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Ten Myths of Contemporary Church Architecture

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I came across this article back in 1998. During this time I have come to see the value in "sacred spaces" and intricate art work in Church buildings. Yet at the same time I still have difficulty with "Myth No. 5" as yesterday the pastor at the church where I attend reminded us of the buzzing in the sound system. He said that it was a sign to us that it was getting old and that we needed a new one. He then said that the cost would be somewhere within the $100-190 000 range (isn't a $90 000 jump a HUGE gap???). Now I know I am viewing this through my particular Protestant lens and that I'm comparing a sound system to church architecture. But I see both as flowing from materialism manifested in the Church. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

Ten Myths of Contemporary Church Architecture

(Sacred Architecture) Fall 1998

1. The Second Vatican Council requires us to reject traditional church architecture and design new churches in a Modernist style.

This myth is based more on what Roman Catholics have built during the past thirty years than on what the Church has taught. Even by professional accounts, the church architecture of the past decade has been an unmitigated disaster. However, actions often speak louder than words, and the faithful have been led to believe that the Church requires buildings to be functional abstractions, because that is what we have been building. Nothing could be farther from the intentions of the Council fathers who clearly intended the historic excellence of Catholic architecture to continue. It is most important to keep in mind that "there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them, and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing." (Sacrosanctum Concilium)

Just as to do Catholic theology means to learn from the past, so to design Catholic architecture is to be inspired and even quote from the tradition and the time-tested expressions of church architecture. the Second Vatican Council makes this clear in stating that . . . "The church has not adopted any particular style of art as her own. She has admitted styles from every period, in keeping with the natural characteristics and conditions of peoples and the needs of of the various rites. Thus in the course of the centuries she has brought into existence a treasury of art which must be preserved with every care. 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. Thus it is enabled to join its voice to that wonderful chorus of praise in honor of the Catholic faith sung by great men in past ages." (Sacrosanctum Concilium)

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2. New churches must be designed in accordance with the document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, published by the Bishop's Committee on Liturgy in 1977.

Due to the lack of any alternative, this pamphlet has become the veritable bible for many new and renovated churches. This document, which was never voted on by the American Bishop's conference and holds no canonical weight, is based more on the principles of Modernist architecture than on Roman Catholic teaching, or her patrimony of sacred architecture. Among its weaknesses is an overemphasis on a congregational view of the Church, an antagonism towards history and tradition, and a strident iconoclasm. Because of the controversial nature of the document, the Bishop's Committee on the Liturgy is presently drafting a new and hopefully improved version.

3. It is impossible for us to build beautiful churches today.

This is a bit like saying that it is impossible for us to have saints in the modern age. Of course we can and should build beautiful churches again. We live in an age which has sent men to the moon and large sums of money are spent on museums and sports arenas. We should also be able to construct buildings of the quality of the early Christian basilicas or Gothic cathedrals. In recent secular architecture we are witnessing a great revival of traditional architecture, craftsmanship and construction. There are a growing number of young talented architects who are designing buildings in the classical tradition (many of whom would be delighted to design sacred buildings). Students at the University of Notre Dame, who are all trained in the Classical tradition, are in great demand by architecture firms and clients.

Also to the point, there are any number of churches which have been built over the past two decades which exemplify the principles of durability, convenience and beauty including: San Juan Capistrano in California, 1989; Brentwood Cathedral in England, 1992; the Benedictine Abbeye Sainte-Madeleine in France, 1989; the Church of the Immaculate Conception in New Jersey, 1996; the Church of Azoia in Portugal, 1995; the Church of St. Mary's in Texas, 1997; the Church of St. Agnes in New York City, 1997; The Pittsburgh Oratory, 1996, etc.

4. We can't afford to build beautiful churches today. The Church doesn't have the money it had in the past.

In fact, Roman Catholics are the wealthiest denomination in the country today. We have more CEO's and civic leaders than any other religious group. We have never been wealthier, yet we have never built such cheap churches. This reflects American giving priorities; from 1968 to 1995 the portion of personal income members gave to the Church dropped 21 percent. The people of God need to be encouraged to generously support the construction of houses of prayer. Bishops and dioceses should be encouraged to promote the highest quality rather than placing a cap on construction costs. The faithful should be willing to spend more on the house of God than on their own houses and build with a quality exceeding other public buildings. One story of great philanthropy concerns Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta which received a generous sum of money from a few of its parishioners enabling them to build a very elegant substantial brick Romanesque church in the early 1990's. Other parishes, in order to build a worthy and beautiful church, have taken the time to raise substantial budgets or have chosen to build in phases.

