“Franciscan” Architecture?

In this article on the newly refurbished church of St. Moritz in Augsburg by the designer John Pawson, the author makes a connection between the simplicity of the white-clad Pope Francis and the simplicity of the white-clad St. Moritz. Surely the author thinks he is being quite clever in making this connection, but is this a claim we should take seriously?

Pawson’s treatment of St. Moritz recalls his other recent religious commission, the Cistercian monastery at Nový Dvůr, showing a simplicity that lapses into severity:

I don’t know much about John Pawson’s theological views, though I have no reason to doubt his sincerity when he says that he finds “little to disbelieve” in religion and that he has “learned a lot from the monks’ approach to dying and death.” This does not mean, however, that the minimalist aesthetic that informs Pawson’s designs is the same as the Gospel-rooted simplicity of Francis’s “style.” Whereas Francis’s simplicity grows from a profound valuing of the human that seeks to strip away anything that would prevent authentic human engagement, Pawson’s design approach strikes me as in a sense profoundly inhuman. Whatever Pawson’s personal beliefs, his style seems to be a rejection both of the idea of human beings as the image of God and Jesus Christ as the eikon of the invisible God. Francis, on the other hand, places the imago Dei and the Incarnation at the center of things; it is these that make human encounter a path to God. Pawson’s churches speak to me of a God who is quite far off, whereas Francis’s simplicity is rooted in his faith in a God who has drawn near.

Pawson’s style perhaps makes more sense in a Trappist monastery than it does in a parish church. But even here something seems somehow not right, since Pawson brings that same aesthetic to Calvin Klein’s store in NYC:

I should add that for me the prior renovation St. Moritz by Dominikus Böhm did a good job of making the building “modern” without stripping it of everything human or organic (I might also add that Böhm did his rennovation after the church had been bombed into an empty shell in WWII):
OK, I’ll admit to having a soft spot for Böhm’s churches, largely because of his use of historic forms in a modern idiom — in this case the slightly crowded, “baroque” feel of his design, with the statues of the Apostles looming over and pressing in on the congregation. But it also somehow seems to fit more the style of a Pope whom they just can’t keep in the Popemobile.


  1. Three points about the churches:

    First, all that white is obviously gnostic! Hovering above like a formless divine mist!. Where is the incarnation? Where is Mary? Where is joy? Where is mercy? Where is love? Where is humility? Where is service?

    Second, all those black pews are obviously pelagian! That is where plebians pray, pay, and obey their way to heaven.

    Third, these churches are obviously very male self-referential clerical churches because they divide everything into white and black, the gnostics and pelagians. Where are the poor? Where is the smell of the sheep? Where are the ends of the earth? Only clericized pelagians who take the easy route of pray, pay, and obey would be comfortable here.

    About the architect? Who am I to judge?

  2. Jack, you must be kidding right?

    I happen to be a huge fan of the Our Lady of Novy Dvur Monastery and of John Pawson’s work. I remember the first time I saw a picture of the Novy Dvur monastery – it was on NLM, and my first reaction was “WOW. What splendor!” I want to visit this place some day. My favorite spaces are their library and chapel I love well designed minimalist spaces. I feel most at home in them. I love the attention to detail, the starkness, the symmetry. There’s so much in what seems like so little — “simple expression of complex thought” as sculptor Donal Judd says. I think minimalism mirrors much of creation and helps us notice things we take for granted. Think Christ in the presence of the assembly, liturgical colors in vestments, incense floating above the altar. Minimalism facilitates a kind of single-mindedness that helps me stay close to the ritual action.

