Oct 15, 1997

The Roots of Modernist Church Architecture

Online Edition

Vol. III, No. 7: October 1997

The Roots of Modernist Church Architecture

by Duncan Stroik

"The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her own…. The art of our own times from every race and country shall also be given free scope in the Church, provided it bring to the task the reverence and honor due to the sacred buildings and rites".

­ Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 123

"If you wish to see great Modernist architecture you must have plenty of time and your own Lear jet".

– Robert Krier

To many educated observers, it would seem that the reductionist buildings commissioned for Roman Catholic worship today are the direct corollary of Church teaching, modern liturgical studies and contemporary theology. Of course, if that were so, Modernist architecture would be the officially sanctioned style of the Church and difficult to criticize.

Indeed, in the 1960s after the Vatican Council, there was a great surge of construction of austere churches which often resembled commercial or factory buildings, bearing out the belief that they were mandated by the spirit of Vatican II.

But these concrete boxes, barn-like shelters and sculptural masses all had precedent in the pre-conciliar era. In fact, radical new church configurations had been experimented with since the dawn of Modernism in the late 19th century. The idea to model churches on auditoria, Greek theaters, large houses, or theaters in-the-round grew out of low church Protestant worship, whereas the reductionism of post-Conciliar churches grew out of the Modernist architectural movement in Europe. 

Modern Theology and Modernist Art

This is to point out that current church architecture is not merely the child of modern theology, it is also a child of the "masters" of Modernism: Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and others. The Church willingly accepted and even adopted the architecture of the secular realm for its sacred buildings. Yet in promoting this "International Style", did the Church unknowingly adopt the philosophy of Modernism and unwittingly undercut her own theology?

First of all, it is well understood that the philosophical basis for Modernist architecture can be discovered, like her theological cousin, in the French Enlightenment and German rationalism. What is also of note is the parallel between the architecture of the Protestant Reformation and the iconoclastic architecture at the end of our century.

In the Reformation, Catholic churches were stripped of statuary, paintings and traditional symbols. New churches were designed as "meetinghouses", as if going back to early Christianity when believers met in each others’ homes. Architecture, having lost its ability to signify the sacred, became seen as merely providing for the assembly’s material or functional needs. The concepts of the church as auditorium and theater in the round derive from early Calvinist buildings which were designed to enable people to see and hear the preacher, such as at Charenton, France.

Modernism was particularly attracted to the auditorium and theater types because of their scientific claims to acoustical and visual correctness, as well as the belief that the form of a building should be determined by its function.

During the Reformation, destruction of altar, tabernacle and sanctuary was commonplace, and often a pulpit or baptismal font replaced the altar as a focal point. The theological proscriptions against images and symbols in the Reformation were taken up by the Modernists in the 20th century, becoming a minimalist aesthetic requiring austerity and the absence of images.

The Need to Break with the Past

An essential tenet of Modernism at the turn of the century was the need to break with the past, in order to find a national architecture or an "architecture of our time".

In accordance with Hegel’s philosophy, buildings were seen as a reflection of the spirit of the particular age in which they were built, and therefore distinct from previous epochs or styles. This was confirmed by the belief in "modern man" who because of his uniqueness in history required a unique architecture, preferably scientific, progressive, and abstract.

It was made clear by the early promoters of Modernism, such as Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Otto Wagner, that any semblance of historical elements or styles was not of our time and must be rejected.

At first this rejection of tradition took the form of subtracting or abstracting traditional motifs in buildings. Later, inspired by non-objective painting and sculpture, Modernist architecture sought to end the distinctions between floor and ceiling, interior and exterior, window and wall, and sacred and profane, which architecture has historically gloried in. 

Technological Triumphalism

Aesthetically, Modernist architecture was inspired by works of engineering including bridges, industrial buildings, and temporary exposition halls which were large, economical, and built fast. An essential paradigm was the machine: Swiss architect Le Corbusier claimed the plane, the boat, and the car were models for a functional architecture. Just as a plane was designed efficiently for flight, so a house was a machine for living in. Just as the anthropological, spiritual, and traditional aspects of domus for dwelling and raising a family were stripped away in the "house as a machine for living in", so would ritual, icon and sacrament be purged from the "church as machine for assembling in."

