Modern or Traditional? – 10 Thought Provoking Churches

Christian Universities Online recently held up 10 churches it sees as challenging our traditional images of the church building.  Its choice of the phrase “bizarrely beautiful” to describe these thought provoking designs seems more than appropriate.

Looking at these churches makes me think of the 4th century Christians who experienced the legalization of Christianity and the adoption of the then modern and progressive basilica style for church architecture.  There is something deeply traditional in these 10 church designs in that they mirror the tendency of the Church, at its best, to appropriate to itself those things from the surrounding culture which allow it to speak to the then “modern” world.  So is there really any difference between these churches and the churches of Constantine?

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23 comments

  1. I think one difference is that while a 4th century basilica could be used for any number of purposes, and these really were a case of cultural appropriation, these buildings couldn’t be anything else but churches (OK, maybe the Harajuku Church could be a museum). Whatever the aesthetic value of these buildings — and they seem to me to be of varying aesthetic merit — what they don’t do, and which, I think, the 4th century basilica did do, is connect the worship of the Church to the everyday life of the city. What other buildings in the city look like these churches?

    By using the standard form of the Roman public assembly hall, the Church staked its claim to be enacting in its worship a true leitourgia — a true public work. These buildings, by contrast, seem to say that whatever goes on in them is disconnected from the life of the city; they seem to be manifestations of the private visions of architectural virtuosi, not public spaces where important business is conducted.

    In contrast (though I disagree with their ecclesiology), I think the way that Cleveland’s Community of St. Peter has transformed an industrial space into a church is much more in keeping with what was done by the Christians of the 4th century.

  2. Most of these “modern” churches don’t seem modern to me but rather way out there. I don’t know of many “modern” buildings that resemble many of these churches. Maybe they should be called ultra-modern, avante garde or futuristic.

  3. “So is there really any difference between these churches and the churches of Constantine?”

    Yes, the difference is the past– at its best–had better taste.

  4. Two vital dimensions that are missing:

    1. The natural (that is, unamplified) acoustical quality of the buildings – how well does it serve the requirements of the postconciliar liturgy?

    2. What’s the building like with the faithful gathered in it?

  5. So is there really any difference between these churches and the churches of Constantine?

    This question is not relevant. Mass is the sacrament, not architecture or interior embellishment.

    Mass (for the Roman rite) requires the following:

    * An altar with an altar stone or table with an antimension (“Greek corporal”)

    * Altar cloths, chalice veil, burse, paten, cup (the chalice veil can be a clean white sheet)

    * Two candles, crucifix

    * vestments (white is minimally acceptable for all Masses, should no other vestments be available)

    * valid gifts for consecration

    This is Mass. I do not care if the Mass is said in a Baroque cathedral, a brutalist chapel, a kitchen table, or on the hood of a Jeep in wartime (Fr. Emil Kapaun, pray for us). In any event, my ideal church is a Friends meeting house fitted with an undecorated rectangular altar, a crucifix, Pantocrator icon on the right, Theotokos icon on the left. Nothing to distract or impede the mind from intense meditation on Word and Sacrament.

  6. Simple question. Which are the Churches of Constantine? And how many of them are still in their original shape, form and design, free from any later additions etc. I think you will find that the basillicas that have stayed closest to their original shape and form are from a later period.
    I’d also be intrigued to know which eras from the past, according to Mr Dejonge, showed better taste. I write as someone who was brought up in towns and cities in the UK that are graced with some of the best known English Cathedrals, many of which are both powerful statements of faith and architectural masterpieces, but perhaps not always the best as ‘liturgical spaces’. And whenever back in the UK I still enjoy visiting them.
    Of the Churces mentioned and pictured in the linked article, for now I’d like to reserve judgement until I saw their interiors, and could get some idea of how effective they are as a “house of God”, and a “house for the People of God”, living, worshipping communities.

  7. Just to jump in on “leiturgia” and the basilica as an originally public space, we should be careful about projecting our notions about the distinction between religious and secular onto ancient graeco-roman society. These distinctions did not apply. The basilica was not a space void of religious significance, especially during the roman imperial period. Contracts were made there, legal decisions rendered, the image (and therefore divine authority) of the emperor was present, oaths were taken…all ‘sacred’ activities or objects. The ancient basilica was therefore not analogous to a contemporary industrial space. It’d be more like a courtroom, though even that fails to capture something of the sacral character of it. It was the place where Rome (and all the divine associations the Empire had) happened, if that makes sense. The basilica was not therefore an empty shell that just happened to be available into which Christian activities could be performed. Its actually quite interesting to consider that early Christians living in the Roman Empire chose the principal imperial architectural space (the basilica) to be the architectural space of the Kingdom of God. It’s quite subversive, actually.
    Likewise ‘leiturgia’. The ‘work of the people’ referred typically to works undertaken for the sake of the polis, and therefore included the dedication of the work for the gods. It was a religious act and a public work simultaneously.
    That’s not to say that an industrial space, or a former ‘public’ building couldn’t serve as a church today, just that our use of such spaces is not quite an imitation of ancient christians.
    So yes, there is a difference between these churches and Constantinian basilica – the basilica was already a meaning-laden structure, a meaning that was both embraced and altered by 4th c. Christians. The form had a content. For a variety of reasons, modern architecture is not immediately meaning-laden, or at least resists having a content immediately connected to its form(s).

