Authenticity in Church Architecture

C.C. Sullivan at SmartPlanet wrote an interesting blog post the other day on the need for Catholics to reconsider their architectural aesthetic.  Shifting from the pontificate of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to Pope Francis should, according to Sullivan, usher in a change in the way we approach our worship spaces.

We as people of the Incarnation ought to think carefully about our churches.  Our churches are not merely places where we gather to worship.  They are also testaments to our faith.  While one can argue the worthiness of a modernist design over more classical church architecture, and perhaps even argue whether one is a better projection of the faith of the Church, the fact of the matter is that the trend toward “historic-looking churches” is not always commendable and  sometimes stands in opposition to our faith.

It seems to me that what matters most is not the debate between modern and classical styles, but rather whether something is authentic or inauthentic.  The Christian message is about authenticity.  Is a church built to look historical authentic?  Or is it a masquerade?  One could ask the same questions about modern churches as well.  I would contend that the architectural style one chooses is not as important as whether one is being authentic to their faith and the faith of the Church.

Check out Sullivan’s article and see what he has to say:  http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/take/to-save-the-catholic-church-redesign-it/1080

52 comments

  1. The problem with the St. Michael’s Church in Kansas isn’t that it’s traditional, the problem is that it’s BAD traditional.

    It seems to have two main entrances situated at right angles to each other. It has four different styled domes/towers, the floors of diffferent sections of the building seem to be at three different levels, and there are at least three different styles of crosses protruding from the roofs. The shapes of the windows and their decorations are ridiculously diverse. None of these elements are in any way unified. It looks like three or four different structures piled into a garbage heap.

    Modern and traditional CAN be combined successfully. Look at Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. May he be canonized soon!

  2. I agree that both modern and classical forms can be utilized for church design (though in full disclosure, as of now there are only a few modern designs that I can say I truly love).
    I’m less certain on what “authenticity” is as a criterion in this respect (for both Christianity in general and architecture). How do you *see* “authentic” or “inauthentic” assuming we’re looking at honest to God worship spaces and not cardboard, or that Chinese faux-medieval village Praytell posted a few months back? Does authentic mean ‘reflect the general desires of the congregation,’ or ‘reflect the local, cultural heritage of the congregation,’ or ‘the common forms of the particular denomination’ or ‘whatever I like’? It seems the category/concept would be particularly prone to that last one…

  3. Yes, the concept of authenticity does seem particularly ambiguous here. It grew out of the existentialists’ concerns with leading one’s own life in conformity with one’s own best principles, principles which, of course, might or might not be shared by others.

    Taken negatively, authenticity here could forbid us to simply copy what other groups have enjoyed. But negative criteria alone won’t get us very far.

    But what to do when a congregation is divided by deep theological differences? Look for what we share in common? (And something must be common to all or we wouldn’t be there together.)

    And how, in the first place, can a building *express* beliefs? Or is a building limited to encouraging good prayer and worship practices? Or what? Surely a church should do more than keep out the rain and snow.

  4. I can’t help but think that the author mistakes a difference in belief concerning the nature and significance of church buildings for difference in approach to architecture.

  5. C.C. Sullivan does not seem to be knowledgeable enough about the Catholic faith to make meaningful suggestions about how a church can be a “testament to our faith”.

    From his article, it seems he thinks that “Relics are worshipped” in our “worship halls”.

    To be honest I think what this article really highlights is the difficulties which are going to face anyone hiring a secular architect to design a church.

  6. Sullivan does have a rather jaundiced vision of the Church, as if he only knows the Catholics who write on the Internet. Only when he mentions LA’s cathedral does he acknowledge that there are Catholics who aren’t baroque medievalists. (which is as inauthentic as one can be)

  7. Doesn’t matter if a church looks “classical” or “modernist”..
    What counts is what goes on inside, that we change, learn something and lastly that the building is tasteful and beautiful.
    I usually look at two things, do people leave the church in a hurry and drive out at a dangerous pace cursing at others to get out of the way? .. and do people remove their outer coats (in winter) once they settle into the pew?
    That tells alot about whether a church, classical looking or modernist looking, is doing a good job in making us the Body of Christ.