    I think those who dislike minimal worship spaces misunderstand the principles behind minimalism. I agree that St. Mortiz is unlike Pope Francis’ style because most associate his simplicity with self-denial. There’s no “stripping away” of anything. That’s not what minimalism is about. In a 2004 interview with the Gaurdian, John Pawson explains that “Minimalism is not an architecture of self-denial, deprivation or absence: it is defined not by what is not there, but by the rightness of what is there and by the richness with which this is experienced.” I recommend the full article here: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2004/apr/19/guesteditors1

    I quite like St. Mortiz, though not as much as Novy Dvur. My favorite is the baptismal font. Its stunning cave-like structure makes me think of baptism in the early church. I bet the acoustics are amazing.

    1. @Audrey Seah – comment #2:

      It is a satire of the claim to be “Franciscan.” I have read that even the fashion clothes designers are bringing out styles they claimed are inspired by Francis!

      When I began to think of all the things that Francis has emphasized it became evident that one could argue that the architecture is Franciscan in an unflattering sense.

      Francis likes jokes. He began as Bishop of Rome by joking that the cardinals had gone to “the ends of the earth” to find one. He struck up a friendship with the Argentinian rabbi with whom he wrote a book because Francis likes to tell “priest and rabbi” jokes.

      Hopefully he would appreciate my poking fun by interpreting this architectural style in terms of Francis thoughts about the “church.”

      1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #4:
        I figured that, but just wanted to be sure. I should know better. I sometimes forget which blog I’m actually on 😉

        After reading your comment, I thought – what would francis inspired fashion look like? Oversized shapeless maxi dresses? Then I googled it and found Docle & Gabbana’s fall catalogue: http://www.bustle.com/articles/1679-the-best-of-autumnwinter-2013-fashion-ad-campaigns HIgh fashion altar servers anyone? I’m amused.

    2. @Audrey Seah – comment #2:
      You raise some good points, particularly about minimalism not being entirely a matter of stripping away.

      However, I remain unconvinced. First, there was in fact a “stripping away” at St. Moritz. Second, even if we bracket the question of the building’s history, the idea that we start at zero and add what is essential strikes me as unCatholic, and probably inhuman. We, both as believers and as rational animals, know ourselves only as always, already embedded in culture, language, tradition. We are never really starting from zero, since it is only against the horizon of our cluttered world that we have any idea of what is essential. Of course, we do sometimes have to de-clutter: whether cleaning out the attic or renovating churches or reforming liturgies. But this is a tricky business and never done against a blank horizon.

      Don’t get me wrong. I feel the beauty and the power of Pawson’s spaces. On a purely aesthetic level they are appealing. Perhaps what troubles me is that I find the Calvin Klein store holds for me an aesthetic appeal almost equal to that of the churches.

      In any case, even though I am inclined to find them problematic, Pawson’s churches raise interesting issues about the nature of liturgy, faith, and human existence itself. Not a bad achievement.

  3. I quite like both churches. In particular, I like the Carthusian monastery at Nový Dvůr. In my view, the monastery’s stalls and chancel invite the mind to meditate free of visual cues. Often the mind’s eye is more vivid than any image. I would like more churches to be styled similarly. I accept the criticism that an-iconic worship (especially to this severity) is not Catholic. I once thought so as well. Now, I am not sure. The Carthusian charism and mission invites the design chosen. This should be considered as well. I am convinced that the question of the Reformed iconoclastic influence on Catholic worship is well in the past. Okay, maybe not so much for me (I still struggle with Jansenism), but for most Catholics. Even though I am not particularly partial to the assembly model theory of worship, I agree with Audrey Seah that “minimalism” is not reductionist in practice. Her perception that the aniconic setting draws the eye towards the action at the altar is apt.

    I do think that a larger crucifix would complement the monastery chapel. It need not be huge, ostentatious, or placed on the apse wall. A thin metal crucifix on a stand, which could double as a processional cross, is a good idea. The crucifix could even be moved about the chapel in cases where it would impede celebration (such as large concelebrations). Personally, I would place this cross in front of the celebrant. That is a controversial idea for many PTBers, so I will leave the suggestion at that.

