke was a member of the Dominican Order. He founded and headed the CUA Drama Department from 1937 – 1974, training and meeting many theater luminaries on the way. His papers are housed in the CUA Archives.

The Catholic Archives in the Digital Age: The Fate of Religious Order Archives Conference is the third in a series of conferences under the theme of how Catholic archives are evolving in the digital age. The specific focus arose as after the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives worked with the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart in Baltimore to preserve their valuable archives as they moved from one location to another, will address aspects of the question of religious order archives in the United States. We figure Catholic University is a great place for such a conference–surrounded by religious houses from its origins, the University has historically served as a center of education for members of religious orders from around the country.

The free conference will be held on the CUA campus in the Pryzbyla Center on March 29th, 2017 and will feature a range of scholars and archivists of the American Catholic experience and archival stewards of religious order records. For the full schedule and to register, visit the website: http://iprcua.com/2017/03/29/the-fate-of-religious-order-archives/.   The conference is generously funded by the Our Sunday Visitor Institute, and sponsored by the American Catholic History Research Center/University Libraries, the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, and the Department of Library and Information Science.