    1. @Dale Rodrigue – comment #7:
      You said it well, Dale! These are generally my views on judging either the “classical’ or “modernist” architectural styles. I especially like your final criterion: is it “doing a good job in making us the Body of Christ?” While my bias generally favors the “modernist,” I have found some “classical” designs (both original or renovations of existing churches) that are tastefully and appropriately done (avoiding excessive Baroque décor!) and that are conducive to the Vatican 2 liturgy renewal emphasizing “full, conscious, and active participation” by all present. From my experience, I find that the more vociferous advocates of “classical” styles appear driven by their insistence that anything pre-modern is *ipso facto* more “reverential” and conducive to a “sacred space.” Likewise, I found that some of the early proponents of “modernist” renovations went too far in some instances toward a very minimalist and austere décor. We need to honor and retain what’s proper and adaptable from past styles – AND – also embrace contemporary cultural styles as being worthy to use for worship spaces.

    2. @Dale Rodrigue – comment #7:
      Dale,

      I recommend caution with the second of your criteria. My parish used to have a coat ‘hallway’ [coat room open on both ends], then one end was closed and became a storage area, and as of a couple of weeks ago, what remained was also converted to storage. So now, there’s no place to PUT your winter coat if you take it off, unless you take it with you, in which case you might as well keep it on.

      Having raised the point with the choir director, I wonder if an alternative will be found, as we lose probably 20% of our seating capacity if everyone has to keep their coats with them in the pew.

      1. @Lynn Thomas – comment #25:
        Lynn, your church had a coat room? Wow! I’ve never attended a church with coat room. That actually is a great idea and one I think that is overlooked in planning churches (assuming very honest parishoners).
        If there are coat rooms my comment for removing winter coats in #7 doesn’t apply in that exception.

  8. ‘Shifting from the pontificate of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to Pope Francis should, according to Sullivan, usher in a change in the way we approach our worship spaces.”

    I find this idea troubling. The Catholic Church has enjoyed (or endured) many Popes throughout its history. To think that the change of one man should herald a change in how we perceive the architectural appearance of our buildings gives little credence to timelessness.

    Visit the once vaunted “Cathedral of Tomorrow” near Cleveland. It was cutting-edge architecture in its day, and presaged the rise of the sports domes of today. And it was tied directly to its one leader.

    But it never presented an image of faith anything like the Kölner Dom.

    Our faith is supposed to last forever. I’d rather not see it composed of “worship spaces” that die in a generation.

  9. Maritain, the Catholic philosopher who wrote a lot about aesthetics, thought that church art is for the people, but people often cannot take in new ideas very quickly. So he recommended that new and experimental styles not be imposed in church architecture and decoration. But he didn’t do any theorizing about what a church building is essentially, nor about how differences in cultures need to be accommodated.

    Are there any first rate architectural theorists of church-making? It seems that architects are particularly susceptible to the influence of theorists.

  10. “Our faith is supposed to last forever.”

    Umm, not exactly. In different historical periods what the faithful understand and appreciate of the faith is no doubt somewhat different. And, since theology (the collective understanding of dogma) does grow, shouldn’t we expect architectural expressions of it to grow also? Sure, there are no doubt some important common functions, e.g., the altar will always be the central part. But surely understandings of what the ecclesia is should be reflected in new church architecture.

  11. One of the biggest failings of post-Vatican II architecture is not in aesthetic design, whether historic-looking or modernist, but in layout. Far too many churches are still being built, and existing churches re-ordered, with theatre-style layouts where the assembly are seated in parallel rows at right angles to a central aisle, and are thus relegated to the role of spectators while the liturgical action takes place on a “stage”. One reason the LA cathedral works pretty well as a parish church is because the seating is raked and there is no difference in floor-level between nave, transept and sanctuary. The only time, ironically, that the LA cathedral does not work is on large diocesan occasions, when those at the rear of the nave are reduced once again to spectators (the rear half of the nave is generally not used on regular Sundays).

    All church design should begin with the assembly and how people will relate visually to each other. There are different ways of doing this — fan shape, horseshoe shape, three-sided around the altar, arrowhead configurations, collegiate ellipses, etc, etc, (but not 360-degree circles, please). As Joseph Gelineau opined in Demain la liturgie back in 1975, there’s nothing so depressing as being confronted with a vista consisting of nothing but the backs of other people’s heads! — and yet many architects continue to provide precisely that.

    The assembly is the primary symbol. Only after its positioning has been correctly determined should the placement of the other major symbols — altar, ambo, font, chair — be considered, in relationship to the assembly and to each other. This is the elementary mistake that many architects make. They start in the wrong place.

    Architectural form should follow function, and the function of the assembly is as active participants, celebrating together as the Body of Christ. It has been said that if you design a space that works well for the Easter Vigil, it will work well for everything else. Certainly all the major symbols are involved in interplay at this liturgy, and if you can get right the relationship of the assembly to those symbols then the chances are that the church will have a successful layout. Then, and only then, can you start making decisions about aesthetic design.