    Moveable icons or other images (such as icons of the Theotokos and Pantokrator) might also be an interesting idea for the monastery. I don’t suspect that a Byzantine Catholic priest would want to celebrate the Divine Liturgy at Nový Dvůr, but he only need those two icons to say the liturgy. I doubt, however, that I would ever be allowed to visit the monastery for any Mass 🙁

    1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #3:
      Jordan, the monastics at Novy Dvur are Cistercian/Trappists. The public daily join the community for Mass and community prayer. In fact Pawson designed a lovely vestibule area through which the public enters the church.

      The chapel itself plays with light in ways I have never experienced before.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #6:
      The interior of St Moritz looks fabulous, but there is an absence in there: the crucifix.

      I’d suggest that this is why the Chapel of St Basil seems “right”, while St Moritz seems “wrong”.

  4. At first glance I though the CK NYC store was the monastery sacristy. “What in the world is Pawson trying to say with hanging work clothes??” Then I read the article and looked more closely. 🙂

    One of my favorite images of heaven is that of abundant space, air, light. I find the photo above of the “earthly” choir stalls contrasted with the “heavenly” sanctuary/apse area to be striking. It draws me close to the table of the Lord’s sacrificial banquet, an intimate encounter, and at the same time evokes a feeling of freedom–even flight–within the presence of God.

    The altar is remote, isn’t it? I wonder what the image would look like with a priest at the altar, as well as several concelebrants. Would it still seem as remote? Or would the dark-robed monks mingling in that abundant light call to mind Fagerberg’s description of liturgy as the “trysting place where God and humanity meet”?

  5. Those familiar with my writings won’t be surprised to find that I think that St. Moritz looked better before the renovation than after. The earlier look was quite austere to begin with (if a bit dingy and in need of cleaning), with minimal sacred art in view. What exists now is downright iconoclastic, relentless in its quest to strip out any imagery or ornamentation whatsoever in favor of an overwhelming sterile whiteness from which escape seems impossible. One in which God seems to be a remote abstraction, and there is nothing to anchor the senses.

    Whereas Francis’s simplicity grows from a profound valuing of the human that seeks to strip away anything that would prevent authentic human engagement, Pawson’s design approach strikes me as in a sense profoundly inhuman.

    Indeed. “Inhuman” is an apt descriptor.

    1. @Richard Malcolm – comment #9:

      What exists now is downright iconoclastic, relentless in its quest to strip out any imagery or ornamentation whatsoever in favor of an overwhelming sterile whiteness from which escape seems impossible. One in which God seems to be a remote abstraction, and there is nothing to anchor the senses.

      Richard, I’d like your opinion on whether or not the iconoclasm of Pawson’s architecture and design at Nový Dvůr is compatible with a traditionalist liturgical hermeneutic. You strike me as more resolutely traditionalist than I am, so perhaps you would know better. I would say that indeed Nový Dvůr would be a suitable (idoneus) place to celebrate all the 1962 rites, but I am probably in the minority.

      Indeed I would rather attend Tridentine Solemn Mass at Nový Dvůr than at St. Mark’s in Venice. I do wonder if my confession about taste in liturgical architecture places me outside a basic metric of Tridentine liturgical life.

  6. There is a parish church in St. Louis, a modest Roman basilica design that is a wonderful example of noble simplicity. Over the years it took on various mismatched artwork and devotional areas, ending up looking rather cluttered. The pastor stripped everything out–furnishings, statues and all, and painted everything beige. Numerous statues were moved out, and Mary & Joseph were replaced with bronze statues, unlit, that nearly blend into the shadows against the wall. This all happened roughly 10 years ago.

    The result? People are still today complaining bitterly. “boring… ugly… unwelcoming… cold… impersonal…” The best anyone can say is to call it “monastic,” followed by noting this is not a monastery, but a working-class parish church.

    Back to the old rule of thumb, “What will help these people, in this place and time, to pray?” Clearly not a minimalistic stripped-down edifice, at least in this case.

