The Cresset
A Review of Literature, Fine Arts, and Current Affairs
Current Issue   books   poetry   archive   main site
The Great Concourse
Martin E. Marty

The psalm prescribed for the week in which we dedicated Valparaiso's Center for the Arts included these lines:

Thy procession, O God, comes into view
the procession of my God and King into the sanctuary
at its head the singers, next come the minstrels, girls among them
playing on tambourines,
In the great concourse they praise God. Ps. 68:24

The word "concourse" near the end serendipitously matched the theme that came to mind when I first visited the Center. Weeks before the dedication my spouse and I undertook a reconnaissance mission and visited the Center, hoping to find it deserted so we could snoop unnoticed. Instead we happened to have hit a night when it seemed that all of Porter County was there; it almost all was. This was an occasion in which the university was demonstrating hospitality to leadership in its environs and showing how user-friendly to town and gown the building was. Several hundred people were criss-crossing the Guild Lobby-Commons, libating, conversing, and in some cases recognizing and welcoming us.

That first impression carried over on dedication day when thousands gathered, and on several occasions since when a meeting on campus provided a chance for me to make a house-call and see how the building was doing. Each time I took careful note of the structure, its arrangements, and the goings-on. What I have just described here is a version of the phenomenological method: one uses sophisticated naivete to notice what has not yet been described or charted. As one senior pastor told me, his curate, decades ago: "Write down everything you see in the congregation the first six weeks; you will never see so clearly again." Certainly the architects, contractors and users in the Valparaiso community see and know things that these my first impressions could not grasp. But the first sizing up left notions that remain.

For instance, the bricollage: people bumped off each other as serendipitously as billiard balls might, or got juxtaposed as accidentally as the psalm text and my previously chosen theme at dedication time did. They bumped into each other, almost randomly. Marge Piercy: "Nothing moves in straight lines but in arcs, in epicycles, in spirals and gyres. We take a little here and give a little here and we change." That is supposed to happen on a campus, and especially in the face of drama, music, and visual arts of the sort that find a home in this Center.

What made this epicycling possible? Naive sophistication said, at once: the great concourse of this building. The kind of humanist who reads city plans and building plans, choreographic charts and musical scores as readily as literary texts, for raw material, I asked to see the drawings for the Center. It was clear, this was designed to be as it was also practically called, the Guild Lobby-Commons, but as it will ever be in my mind, a Great Concourse. Dimensionally great it is: What a waste! What a waste of space and Guild money—squandered in a practical world, as is art, or worship, or spikenard.

Not having matriculated at Valparaiso, but having courted there at mid-century and spoken and met there in many winters since, I join the company of those on the windward side of lake-effect snow in celebrating great enclosed space, especially space that has on its horizon the Resurrection Chapel that is to be the core and heart of the University. In warm climes where a campus looks and feels like summer camp the concourse can be out of doors. There space for arcs and epicycles, spirals and gyres and bumpings into, or melding of crowds for theatre, art, and music, is relatively inexpensive. One might as well make room for people as for more parking spaces. But in our bitter zones, where the weather is conducive to indoor life in libraries, laboratories, or other purposeful spaces, it is important to have a sheltered concourse, as this Center provides. At intermission of concerts and plays one can bump into people enjoying another art, or just hiding from the elements.

"In the great concourse they praise God." And let us now praise famous men, and generous women: the Guild, who provided for the concourse, the luxurious necessity that gives life to the rest of the building and makes discourse possible. They paid for it, so they can name it, as in "Lobby-Commons." But we are free to think of it as the Concourse.

Why this choice of terms for a single act of reflection? The space is, after all, a functional adjunct to a building that is what Le Corbusier would have called a machine for music, art, and theatre. In other buildings on other scales it would be called the mud room, the entrance hall, or, for the lofty, the anteroom or antechamber, the vestibule or the foyer. Perhaps insofar as and because the University has a Christian intention it could even have been called a narthex. But my visit to a dictionary discourages that:

Narthex: a vestibule or portico stretching across the western end of some early Christian churches or basilicas, divided from the nave by a wall, screen, or railing, and set apart for the use of women, catechumens, penitents, and other persons.