    The reason that 360-degree circular layouts do not work is that they are dominated by the altar to such an extent that it is then very difficult if not impossible to find correct placements for any other constituent symbols, including the assembly. The Germans discovered this through experience many years ago and therefore stopped using circular designs, and yet architects in other parts of the world do not seem to have learned those lessons.

    1. @Paul Inwood – comment #12:

      Leaving aside your underlying theory on church design, with which I would take issue, from a practical perspective why are the sides of people’s heads any more interesting than the back of them?

      And why would a crowd looking at itself result in a greater level of active participation? At sporting events the crowd is often placed put on the large screen, but they are none the less still just spectators.

      The last place anyone involved in the action is going to be looking is a mirror image of themselves.

    2. @Paul Inwood – comment #12:
      “All church design should begin with the assembly and how people will relate visually to each other.”
      “The assembly is the primary symbol. Only after its positioning has been correctly determined should the placement of the other major symbols — altar, ambo, font, chair — be considered, in relationship to the assembly and to each other.”

      Wow! Thank you, Paul, for stating this agenda so clearly and emphatically! I completely disagree, of course. However, I find your comment refreshing because I often have a hard time convincing ordinary Catholics of the ideology behind much modern church architecture.

      No time to parse your comment thoroughly, but a couple of highlights:

      The assembly is not a symbol…it is a reality – the assembled Body of Christ. It is not a symbol of the Body. Likewise, the altar is not a symbol…it is an altar. Likewise, the liturgy itself is not a symbol of heavenly reality – it is a real participation in heavenly worship. Unless I am completely misunderstanding your comment, it smacks of the medieval practice of covering up liturgical reality with endless layers of symbolic explanations.

      But, if we are uncomfortable with the idea of heavenly reality then it makes sense that we would be uncomfortable with architecture that evokes height, verticality, grandeur, more than a fixation on the people around us. (Btw – it is a “both-and” so please, no comments about ignoring fellow members of the body).

      I too am depressed at a vista of the backs of heads (or sides) But I only encounter this in banal modern “worship spaces” where there is nothing else to catch my attention or lift my gaze/thoughts/prayers heavenward.

      1. @Jared Ostermann – comment #15:
        Jared,
        You have several misunderstandings here, some of them involving rather basic elements of Catholic theology and Catholic liturgy. Most serious is your misunderstanding of what “symbol” means, and your playing off real participation with merely symbolic. This shows you don’t know what theologians mean by “symbol,” and the rich recovery in the 20c of material from the first millennium, as well as modern philosophy/anthropology etc., so that symbols are tied in precisely to the deepest level of participation and convey the deepest reality.

        The assembly is a symbol. The altar is a symbol. These are standard Catholic assertions, and they are found even in official documents. If you understand what the assertion means, I doubt that you would reject it. There is something rich and very Catholic here.

        No one is denying the heavenly aspect, or our participation in the heavenly liturgy on earth. There is much reason to exercise care and caution here, however, lest “heavenly” start to take on escapist or nostalgic connotations.

        awr

      2. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #17:
        Fr. Ruff,

        My typical pitfall of overstating the case. I have actually spent plenty of time with sign/symbol in graduate liturgical studies.

        I should have said “the assembly is not JUST a symbol” – a reductionist tendency I often saw in grad school and see in comments like Paul’s. Maybe unfairly to Paul, I admit. I object to the idea that the assembly should be manipulated architecturally, to make it a “better” symbol. An overemphasis on the (rich and beautiful, to be sure) symbolic aspects of liturgical reality carries with it the danger of human meddling and manipulation.

        Stated differently: the assembly is a symbol, whether or not it is arranged in a fan shape. It has symbolic power first and foremost because of what it is; rather than because of how we arrange it.

      3. @Jared Ostermann – comment #23:
        Jared – thanks for the comment. I appreciate your clarification. And don’t worry – I overstate things all too often myself.
        awr

      4. @Jared Ostermann – comment #15:

        But, if we are uncomfortable with the idea of heavenly reality then it makes sense that we would be uncomfortable with architecture that evokes height, verticality, grandeur, more than a fixation on the people around us. (Btw – it is a “both-and” so please, no comments about ignoring fellow members of the body).

        Jared,

        I was talking about ground layout only, not about other aspects of design. The evocation of height and verticality is very important, and not just in the metaphysical terms that one might think.