5. The money spent on churches is better spent on serving the less fortunate, feeding the hungry and educating the young.

If the church were merely a meeting place this view would be legitimate. However, a beautiful church is also a house for the poor, a place of spiritual feeding, and a catechism in stone. The church is a beacon and a city set on a hill. It can evangelize, by expressing the beauty, permanence, and transcendence of Christianity. Most importantly, the church building is an image of our Lord's body, and in constructing a place of worship we become like the woman anointing Christ's body with precious ointment. (Mark 14:3-9).

6. The fan shape, in which everyone can see the assembly and be close to the altar, is the most appropriate form for expressing the full, active and conscious participation of the body of Christ.

This myth comes out of the extreme view that the assembly is the primary symbol of the church. While the fan shape is a wonderful shape for theater, for lectures, even for representative government - it is not an appropriate shape for the liturgy. Ironically, the reason often stated for using the fan shape is to encourage participation, yet the semicircular shape is derived from a room for entertainment. The fan shape does not derive from the writings of the Second Vatican Council, it derives from the Greek or Roman theater. Up until recently, it was never used as a model for Catholic churches. In fact, the first theater churches were 19th century Protestant auditoriums designed so as to focus on the preacher.

7. The church building should be designed with noble simplicity. Devotional chapels and images of saints distract and take away from the liturgy.

This principle has been used to build and renovate churches in a most iconoclastic manner. The art historian, Winckelmann used "noble simplicity" as early as 1755 to describe the genuine work of art that combined sensual and spiritual elements as well as beauty and moral ideas into one sublime form - which for him was embodied in classical Greek art. Thus "noble simplicity" must not be confused with mere functionalism, abstract minimalism or crude banality. Sacrosanctum Concilium states that sacred art should turn men's minds devoutly toward God, and "that in encouraging and favoring truly sacred art, they should seek for noble beauty rather than sumptuous display." The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) states that "church decor should aim at noble simplicity rather than ostentatious magnificence." The concern over distraction grows out of the Modernist aversion to figural images and a desire to be didactic rather than symbolic. But GIRM states that "buildings and appurtenances for divine worship ought to be beautiful and symbolic." The Second Vatican Council states that "the practice of placing sacred images in churches so that they can be venerated by the faithful is to be maintained." The GIRM elaborates "from the very earliest days there has been a tradition whereby images of our Lord, his holy Mother and of saints are displayed in churches for the veneration of the faithful."

8. The Catholic Church should be building the most avant-garde architecture of its day, just as it has throughout history.

For fifteen hundred years, and even up until World War II, the Roman Catholic Church was considered the finest patron of art and architecture. The Church formed Christian artists and architects who in turn influenced the architecture of the secular realm. During the last half century, however, the roles have changed, and the Church has been following the lead of the secular culture and architects who have been formed in a non-Catholic world view. Whereas previously the development of Catholic architecture was inspired by and in continuity with works from the past, the Modernist concept of the "avant-garde" means progress through a continuous breaking with the past.

The Church documents ask bishops to encourage and favor truly sacred art and to imbue artists "with the spirit of sacred art and of the sacred liturgy." The present revival of interest in liturgical architecture by the faithful indicates that Holy Mother Church may regain her rightful place as the preeminent patroness. In this role she has "always claimed the right to pass judgment on the arts, deciding which of the works of artists are in accordance with faith, piety, and the laws religiously handed down, and are to be considered suitable for sacred use." Also, "bishops should be careful to ensure that works of art which are repugnant to faith, morals, and Christian piety, and which offend true religious sense either by depraved forms or through lack of artistic merit or because of mediocrity or pretense, be removed from the house of God and from other sacred places" (Sacrosanctum Concilium).

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9. In the past, people saw the church building as the domus Dei or "house of God", today we have gone back to the early Christian view of the church as domus ecclesia or "house of people of God".