      1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #13:

        Thanks for the response. I winced as I submitted my comment for its wrist slapping tone, which was not intended, but as with all internet communication, easily perceived.

        I’d also like to add in continuation of Mr. Malcolm’s comment above. One reason sacred art and architecture has been central to the Christian life is that even on a basic anthropological level we tend to beautify and aim at pleasure for the sake of that which we love – even on very humble and quotidian levels. When guests visit, we clean, perhaps put out a table cloth, we put time/energy/money into preparing a fine tasting meal, etc. (this is an insight Schmemann made). Moreover, the very act of doing this defies any kind of utilitarian logic – it is always gratuitous, excessive – even (perhaps especially) on the humblest of levels. One can’t wrap beauty in the language of ‘what is minimally necessary’. In that sense, it is perhaps a constitutive part of Christian life.
        I think, though, that such a view of things can apply to modernist design with its deliberately ‘minimalist’ aesthetic – after all, here too, there is a great deal of planning and execution which aims to be more than a shell of a space for the performance of this or that activity (notably, none of these churches are pole-barns, and even if they were, I would imagine they’d have something decorating them), here too there are ‘gratuitous’ and graceful lines. However, such a view of things would demand something of a shift in the way proponents of modernist design spoke about it and imagined its virtues.

        But then, my preference would be for all churches to be byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, or baroque, and full of images 🙂

  8. Strange how in the Church of “Peace on Earth” my favorite of the ten — for several reasons — is a row of 17 Century-series-inspired fighters.

  9. After attending NPM this year and visiting St. Matthew’s Cathedral – I was solidified in my belief that church buildings should be absolutely noble in their simplicity. I’m sure on their own, the mosaics and whatever else are beautiful, but when it comes to the dynamic action of the Mass, it’s overwhelming. What more does one need when it is Christ himself present in the person of the presider, the Word, the Assembly, and the consecrated elements of bread and wine? Why would want all these other visuals that could distract from those? I’m sure people will jump on this comment and defend such design. Feel free. But give me the option of worshiping in a space of a simple altar, ambo, and assembly place or a a space filled with statues and frescos… you’ll know where to find me.

    1. @Sean Whelan – comment #10:

      Hello Sean,

      What more does one need when it is Christ himself present in the person of the presider, the Word, the Assembly, and the consecrated elements of bread and wine?

      For me the question would be: Does this leave any space at all for the continued existence of sacred art and architecture?

      For virtually all of the Church’s two millennia of existence – East and West – the idea that sacred art and architecture are central to Christian life and worship was integral to the life of the faith. I think it’s worth asking why that is. And to ponder whether, in fact, the art and design of sacred space need not be, in fact, a distraction from the Mass (and that three-fold presence of Christ), but a complement to it. One can have Mass on the hood of a jeep, as Jordan has pointed out; but it is striking that whenever Christians have settled down into a community, they have insisted on something more.

      I also think of what Josef Pieper once said of beauty: ““Beauty is not so much a fulfillment as rather a promise.” In other words, by absorbing beauty with the right disposition, we experience, not gratification, satisfaction, and enjoyment but the arousal of an expectation; we are oriented toward something “not-yet-here”. He who submits properly to the encounter with beauty will be given the sight and tase not of a fulfillment but of a promise–a promise that, in our bodily existence, can never be fulfilled.”

  10. All of the photos are limited to the outside of the churches. So how do they fit into the history of Christian church buildings? What struck me was that all but two of them emphasized the architectural factor that has traditionally signified our impulse to seek the transcendent, to seek God. I mean that they emphasized the pointed arch found in Christian Churches from the medieval era onward, that distinctive pattern that tells us that ‘this is a church’.

    What impresses me the most is that this physical metaphor is so dominant in most of them. Is the architecture telling us something? Is ours the era which craves the transcendent? Have we become so carnal that we finally realize that the carnal alone is not enough for a fully human being?

  11. One of the notable effects of Gothic Architecture is its invitation to
    abstraction both of the construction itself and the useful space. This is by contrast with the Romanesque Architecture whose roundness emphasises the ‘earthiness’ and the presence of God with his community. One can easily see this at Vézelay where the nave is Romanesque and the choir Gothic — the Abbey Church of Saint Peter at Cluny was the ‘largest Church in Christendom’ and with Romanesque Architecture (built for about 1000 monks) ! [The Baroque St Peter’s Rome owes its size to the demand that it be “larger than Cluny’s Church”. It was built as a place for ‘spectacle’ which it does admirably.] The abstract skeletal structures of the Gothic do open the space for more windows and light (as in the Sainte Chapelle in Paris) but it distances the congregation to produce individuality in relation to the presence of God. What is the effect of ‘modern architecture’ on the assembled people? Is the “architects’ vision” more powerful and ‘self-important’ than the announced purpose of the space? Ronchamp’s Dominican Chapel and the San Francisco Catholic Cathedral, the Cathedral in Brazilia are all examples of this — these are spaces which ‘look better’ when empty.