If those names would not do, neither would the word lobby, unexplained. My colleague Neil Harris has studied lobbies in movie palaces and hotels, places that, like the Center's concourse, dazzle, but have dazzling as their main object. The lobby was to serve "to shelter, briefly, for purposes of convenience," and thus to include toilets and, often, an "area of assignations." Next, try porch? That connotes mosquitoes and noisy neighbors. So, we come back to a concourse, a hall that dazzles. One pictures people like me who come from other campuses to attend events and see the building, then comparing this concourse with others. We visitors from collegial colleges will feel a bit like the Queen of Sheba (I Kings 10):

When the Queen of Sheba.. .came to Jerusalem with a very large retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones; and when she came to Solomon, she told him all that was on her mind .... When the Queen of Sheba had observed all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built [with its great concourse?—M.E.M.], the food of his table, the seating of his officials, and the attendance of his servants, their clothing, his valets, and his burnt offerings that he offered at the house of the Lord, there was no more spirit in her. [NRSV] [REB: "She was overcome with amazement." NAB: "She was breathless." NJB: "It left her breathless."]

So she said to the king, 'The report was true that I had heard in my own land.. .but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. Not even half had been told me.. .'

Whereupon Sheba did what most visitors to the Valparaiso Center may not have done, but will not be discouraged from doing. She gave the king gold, spices, and precious stones. Seven dollars instead will get you a good ticket most nights.

The psalmist and we chose "concourse," so it is in place for us to reflect on the choice of terms.

Why concourse? There are, first, linguistic and biblical reasons. Psalm 68:24's usage is a hapaz legomenon—look that up; it has to do with the fact that it appears only here in the Bible— bemaghelot, probably a "feminine singular of the Phoenician type" in "the most difficult and obscure of all psalms." Probably it was used for a special assembly of the congregation in Israel.

Again, why concourse? The dictionary gives more reasons. A good architect plots buildings with people in them, unlike architectural photographers, most of whom prefer to picture the new buildings abandoned, sepulchral. A concourse, before it had come to mean a building, is a bemaghelot which means "the running or flocking together of people: the condition or state of being so gathered" "a crowd, throng;" "the running or flowing together of things." Not irrelevant here is definition 6b: "esp. in theology," there is a reference to "the divine concurrence in human action." Too bad that delightful use has to be marked "obs. rare." Not at Valparaiso, one hopes. Concourse is also the "act of flocking, moving, or flowing together," as in watercolors, chorus lines, and chords.

As time passed, the concept of people got concretized in concrete and stone and wood, as "church" and "synagogue" can refer to people and, by analogy, to the buildings they use. So, concourse is part of a building. Notes the Oxford English Dictionary, some usages suggest "an open space or central hall in a large building." My etymological dictionary says that concourse offers the sense of an open space through which many people pass, as in a park, boulevard, or railroad station," as this was first recorded in 1862 in American English. The word was used in railroad stations, as train-riding senior seniors among us may remember, and now one hears of concourse over airport public address systems. Go to the "C Concourse" may be the advice for United flyers at Chicago's O'Hare. In concourses the assembly folk run across, bump into, pass by, pass among, encounter at random, others. So: "A place where crowds may gather, esp. by chance coming together."

Why concourse? Add theological reasons: for the praising of God, which is what gallery-and theatre and recital hall- and element-ducking students and others can do in various ways. As Christians, they are aware of what happens to all creation and creativity because of "divine concurrence in human action" among Jesus Christ, the first-born of the New Creation, and all those of us who live in old and new creations alike.

Why concourse? There is some risk in featuring such a space, as it can be a distraction in a Center for the Arts. Because the arts are born not only in public encounter but in solitude, in the fire of the lonely soul, the madness of the at times introverted, almost frantic zealot called a composer, an artist, an actor. This building also includes studios and cells and carrels, since much creation requires distance for the one who creates. Thus, on writing, a line on my study door, from Franz Kafka:

To be a writer means to open oneself up beyond all measure—far, far beyond the utmost sincerity and devotion, which people in ordinary life think of as self-abandonment and from which they therefore recoil as long as they are sane, since after all everyone wants to live his own life . Such sincerity and devotion are far from sufficient for being a writer.

Superficialities of this kind may enter into one's writing when there is nothing better on hand, when the deeper founts are silent, but they mean nothing and they collapse the moment a true feeling causes this ground to give way underfoot. That is why a writer cannot be sufficiently alone, why silence is not silent enough for him, night is not night enough. . .

