Nov 15, 2004

The Wisdom of Hindsight

Online Edition – November 2004
Vol. X No. 8

The Wisdom of Hindsight

The Restoration of Catholic Church Architecture

[Final chapter of In Tiers of Glory]

"We must return for the fire of life to other centuries, since a night intervened between our fathers’ time and ours wherein the light was not"

­ Ralph Adams Cram

By Michael S. Rose

Tom Wolfe, in his seminal critique on Modernist architecture, begins his "From Bauhaus to Our House" essay by pointing out obvious facts that so many people are unwilling to acknowledge. Writing in 1980, he observed that every child now goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse: "Not even the school commissioners, who commissioned it and approved the plans, can figure out how it happened. The main thing is to try to avoid having to explain it to the parents".

The same can be said about the missteps and blunders in Catholic church architecture over the past fifty years. Churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike often ask the same two questions: How and why did these god-awful structures get built in the first place? Archbishop Sean O’Malley, speaking to the U.S. Catholic bishops at their national conference in 2000, stated the problem well: "All of us [bishops] have heard the comments of our people frequently, ‘this place does not look like a church’. One of the comments that is made is that there’s a certain suburbanization of the heavenly Jerusalem that has taken place".

Architectural Culture Wars

While many Church officials and patrons are still intent on erecting testaments to their own existence, some prominent architects in both North America and Europe are emerging with critiques of contemporary secularized churches. With the wisdom of hindsight, many are waking up to the fact that the 20th-century experiment with church architecture was a monumental failure. Yet the acolytes of experimentation keep pressing forward. The result is a sort of architectural culture war.

Liturgical Modernists — they typically embrace architectural Modernism too — are especially distressed by the growing ranks of architects who are embracing the rich history and patrimony of church architecture and building traditions. Michael DeSanctis, associate professor of Fine Arts at Gannon University and a leading light in the contemporary archi-liturgical movement, takes the tradition-minded architects to task. In an editorial published in the National Catholic Reporter he calls them "blatant opportunists", "the stodgiest of antiquarians", "recyclers of architectural fashion", and "paranoid and self-righteous Pharisees". He condemns their desire to build upon the rock of history and to eschew the Modernism that has turned church architecture into a carousel of formal experimentation.

The "traditionalist" architects, from Allan Greenburg and Thomas Gordon Smith in the United States to Francis Roberts, Anthony Delarue and Quinlin Terry in Britain, are simply asking a pertinent question: How can a sense of the sacred be recovered in Catholic church buildings? Part of the answer, they respond, is a return to the emphasis on the "iconic" nature of building form. In layman’s terms, that means the form of the church building has meaning beyond itself; it refers to God, the Church, and her sacraments — i.e., a return to the church as a "vessel of meaning".

In projects such as Duncan Stroik’s chapel for Thomas Aquinas College or Anthony DeLarue’s Corpus Christi Church in Hertfordshire, England, coherence and unity are hallmarks of these buildings, which are designed using the patrimony of Classical and Medieval architectural languages. Coupled with the restoration of sacred architecture is a revival of Renaissance urbanism — for example, using piazzas, the age-old element of mediation between the Church and the city.

Though it is certainly not necessary to embrace the entirety of Ralph Adams Cram’s architectural ideology regarding the role of history in the design of churches, his primary thesis still provides a helpful point of departure: "We must return for the fire of life to other centuries, since a night intervened between our fathers’ time and ours wherein the light was not".

Back to the future

Instead of continuing to lament the degeneration of Catholic church design that characterized the late 20th century, architects, priests, bishops and patrons — all armed with the wisdom of hindsight — are well-placed to learn from the mistakes and blunders of recent decades. The consequences of discarding the successful contributions of the past, both near and distant, are clear. The overwhelming evidence of the day points to the failure of an architecture based on the novelties of Modernism — theological, ideological, and architectural. Yet those involved with producing the sacred churches of the 21st century can learn from the failure of contemporary church design as well as from the noble and successful churches of past epochs.

Church architects and artists especially can draw upon the Scriptural precedents of establishing a "house of God", the adaptation of the basilica form by the early Christians, the strength and durability of the Romanesque, the transcendent philosophy of the Gothic, the order and harmony characterized by the Classicism of the Renaissance, the expressive integration of architecture, painting and sculpture from the Baroque, and from an open-minded willingness to look to the past. Without the willingness to learn from past mistakes and to study and appreciate the works of past masters, those charged with creating new sacred places will simply perpetuate the crisis in church architecture for years to come.

NOTE: Illustrations in hardcopy edition



Michael S. Rose