Drawing on the writings of Viollet Le Duc and John Ruskin, it was alleged by the historian Nicholas Pevsner and others that the modern age required not only the use of modern materials such as steel, glass, and reinforced concrete, but that they be visibly expressed in the building as well.

It was also argued that a modern style grew out of the use of modern materials and that these materials lent themselves inherently to a reductionist aesthetic. This was partially a critique of the ongoing construction of masonry buildings such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, being built in the 20th century, as well as many chapels and churches built by architects in Classical or Medieval modes.

In fact at the same time Auguste Perret was building a Modernist concrete hall-church in Paris, Ralph Adams Cram and others were building Gothic and Renaissance churches of reinforced concrete (at West Point and in California) complete with ornament, moldings and sculpture. Not unlike the ancient Romans who used concrete hidden within the walls and domes of Classical buildings, early 20th century traditionalist architects brilliantly used the most current technology of construction, heating and plumbing, all within a humanistic aesthetic. 

Churches as Abstract Sculpture

While the majority of Catholic churches built in the US before 1940 were traditional in style, many Protestant, Unitarian and Christian Scientist congregations experimented with industrial building forms.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple of 1904 is a cubic auditorium with geometric and floral ornament, while "der liebe Meister", Louis Sullivan, designed St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in 1914 as an abstracted Roman theater.

In Germany in the late 1920’s, Otto Bartning designed Evangelical churches-in-the-round of glass and steel and concrete with limited icon-ography and articulation.

Dominikus Bohm followed his lead by designing a number of expressionistic Catholic churches, including St. Engelbert, a circular building complete with parabolic shaped ceilings.

Rudolf Schwarz also designed Catholic churches using abstracted geometries and the flowing space of the "International Style."

Schwarz and Bohm were both associated with the liturgical movement in Germany and produced abstract spaces for Catholic worship long before Vatican II. After World War II, the Modernist movement was embraced world-wide as an expression of the technological triumph of the war. Many pastors followed the lead of government and big business by building abstract, asymmetrical and futuristic churches in modern materials.

In France, for the rustic church of Notre Dame at Assy, Dominican Father Pierre Marie-Alan Couturier commissioned fifteen of the best known Modernist artists to make murals, tapestries, mosaics, and stained glass.

Also under the patronage of Father Couturier, the French architect Le Corbusier designed perhaps the two best-known churches of this century: the pilgrimage church, Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp (Figs. 1a, 1b) and the Dominican Monastery, Ste. Marie de la Tourette (Fig 2).

Le Corbusier made it very clear from the beginning that he was not a religious man and undertook the projects because he was given freedom to express his ideas within an open landscape. Ronchamp is the epitome of the church as abstract sculpture and was likened by Le Corbusier to a temple of the sun.

La Tourette, on the other hand, is a severely orthogonal building with a tomb-like concrete chapel and a cloister that can not be used.

The monastery had many problems, including a high incidence of depression due to its prison-like cells and oppressive spaces which forced it to close. (For a time it became a retreat center for architects).

Father Couturier, believing that all "true art" is "sacred art," argued that it was better to have a talented atheist making Christian art or designing churches than to have a pious artist who was mediocre. This premise was the opposite of the historic view of the church as a "sermon in stone," a work of faith by architect, parish and artisans.

For Father Couturier, the church building was no longer seen as a teacher, minister, or evangelist but rather as a functional space for assembly. Likewise, the architect was no longer an inspired co-creator; instead, his work became a conduit for his own personal expression and of the "spirit of the age". 

Liturgical Progressivism

It is noteworthy that other than Wright in the US and Aalto in Finland, few of the Modernist "masters" were interested in designing churches or synagogues (Le Corbusier refused other commissions). Part of the belief in "modern man" was that religion was something unscientific, and hence churches were irrelevant to contemporary needs. While most of the Modernists came from Protestant backgrounds, the majority were atheists or agnostics. Exceptions were Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen, whose churches can be seen as sublime objects, yet when imitated by others the originals lost their iconic power.