Catholicism, it has been pointed out, is not a religion of "either/or" but of "both/and". In contrast, it is an antinomial view, derived from the Enlightenment, which claims that a church cannot be both God's house and the house of His people, who are members of His body. When the church is thought of merely as house of the people of God, it becomes designed as a horizontal living room or an auditorium. These two historic names, domus Dei and domus ecclesia, express two distinct but complimentary natures of the church building as the presence of God, and the community called together by God. "These visible churches are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ." (The Catechism)

10. Since God dwells everywhere, He is just as present in the parking lot as in a church. Therefore, church buildings should no longer be seen as sacred places.

This is a very attractive contemporary idea which has more to do with pop theology than with Catholic tradition. From the beginning of time, God has chosen to meet His people in sacred places. The "holy ground" of Mount Sinai became translated into the tent in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem. With the advent of Christianity, believers constructed buildings specifically for the divine liturgy which would reflect the heavenly temple, the upper room and these holy places. In Canon Law "the term church signifies a sacred building destined for divine worship to which the faithful have a right of access for divine worship, especially its public exercise." As "a place set apart" for reception of the sacraments, the church itself becomes sacramental having as its focus the sanctuary, which means a holy place. Just as the ceremonies, elements such as the altar and ambo, and the art are all referred to as "sacred" so are the buildings designed for them. Therefore to seek to remove the distinction of the church as a sacred place for sacred activity is to diminish our reverence of God, which the buildings should help to engender.

Duncan Stroik

Duncan Stroik, A.I.A. is an architect and an associate professor of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame.

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SDG,

Do you have any thoughts on this?

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Concerning your own preamble on the acoustics problem and its relation to architecture.

There is definitely a relationship there. One can design a room in such a way that it makes a sound system either unnecessary or at least less of a challenge. I've seen a trend in recent decades towards appropriating for worship use, buildings not originally designed for the purpose. My guess is that this only compounds the acoustics problem. I'm no expert on this, my father is to a certain extent. This is one of the practical advantages of the amphi theater style. My church was built in 1860. I don't know if the parish cared to hear the liturgy or not back then, but the priest is subtly miked at the altar nowadays. Also, what seems like a ritual is really a practical solution during the service. When the presiding priest comes to the pulpit for his sermon, the assisting priest always follows and sits across the aisle behind the lecturn on the other side. As a rookie, I asked about this. The assisting priest sits there so he can hear the sermon, there being a dead spot at the altar. A lot of money was spent on the building when it was raised. My guess is that sermons weren't as important to Anglicans back then as they are now.

You may be right about the cost differential, but it could reflect a range between "Cadillac" and "Chevy" or worse. If you are at a church with a contemporary worship, I'd say that the sound system is of great importance. Not for materialistic reasons, but for the necessity of the medium itself and not least for the distraction it may cause for the "seeker" if the sound is bad.

Edited by Rich Kennedy

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SDG,

Do you have any thoughts on this?

I think that Duncan Stoik is a very intelligent and insightful individual.

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I have a question, but it is totally off subject. Is it true that Cathoilc churches are designed around the anatomy of female genetalia? Such as the outer foyer is called the labia. There is a red carpet that runs down the center of the aisles. I don't know if this is accurate. I think I heard Gloria Steinem say it, so it is even more suspect, due to the source.

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I have a question, but it is totally off subject.  Is it true that Cathoilc churches are designed around the anatomy of female genetalia?  Such as the outer foyer is called the labia.

eek.gif

Are you sure you're not thinking about the loggia?

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eek.gif

Are you sure you're not thinking about the loggia?

I'm not crazy, for Frederica Matthewes-Green heard the same thing, except, with her, she heard it directly from Steinem:

"About this time we hit the low point of the evening. Gloria began describing an interpretation of church architecture that she had read, which drew parallels between the various structural elements and female reproductive anatomy. You can imagine what the church door and narthex and center aisle represented. This, I thought, was just silly. Then she completed the analogy by saying that the altar was the womb, "the site where childbirth takes place."

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Let's just say that if Mr. Stoik had been inclined to extend his list of the top ten church architecture myths to some much, much higher number, sooner or later (though probably not too soon) he would have gotten around to Ms. Steinem's thesis, which is a classic case of Big Idea Syndrome, also known as "everything is about the thing I'm interested in" syndrome.