        Anyone familiar with the work of the late Frenchman Alfred Tomatis will know that he studied in depth the physiological effects of sound on human beings. Without going into too much detail, our cerebral cortex is stimulated by higher frequencies, and this promotes a feeling of well-being. The lower frequencies do not have the same effect. These higher frequencies, as any physicist or acoustician will testify, are not to be found at ground level, where bass frequencies predominate, but proliferate at higher altitudes. The master builders of the Gothic cathedrals knew this, and so their tall, soaring buildings are all designed to make human beings stand tall and stretch upwards, instinctively searching for those higher frequencies.

        All of this, incidentally, has profound implications concerning the effect of over-amplified bass frequencies in discos and in-car stereo systems, and the primitive sensations that those frequencies arouse. It also provides substantial support for a preference for standing as the optimum posture for prayer, as opposed to kneeling. But I digress…

      5. @Paul Inwood – comment #26:

        Paul Inwood, you clearly have an agenda that disagrees with the received wisdom that the best posture for prayer is on your knees, hands joined, fingers at 45 degrees to your chest, tongue out, eyes closed, receive the Little White Guest, then back silently to your place, your beads, and your silence. I wonder what your agenda is, and I fear Pope Francis, and the late Archbishop Bugnini, each in their own way, share it with you.

    3. @Paul Inwood – comment #12:
      One other thought, taking your premise that everything is about how we relate visually to one another.

      In a banal space, I tend to see people in a banal way.

      In an elevated/beautiful/transcendent space I often have glimpses of people as part of a larger, eternal, heavenly reality. For brief moments, it is as if I can see the souls that are just as much a reality as the body.

      We are surrounded by masses of people all day in our regular lives. The liturgy gives us a chance to interact – together with other people – in a reality that is beyond our fixation on the here and now.

    4. @Paul Inwood – comment #12:
      Paul,

      How does your statement that “only after its positioning has been correctly determined should the placement of the other major symbols — altar, ambo, font, chair — be considered, in relationship to the assembly and to each other” square with GIRM 299 that “the altar should, moreover, be so placed as to be truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns.”
      Wouldn’t it be better to say that the relationship between the altar/sanctuary and the assembly should be the first issue?

      I’ve always wondered about this phrase that the people are the primary symbol, could you say more about what that means? What’s the difference between primary and secondary symbols?

  12. Amen to Paul’s comment, #12… we spend so much time talking about the different appointments and objects. While they are important, the action, activity, and perspective of the gathered assembly should hopefully, lead the criteria for our liturgical spaces. I think it was John Buscemi (who in my opinion, has always been one of the finest liturgical architects and designers), who has said that any liturgical space should feel incomplete, until the people have filled it. But the people should not be herded in like cattle, rather.. seen as a central point of focus for the liturgical action that ensues. Hopefully, we will start opening ourselves up to the goal that we should stop building museums, but create and design spaces that free the community to pray and offer praise. Such spaces can also be aesthetically beautiful – the two values are not mutually exclusive.

  13. stanislaus kosala : @Paul Inwood – comment #12: Paul, How does your statement that “only after its positioning has been correctly determined should the placement of the other major symbols — altar, ambo, font, chair — be considered, in relationship to the assembly and to each other” square with GIRM 299 that “the altar should, moreover, be so placed as to be truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns.” Wouldn’t it be better to say that the relationship between the altar/sanctuary and the assembly should be the first issue? I’ve always wondered about this phrase that the people are the primary symbol, could you say more about what that means? What’s the difference between primary and secondary symbols?

    GIRM 299 probably doesn’t square with the assembly being the primary symbol. I suspect differing Eucharistic ecclesiologies explain the differences in emphases.

  14. I appreciate the article very much. Churches with classical design and architecture worked very well for the Tridentine Liturgy. I do not think they work as well for the “new” Mass.

    Although, we could do more with design and appointments found in more modern Churches, fan-shaped seating closer to the altar seems to speak to the reformed liturgy, participation and our understanding of being Church. The “bowling alley” design of the past doesn’t do it.

    1. @Vincent Gluc, OFM Conv – comment #22:

      Father Gluc, I agree with what you say with regard to the reformed liturgy. The architectural requirements for the Tridentine liturgy and the Pauline liturgy are quite different. However, if a parish intends to celebrate the EF most of the time, the construction or renovation of a church in the older architectural style might be a wise choice. I don’t believe that a newer architectural style must necessarily supersede an older architectural style. Older architectural styles might still prove useful for select applications.