"A writer cannot be sufficiently alone." Nor can a composer, an actress memorizing lines, a flutist in the studio next to a percussionist. A dancer rehearses dancing, alone, until there is blood in his toenails, for art. The last words we have from Michelangelo are a note to his assistant: "Draw, Antonio! Draw, draw, draw!" Alone. An actor rehearses a line of Shakespeare or David Mamet until impatience leads him to burst out with semi-Shakespearean, thoroughly Mametian, expletives.

Still, and again, concourse: Not all of the life of the humanist, the artist, the patron, or the visitor is or is to be lived alone. The dancers interact and interweave. Symphonies that demand many performers come forth from isolated composers. Actors interact. Artists "show" and eavesdrop on gallery-goers. The concourse suggests the need for them to join and be in the communion of artists, the company of collegians, the audience of townspeople. Novelist Stendhal: "one can acquire everything in solitude except character." Not literally: you cannot, for example acquire choral perfection in solitude. But we know what he meant. We are dependent. We are social beings. We are part of a people before we are personalities. In concourse.

Why concourse?

"In the great concourse, they praise God." The Center symbolizes the global outreach, the bumpings-into-each-other that music and art often offer where speech cannot. The Center shows a consciousness of region and locale: northwest Indiana, for example. (I hope readers elsewhere are working all this out analogously, for their campuses and areas.)

For this campus, I did research before dedication day by reading in VIVARTS an interview with then-Dean Philip Gilbertson that captured this idea well:

We will be able to foster a greater community among students and faculty working in arts areas [in contrast to working in "six facilities, dislocated and all inadequate.] The alliances and conver­sations generated by this shared space will naturally encourage more integrated and innovative public events, combining various arts, and expanding our ideas about expression and creativity. And of course a new facility will play a role in community building for the campus at large and the city and surrounding areas."

Or, from an interview with Loren Ahles:

From the very beginning, when we looked at three or four alternatives, I think all of them had the idea of a central public space as a fundamental ingredient. They all took on different morphologies, but that was the basic organizing principle. . .I hope that place, not the lobby, per se, but I hope the building will have soul when you're in it, and you will understand that you're in an arts building on a university campus. . . .The building, the arts building itself, pays some homage to the chapel in its siting, its public space relative to the chapel. . .I think it gives prominence to at least the quasi-public or semi-public elements of the program: the museum, the audience spaces, the theatre, and the recital hall. Yet during the normal day to day life on a Wednesday afternoon it will still be an academic building, and you will sense that.

Dean Mark Schwehn and chair John Stephen Paul were quoted in the AACU's Liberal Education: "The students have taught faculty members again and again that the pleasures of friendship and the pursuit of wisdom are bound up deeply with one another," and they need space to develop the friendship ingredient in arts and learning. And the local Post-Tribune got it right, in anticipation: "The large lobby and commons area will likely be the place students will spend time talking, reading, and relaxing." This cloud of witnesses all had the concourse notion clear.

Why concourse? At Valparaiso or at any campus that values faith, especially Christian faith, there is the sense of responding to and counting on "divine concurrence in human action." This is a catholic school: 'catholic' connotes not only something global, as in catholic=universalis, but also something deep and penetrating, as in catholic=kata-holos, going through "the whole." The school has a Lutheran heritage, which accents the way the finite is capable of bearing the infinite, and in which the partial and broken and errant artist or audience member also becomes a co-creator and imaginer. "Divine concurrence in human action," thanks to the incarnation of God who honors our human race by being one of us, licenses creativity. And there is to be awe, as in the sanctuary, under the Holy Spirit, before the bush that will not be consumed and, by analogy, in front of the canvas, the baton, the footlights.

One hopes that some of the creativity that inspired Sheban breathlessness for most who saw it the first time, and that also represented a very practical place for human concourses on all the days since, will reappear in all the usages of this space in years to come. And, one hopes, serves as an example for other campuses that set out to honor what Valparaiso does. In that case, there is one more reason to crowd the concourse for praise in the face of "divine concurrence in human actions," like paying for and building and using places like the Great Concourse of the Center for the Arts.

Copyright © 2014
Valparaiso University
Privacy Policy
rose