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Online Edition - Vol. VI, No. 5: August 2000
Sacred Space: Rediscovering the Tradition

Reviewed by Denis McNamara

Reconquering Sacred Space: New Catholic Architecture for the New Millennium. Eds. Cristiano Rosponi & Giampaolo Rossi. 1999: Rome, Il Bosco e la nave. 151 pages. Paper. Illustrated. Price: $29.95 + $5 shipping. (US distributor: New Hope Publications, 3050 Gapknob Rd., New Hope, KY.)

Reconquering Sacred Space is a first of its kind -- a contemporary catalog of new traditional Catholic church architecture and arts, something the architectural world has not seen since before the Second World War. Though not without weaknesses, Reconquering Sacred Space will no doubt prove to be an important work, a book that chronicles a rediscovery of the traditional approach to church building, presenting it as real, feasible, and important.

Reconquering also reveals that a critical mass of qualified writers and architects has been reached and their work brought together for the first time, suggesting that the renewal of traditional church art and architecture will be lasting and substantial.

The International Exhibit

The book grew out of the International Exhibit on Liturgical Architecture held in Rome late in 1999, with sponsors from four nations. Written with side-by-side Italian-English translations, the work includes ten essays on liturgical architecture and three photographic sections that chronicle the traditional Church architecture of the late twentieth century and its place in the fabric of cities.

The authors approach traditional architecture from the standpoint of thoughtful practitioners, historians, and theologians who address particularly current and timely issues in Catholic church design. They present no cowardly retreat into the past, but well-reasoned, carefully constructed commentary. They address not simply what is or was in architecture, but what should be.

"Culture of Hope"

Giampaolo's Rossi's essay, "The Christian and Art: Towards a Culture of Hope", opens the work by bringing John Paul II's theology of faith and reason to bear on the arts. Like Pope John Paul II, Rossi asks all involved in ecclesiastical design to overcome the despair and nihilism of the twentieth century and restore faith to architecture. He states in a public and scholarly realm the idea that a growing number of the faithful have found increasingly apparent: it is, in fact, necessary to restore the good things lost in recent decades of church design. Rossi admits that in a world full of choices, "Christian identity will be lived like an intentional desire and less like cultural data" (p. 13). Architecture will follow the same pattern, with church architects making conscious, active, and participatory choices about giving back to the Church a connection to its own tradition.

The other essays establish fundamental principles of church design. Duncan Stroik writes passionately of the need to use architecture to highlight those things that are important in a church, asking for special emphasis on the sanctuary. Stroik refutes the functionalist mentality, asking clients to see church architecture as more than an efficient building for praying. He promotes designs that attempt to make buildings worthy of God's Liturgy, an approach de-emphasized by many recent architects who have sought "efficiency" as a primary goal.

Identifying problems, fads

One of the book's most intriguing essays comes from architect Camilian Demetrescu. The author minces no words, opening his essay with the line: "To speak of sacred architecture today, to a Church which is crushed, humiliated and degraded by the ignorance of its symbols, by the painful alienation of the remaining iconography, drowned in the schemes of disembodied abstraction, is equivalent to turning a knife in the wound" (p. 53). Demetrescu follows with a fascinating and substantive piece dealing with the alignment of churches, their symbolic relation to the cosmos, and the history of solar orientation in worship. The symbol of the church as an ark, a refuge of holiness in a sinful world, joins with another fascinating discussion of the symbolic value of portals, procession, and the cultural importance of symbol in general.

Demetrescu argues that one should seek out the most fundamental authority for ecclesiastical architecture in revelation and the genuine development of knowledge through history. Given the immense and deeply layered levels of meaning which Demetrescu describes, the shallow and seemingly arbitrary fads of current-day liturgical "environments" appear sadly inferior.

Demetrescu's essay demands careful reading, and if his ideas were to be put into practice, a salutary revolution would occur in new church design.

Relevance of classical architecture

Most of the book is made up of annotated photographs of church projects. The photos begin with the Basilica of Saint Eugenio in Rome, a classical church of the Roman tradition completed in 1951. Its basilican plan, travertine marble façade, symbolic ornamental program, and high-quality materials stand the test of time quite well and provide evidence that traditional design belongs in our century as much as any other. This simple inclusion instantly shatters decades of Modernist claims concerning the supposed incompatibility between the classical tradition and a twentieth century allegedly defined by machines and industry.

Images of new church projects fill most of the work, and certain designs stand out in their scope and quality. Several important examples are institutional buildings, among them the Franciscan Monastery of Our Lady of the Angels in Alabama and Thomas Gordon Smith's Seminary of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Nebraska. The striking design and color rendering for Michael Imber's Chapel of Our Lady of Corpus Christi has already found its way into many advertisements and announcements for the book.