  15. I would propose that one *potential* issue in the modern rhetoric about and approach to liturgical architecture as a space in which the assembly acts is that it obscures the fact that the architecture itself is a part of the ritual/symbolic fabric, not a simple container for that fabric. It is a product of human acts, making those acts (and actors) present. Importantly, a part of the fabric which has always already happened… It makes the past spatially present de facto.
    Or, in another key, if the liturgy is the symbolic performance of the Kingdom of God, liturgical architecture/art is the symbolic construction of the Kingdom. It is the ‘space’ of the Kingdom and the Kingdom doesn’t symbolically happen without a symbolic space – ritual requires it, the ritual is shaped by it (architecture acts).
    That doesn’t mean modern architecture is discounted, only that its liturgical rhetoric misleads with its strong focus on the here-and-now assembly acting (falsely) alone.

  16. Jordan, I don’t know how a Church could use the EF “most of the time.” I believe the moto proprio clearly stated that the EF is just that, exraordinary. Therefore, the ordinary form should be “most of the time” and the EF celebrated in a limited way.

    1. @Vincent Gluc, OFM Conv – comment #31:

      I believe the moto proprio clearly stated that the EF is just that, exraordinary. Therefore, the ordinary form should be “most of the time” and the EF celebrated in a limited way.

      Well no, it doesn’t state that.

      Furthermore, if you read Summorum Pontificum, you’ll find that it provides for personal parishes for the celebration of the 1962 Missal. Those parishes can (and should) erect churches, just like ordinary parishes do.

      Furthermore, parishes should be designed to celebrate both forms of the liturgy adequately (which is perfectly possible) since SP allows the faithful to request that their weddings and funerals be conducted in the EF on an individual basis.

    2. @Vincent Gluc, OFM Conv – comment #31:

      Your point is well taken. However, some parishes also “tridentinize” the ordinary form. My parish celebrates every Mass ad orientem, OF and EF. The church is older, so it conforms to the “traditional” nave-chancel-apse model (“traditional” in scare quotes as there were many different architectural styles even before the Council). A fan nave or circular worship space would not work well for our parish. These forms do not suit the celebration of Mass on altars facing towards an apse, as often there is no clear separation of the sanctuary from the nave.

      Traditionalist religious orders have constructed new monasteries and parishes recently. Even though these communities are few in number, their architectural preferences are more than mere aesthetic tastes. I don’t disapprove of newer architectural styles which best suit certain celebrations of the OF. I merely contend that a community should be free to choose the architectural style best for them. One choice includes preconciliar architectural styles. These styles should not be deprecated even if they do not suit most congregations today.

  17. Vincent Gluc, OFM Conv : Therefore, the ordinary form should be “most of the time” and the EF celebrated in a limited way.

    Perhaps it is in atonement for the Missa Mundanarum too often celebrated in lieu of a reverent OF.

  18. Having worshipped in communities with different arrangements for congregational placement over the decades, I have become skeptical over time, after initial enthusiasm, that they are particularly meaningful in fostering what proponents of various schema propose would be fostered. Lots of theory, little evidence.

    As I often bleat here, I do care mightily about high quality natural acoustics being about 50% of the design consideration, and that visuals are overemphasized because they are much easier to dilate on in words.

    As for coats: not all churches are blessed with good climate control. Many are furnaces in the summer and frosty in the winter, and parishes can ill afford the energy bills or renovation of other approaches. People keeping their coats on may be a literal, not figurative, signal of God’s Frozen People. Cast not thy gimlet eye on the frozen.

    That said, those coats do have an acoustical effect: they act as human upholstery. So a church full of people in heavy winter coats can sound rather different as compared to the summer.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #35:
      I tend to agree. In my experience the layout of a building is not as important to the quality of the liturgy as some claim it to be. I’ve been in fan-shaped churches where the assembly seemed extremely disengaged, and I’ve been in churches with traditional rows of pews where the liturgy has been extremely vibrant. And when I think back over the different places that in my judgment did liturgy well, there is no type of plan that dominated.

      1. In my ignorance, can anyone enlighten me as to why it was/is thought seating layout would improve liturgy?

        As I noted up thread, and in agreement with comments #35 and #36, I have never seen it make any difference. However I would be interested to know what the thinking behind it was.