The Benedictines in the US were the equivalent of the Dominicans in France, being great patrons of Modernist art and architecture, as well as being liturgically progressive. At Collegeville, Minnesota they hired Marcel Breuer, originally of the Bauhaus, and at St. Louis they commissioned Gyo Obata, designer of the St. Louis Airport, for new abbeys (Figs. 3, 4). These buildings were sleek, non-traditional, and critically acclaimed by the architectural establishment.

Contemporary with these buildings, the documents of Vatican II were being developed. The chapters pertaining to the arts, though brief, are poetic, inspiring and alive to the artistic tradition of Catholicism. However, in spite of the intention by the Council to reform and recover liturgy, particularly early Christian liturgy, there was little interest shown by architects in the recovery of early Christian architecture.

The Council’s acceptance of the styles of the time and rejection of limitation to any particular style can be seen as a careful opening of the window to Modernism. The architectural establishment, by this time thoroughly cut off from its historical tradition, came in like a flood. A few architects and designers such as Anders Sovik, Frank Kaczmarcik and Robert Hovda made an effort, following Schwarz and Couturier, to argue for a modern architecture imbued with a Christian theology. Basing their views in part on the studies of liturgical scholars, Jungmann, Bouyer, and others, they promoted a "non-church" building emphasizing the assembly, without hierarchical orientation, fixed elements, or traditional architectural language.

These architects’ rejection of most of Christianity’s architectural and liturgical development, coupled with their promotion of an abstract aesthetic, seemed to baptize, confirm and marry Modernism to the Church.

These principles of modern liturgical "spaces," later embodied in the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy document of 1978, "Environment and Art in Catholic Worship", are essentially the iconoclastic tenets of 1920s Modernism. 

"Deconstruction" of Modernism

Ironically, at the same time that the Catholic Church was reconciling herself with Modernism in the early 1960s, the architectural profession witnessed the beginning of a serious critique of Modernism.

Architects Robert Venturi, Louis Kahn, and Charles Moore, in their buildings and writings, proposed a new/old architecture of memory, symbol, and meaning, spawning what became known as the "Post-modern" movement. They also inspired the work of numerous other architects including John Burgee, Michael Graves, Allan Greenberg, Philip Johnson, Thomas Gordon Smith, and Robert Stern, who willingly embraced humanistic urban planning and a variety of architectural styles.

While allegiance to the Modernist style continues, many of its philosophical beliefs have been questioned and criticized during the past thirty years. The preservation movement, repentant Modernist architects, along with architectural historians and structural disasters, have exposed the limitations and failures of Modernism.

The liturgical design establishment, on the other hand, has barely acknowledged the critique of Modernism and continues to promote Modernist revival or even "deconstructionist" church buildings, as witnessed in two recent international competitions, one for a new church in Rome, the other for the Los Angeles Cathedral. 

A Vital Tradition — Back to the Future

While most architects trained since World War II have a limited background in classical-medieval architecture, there is an ever-increasing number of architects all over the world practicing in traditional aesthetic languages, as well as a number of architecture schools teaching humanistic alternatives to Modernism.

Of great inspiration to architects, pastors and laity alike are the chapters in the Catechism of the Catholic Church devoted to the Universal Church’s teaching on sign, image and the church as a visible symbol of the Father’s house.

In recent decades we have seen a number of new or renovated Catholic churches which express these aims and those of Vatican II through the restoration of sign, symbol and typology. These include the renovated St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, the renovated Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, the parish of San Juan Capistrano in California, Immaculate Conception Church in New Jersey, St. Agnes in New York, and Brentwood Cathedral in England.

These and other buildings indicate that the future of Catholic architecture will go beyond the narrow confines of the Modernist aesthetic to the broad and vital tradition of sacred architecture.

Duncan Stroik, a frequent contributor to the Adoremus Bulletin, is Chair of the architecture school of Notre Dame University and founder of the magazine Sacred Architecture.

Copyright 1997-2007 Adoremus Bulletin and Duncan Stroik.



Duncan G. Stroik