  12. I have always had a a bit of a soft spot for Fay Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel – its soaring verticality recalls both the Gothic as well as the forests around it, but more importantly draws the worshiper to the divine. It would hardly work as a Catholic church, but it is impressive in its own way.

    But I also agree with Dcn. Bauerschmidt:

    These buildings, by contrast, seem to say that whatever goes on in them is disconnected from the life of the city; they seem to be manifestations of the private visions of architectural virtuosi, not public spaces where important business is conducted.

    As with so much avant-garde architecture, too often these church designs seem more like personal statements by the architects, not always felicitously designed for their intended purpose, or indeed for human habitation, as Philip notes above. It is the sort of thing that brings to mind the old story about Mies van der Rohe, who designed windows that made the occupants of his skyscrapers feel as though they were going to fall fifty stories down to the street and then forbade them to put anything in front of the windows to cushion the effect of the vertigo.

  13. There is some modern architecture for churches/cathedrals that I find very appealing, but one has to see it in person to appreciate these. The ones I like the most are in California. San Francisco’s Cathedral is stunning and well thought out and has wonderful shrines for devotions with wonderful art. The other is Oakland’s Cathedral of Light. I didn’t like it when I saw photos of it, but in person it has its own beauty and is quite beautiful and also has wonderful places for devotion and art. The other that I can’t wait to see as a Catholic cathedral is the Crystal Cathedral when it morphs into Christ Catholic Cathedral. I like the outside look better than the inside look because from the inside it looks like scaffolding from head to toe, but it has its own art and appeal nonetheless. Once it is remade into a Catholic liturgical space it should be very interesting and beautiful in its own right.

  14. Fr. McDonald –

    I’m a bit surprised at your selections. I remember well when St. Maytag of the Agitators was under construction in SF. I agree it’s nice inside, but as a symbol of Catholicism it’s somewhat lacking. I’ll yield that it IS distinctive.

    And Oakland’s new cathedral? Stunning, perhaps. But for the much-touted crystal work, it looks to me like they flew out to Canton, Ohio, and made a mold from the roof of the Football Hall of Fame! The three-quarters of a billion dollars required to complete the cathedral gutted the already-in-progress fundraising effort for a new diocesan high school, the first in a half century. That action has soured the taste of donors who’ve seen their hopes for a Catholic education for their children tossed aside.

  15. No mention of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Interesting.

    These comments provide an interesting divergence of opinions, one that dates back at least to St Bernard and Suger a thousand years ago. Should a church be sole purpose? Are distractions appropriate or not? Every church has the stations of the cross, somehow, which are distractions from the liturgy. Not inappropriate, but distracting. The space is not just for liturgy.

  16. Perhaps what is sometimes jarring when one looks at the photos is that the old adage, “form follows function” is not followed and the architecture doesn’t seem natural?

    Maybe what Louis Sullivan, the great American architect once stated about things physical, metaphysical and of the soul applies:

    “It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.”

  17. One can’t tell if these are good church buildings. What is important is the inside. Does the art and architecture draw us to worship the one true good in the beauty of holiness? Does is have good acoustics to aid in raising our voices to god? Does it work with the liturgy, both the mass and the office? What about baptism?
    Having said that, these seem to be garden bad modern architecture.

  18. One can’t tell if these are good church buildings. What is important is the inside. Does the art and architecture draw us to worship the one true God in the beauty of holiness? Does is have good acoustics to aid in raising our voices to god? Does it work with the liturgy, both the mass and the office? What about baptism?
    Having said that, these seem to be garden bad modern architecture.

  19. @Kelly Marie Santini – comment #24:

    Thank you Kelly for these all these observations, which are very perceptive.

    As with most things, defining the space we worship in (what it should be, what it shouldn’t be) explicitly projects our anthropology and theology that we operate out of.

    If you have the chance when you visit Rome (it’s impossible to get too much Rome 😉 ), take a train from downtown Rome to the ruins of Roman Ostia. There you will find two mithraea (meeting-places for the cult of Mithras). As you observe in your post, the Mithraic worship spaces were designed to mimic the cult-association’s belief that their ritual actions necessarily arose from cosmic events. The floor of a mithraeum is paved with icons which depict the various stages of cult initiation. The icons are reminiscent of Stations of the Cross, so far as the Stations are a visual path through the Passion. This is an inaccurate comparison since the Stations are a medieval invention. Nevertheless, both examples are anthropological and theological (in the case of Mithraism, “cultic” is probably a better word, as the cult has left no scripture) at the same time.

    While one can only speculate, I would suggest that the Ostian mithraea might have played a very similar role to the churches of Rome in the post-Constantinian period and forward. The mithraea were reflections of the wealth of the members, much like the benefactors of churches in the Christian era of Rome. You are right not only that worship re-presents the cosmic, but also reflect secular power.

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