  7. I would not categorize this architectural austerity as “Franciscan” so much as “Cistercian” and I confess that, with Ms. Seah and Messers Zarembo and Lechtenberg, I find the monastic chapel at Novy Dvur very appealing as an architectural site supporting the kinds of liturgical and contemplative prayer at the core of Cistercian/Trappist life. If someone could instruct me how to upload a photo, I would like to show the monastic chapel at New Melleray in Iowa where I have been privileged to make some retreats for comparison and contrast with Novy Dvur. At the same time, I do not believe that it would be a model for typical parish worship.

  8. I suspect that there may be some similar reactions to the Rothko Chapel in Houston as to Pawson’s works here depicted, although that space is not designed for Christian liturgical worship but for contemplation. For some Rothko’s almost mono-chromatic mural canvases are terrifyingly “inhuman” while for others they trigger profoundly contemplative experience. Mr. Malcolm’s comments in #8 raise fascinating questions about the relation of Christian liturgical worship and contemplative/mystical experience.

  9. For some reason, I can no longer seem to post from my work computer (not an issue at other blogs), but anyway, here’s my thought from earlier today:

    It should be noted the light strength is similar to that which obtains along the western US-Canada border; such unmodulated light would get harsher (especially at mid-year) the farther south one goes.

    I don’t find the space luminous: there’s nothing for the light to embrace – EXCEPT when there’s a congregation there for Mass (and architectural photographers have a terrible habit of photographing spaces sans congregations). So, unlike most people here, I would say this space probably works BETTER for Mass than for private prayer. I love Cistercian austerity, but i think pre-2007 furnishings serve that model better. It’s not for nothing that the idea for the re-do came from a temporary art project entitled, “Void”.

    I have a strong feeling this will get re-“cluttered” over time. People abhor a void.

  10. The first Cistercians were profoundly influenced by an early abbot, St Bernard of Clairvaux. His writings on art, especially when he criticized the laxity of Cluny, are austere; Novy Dur is perhaps too splendid for him to accept.

    We know that the bishops, debtors to both the wise and unwise, use material beauty to arouse the devotion of a carnal people because they cannot do so by spiritual means. But we who have now come out of that people, we who have left the precious and lovely things of the world for Christ, we who, in order to win Christ, have reckoned all beautiful, sweet-smelling, fine-sounding, smooth-feeling, good-tasting things– in short, all bodily delights–as so much dung, what do we expect to get out of them? Admiration from the foolish? Offerings from the ignorant? Or, scattered as we are among the gentiles, are we learning their tricks and serving their idols?
    St Bernard of Clairvaux as quoted at:

  11. Is there anything in the New Testament about decorating churches? Isn’t there a good bit in the OT about what the Temple must be?

    (I wouldn’t pay too much attention to Bernard of Clairvaux. Not the best balanced of the saints.)

  12. The aesthetic of both these spaces is not at all unlike that of mediaeval Cistercian architecture. Second thought, though, suggests that the severity evident in early Cistercian architectural aesthisis is here taken to almost a science fiction extreme. I agree with Mr Malcom. One wants to comtemplate in these spaces, but the merciless shades of white are like an iron door. They are, in their way, equally as distracting as overly baroque spaces. As for St Basil’s in Houston, the white is not as sterile, and there is imposing-but-austere statuary and a colourful icon of St Basil over the tabernacle to relieve it. For a white space it is remarkably warm, invites contemplation, and has Houston’s best acoustics. If any of you are in Houston this fall on Christ the King Sunday, come to my organ recital there at 4.00 pm.

  13. This, for me, is a surprising debate. I have the privilege of celebrating regularly holy eucharist in St. Moritz. For me it is every time a heavenly experience. Being a diocesan priest and long time missionary to Africa, now on retirement, I am moved every time I open the door of the church and I see the Risen Christ walking out of a mysterious light towards me. A wonderful encounter. There is absolutely nothing I want to divert my attention.

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