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Well, I've found out that Dan Brown makes this exact same argument in The Da Vinci Code. Oh well, I was just curious as to whether there was any truth to it. It has that historically conspiratorial nature to it, kinda like, the Pirates of the Caribbean who flew the black flag with the skull-and-crossbones were descendent of the Knights Templar fleet in La Rochelle that escaped when Jacques De Molay and his boys were rounded up Philip IV.

Similar to the theory of how De Molay skips off to Scotland, hides all of his gold under the foundation of a church, and then later spreads his secret organization all over Great Britain so that the remnants of the Knights Templar reemerge through Walter the Tyler, who leads the peasant revolt of 1386.

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Let's just say that if Mr. Stoik had been inclined to extend his list of the top ten church architecture myths to some much, much higher number, sooner or later (though probably not too soon) he would have gotten around to Ms. Steinem's thesis, which is a classic case of Big Idea Syndrome, also known as "everything is about the thing I'm interested in" syndrome.

I guess the concept that many cathedrals and churches are laid out in the shape of the cross is too much for someone like Steinem to fathom. If you're obsessed with the feminine sexual organs, I suppose everything starts to look like them.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a cathedral is merely a cathedral. biggrin.gif

Edited by TexasWill

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The cross is phallic, just like church steeples, totem poles, and the Washington Monument.

whistling2.gif

Edited by Michael Todd

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If you're obsessed with the feminine sexual organs, I suppose everything starts to look like them.

I've heard the same is true of Tootsie Rolls.

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One day I'll dig it up, but I fondly recall writing an article almost a decade ago on church architecture, and the relationship between structure and theology in different denominations; one of my sources commented that Catholic churches were shaped like crosses, and the altar used to be at the far end of the church where the crown of thorns would have been, but since Vatican II it's been moved it down to the intersection, so now it's "symbolic of a pain in the neck, which is theologically meaningless," or words to that effect.

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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Well I've found quite a few United Pentecostal churches that have a fan shaped design, where the ceiling, floor, and walls slope down to the pulpit. I suspect that it lends itself psychologically to authoritarianism.

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Whereas the spate of nondenominational churches and Calvary Chapels in strip malls suggests consumerism?

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Glad to see that this has been revived. I can't really hack the architecture of the churches that Manson put up. However, putting up this article as I did so long ago, it was #10 that really struck me. I'm interested in knowing what Catholics think of "sacred spaces." What is their theology behind this? How did they arrive at believing in this? Soooo...go for it Steven. smile.gif

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mrmando wrote:

: Whereas the spate of nondenominational churches and Calvary Chapels in strip malls

: suggests consumerism?

It might indeed! (To say nothing of that church in Texas that installed a McDonald's on the premises...)

But FWIW, my article way-back-when was based in part on a tour of Vancouver-area churches that focused on Catholic, Anglican, and Baptist architectures.

The Baptist church was kind of funny, too, because it was originally designed with an anti-symbol ethos -- no icons! no stained-glass windows! everything must serve a functional purpose! -- and now that it uses some sort of synthesizer or modern electronic sound system instead of an old-fashioned organ, it has a big set of organ pipes at the back that have no functional purpose, and so these pipes are now largely symbolic themselves!

The distinctive features of the Anglican cathedral, as I recall, were that it was kept close to the ground and surrounded by an English-style garden, and that it emphasized its connection to the local community -- which, at the time of the tour, meant it was full of banners for the International AIDS Conference that was taking place in Vancouver that summer. (Oh, wait, that probably means I wrote the story in 1996. That'll help narrow down my search, whenever I go looking for it.)

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Those interested in church archetecture will want to look at the Nov. 15 issue of The Christian Century

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Artistic archetecture is something that most modern churches seem to void of. The Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and I bel;ieve the Anglicans as well have it nailed when it comes to beautiful houses of worship filled with art and design. The modern protestant churches are void and empty for the most part, this does in no way imply all.

It is somehting that churches should really focus on, God is creative and that should be something that is recognizible in a house of worship.

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It is somehting that churches should really focus on, God is creative and that should be something that is recognizible in a house of worship.
You mean a house of worship should be different from any other auditorium? How reactionary of you... dry.gif

Neb

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