Each of these commissions shows an architect using sophisticated design, substantial materials, knowledge of proper use of traditional details, and beautiful and appropriate proportions. These projects' dextrous use of traditional design makes one hope that our era may be close to reaching both the high standards and creative inventiveness shown by traditional practitioners of the first half of the twentieth century. These works show no evidence of the inappropriate overlay of historical motifs common to much that comes under the heading of "postmodern" classicism; instead they reveal a mature, developed understanding of classical principles.

Standout designs

Standout designs include Santiago Hernandez's 1995 Church of Blessed Josemaria Escrivá in Rome, a very sophisticated design in a somewhat severe, stripped classicism which exhibits high quality craft, substantial and appropriate proportions, and recognizable ecclesiastical typological features.

Duncan Stroik's All Saint's Church in Kentucky shows another excellent solution to the question of tabernacle location and prominence. His sanctuary offers a free-standing altar covered by a baldachino, with a large and well-designed tabernacle. The tabernacle appears from the body of the church to be resting on the altar, thereby visually joining the two related objects while leaving the altar free for current liturgical practice. The tabernacle serves double duty as well, since it remains visible from both the main nave and a small adoration chapel behind, uniting the Eucharistic presence in both the Mass and in reservation.

Other strong designs include Quinlan Terry's Brentwood Cathedral in the United Kingdom, which displays a knowing use of classicism. Duncan Roberts' Gothic church for Portland, Oregon shows a traditional mode used appropriately, where structure, function, proportion, and able handling of detail and symbolism work together to make a pleasing whole which reveals the status and use of the church building. Anthony Delarue's Corpus Christi Church in London, England likewise rises to a high standard of design and craft, with its tabernacle in a small chapel behind the altar.

Fortunately, more good designs fill this book than can be addressed in a review, both for new churches and for sensitive and beautiful renovations, the latter illustrated in Saint Mary's Church in New Haven, Connecticut and the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Matters of Modernism

Reconquering Sacred Space is not without flaws, however. Some of the designs are weak or are theoretical projects waiting for clients. Others stay a little too close to literal historical models, giving ammunition to Modernist architects who claim that a revival of tradition is simply aping the past.

Therefore, not every church in Reconquering Sacred Space should be emulated. Some of the essays make questionable assertions. One makes claims similar to the some of the fallacious ideas of older liturgical architects by writing: "It is the celebrating assembly that produces and moulds the architecture of the church" (page 41). The same author also warns readers to avoid "past styles which are today unsuitable and obsolete" (page 38).

Perhaps the greatest weakness of Reconquering Sacred Space is its apparent haste in production. Many of the images are of poor quality and the Italian translations into English are embarrassingly bad at times, not only in lack of readability but also in basic grammar and spelling. Several of the translated Italian essays are so difficult to understand that they are almost unreadable.

Not least, one might question the title of the book. "Reconquering" sounds, to American ears at least, a bit harsh for what is, in fact, more a rediscovery of that which is good in design than a reconquering of anything, particularly things sacred. This book is about buildings, good design, and theological appropriateness.

Beneficial effect

The book's flaws admitted, Reconquering Sacred Space accomplishes two critical things for the cause of traditional church building. First, by bringing so many new projects together in one visually rich source, it questions the still commonly-held belief that traditional ecclesiastical designs cannot be built today, that congregations cannot afford them, and that post-Conciliar liturgy mandates certain stylistic choices. The book makes it clear that traditional Catholic architecture is not only possible, but also actually being employed in Europe and the United States.

Second, Reconquering Sacred Space brings architects and professional contacts who offer traditional work, thereby providing a valuable source book for committees and pastors as well as other architects. The book will provide for clients a set of visual models which make clear that rediscovering sacred design can take a built form at once contemporary, traditional, practicable, affordable, and appropriately Catholic. The book will certainly have a beneficial effect on American church design, one badly needed and gladly welcomed.

Reconquering Sacred Space proves an accurate representation of the state of the ecclesiastical architectural profession today, with all of its unevenness and variety of skill levels. Nonetheless, it proves a very important foundation for future work, a critically important first step toward rediscovering how to make brick and stone and steel rise to a sacramental level, so that material things may manifestly represent the spiritual realities of the Church. The hope is to make each church building be not only useful and appropriate, but also an architectural Te Deum for the world to hear with ears and heart.

Denis McNamara, an architectural historian and past contributor to the Adoremus Bulletin, will be teaching at the new Liturgical Institute at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago this fall.

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