  19. Since we are on the subject of modernist vs classical church designs, in my former parish, my beloved the Cathedral of St. Jude in St. Petersburg Fl has been undergoing a remodel for the past 15 months. It was built in 1963. Bishop Lynch will lead the dedication this Thursday evening, Sept 12. The remodel is astounding and modernist especially when compared to how it looked. If one is interested there are some pics at http://preps.tampabay.com/news/religion/newly-renovated-cathedral-of-st-jude-nearly-set-to-make-its-debut/2140600
    Bishop Lynch is to be commended!

  20. It’s perhaps ironic that the ungainly exterior appearance of St Michael’s in Kansas is actually caused by the fact that its interior follows one of Paul Inwood’s preferred layouts: it’s three sided around the altar. However returning to the article makes me wonder if Sullivan isn’t trying to oppose modern architectural forms heroically against traditional styles as if we were all living in the days of the Bauhaus. This is suggested by his almost loving catalogue of the star architects who have built the campus of the Crystal Cathedral. However regardless of its ability to be reformed for catholic liturgy it’s my bet that the Diocese of Orange will regret this purchase quite quickly: as I understand it the building is staggeringly expensive to run – try operating that in Southern California without running the airconditioning through all daylight hours. Also contrary to the article I believe that the success of the LA cathedral’s interior is precisely because it is fundamentally traditional in form despite superficial appearances to the contrary. For a start the interior layout is cruciform as is made more apparent when it is full – which by the way it usually is at the main 10 o’clock Sunday liturgy and judging by the crowds coming in at the Spanish one following. It’s also not true that the alter platform is continuous with the main floor – there are in fact steps up to it though they are very shallow though it’s not until you look close that you realise this. Also traditional in aim is the coloured concrete which recalls the rammed earth / adobe of southwestern architecture and therefore positions it in a local vernacular architecture which remains a popular style in the region. In fact the positioning of the altar is the major flaw because once there is a large congregation in place one simply can’t see what’s going on at it from a few pews back in the main part of the nave – I am 6’3” – despite the raked floor. It either needs to be further back or elevated further. In fact the most visible…

    1. @Timothy O’Brien – comment #38:

      For a start the interior layout is cruciform as is made more apparent when it is full – which by the way it usually is at the main 10 o’clock Sunday liturgy and judging by the crowds coming in at the Spanish one following. It’s also not true that the alter platform is continuous with the main floor – there are in fact steps up to it though they are very shallow though it’s not until you look close that you realise this.

      Excuse me, Timothy, but the layout is not cruciform. It is essentially a long raked hall with a short stubby raked transept at right angles to the left and a short stubby raked transept for the choir and organ at an angle on the right. There is no top part of the cross. In other words, more of a T-shape than a cross, with the crossbar of the T being very short, and twisted on one side.

      And I stated that the sanctuary area, not the altar, is continuous with the floor of the nave. There are no steps or barriers between nave and sanctuary. You walk directly from one to the other. The indication that you are in a different place is the color of the floor tiles. It is wonderful to see people, especially those from ethnic groups, wandering peacefully all over the sanctuary at the end of Mass, clearly at home in their Father’s house.

      In fact the positioning of the altar is the major flaw because once there is a large congregation in place one simply can’t see what’s going on at it from a few pews back in the main part of the nave – I am 6’3” – despite the raked floor. It either needs to be further back or elevated further.

      You clearly agree with my point about those in the rear of the nave being disenfranchised. The flaw, however, is not the positioning or elevation of the altar but the shape of the nave itself. This was predicted when the first designs were seen, and it has proved to be true. A long hall shape does not encourage participation for those at the back of the hall.

  21. ..is the Bishops cathedra which is raised on 3 – not shallow – steps and ensures that whoever sits there can be seem by everyone form anywhere. I guess there i an ecclesiological reason for that but I don’t like it.
    Responding to some other comments. I would note returning to Paul Inwood’s first post that the shapes he suggests (horseshoe, fanshape etc) are largely theatrical shapes architecturally speaking. The ‘hall’ form of the traditional church with a flat floor has never been a theatrical shape. Even the three-sided plan is the renaissance thrust stage reborn. One of the symbolic aspects of the traditional church was always said to be that it formed people into a procession or progress towards – once again the LA cathedral explicitly recalls this idea with it’s nave tapestries of the saints processing towards the altar. Finally some issue must be taken with the idea that a church building is only complete when people are in it. This is a suburban notion that is only possible because of the 20th century, In New Zealand the Maori marae or tribal meeting place is usually adorned with portraits of ancestors and carvings which relate to the ancestry and past of the local people among other things. The building is never empty because the ancestors are in a sense there and the past is alive in the present. (I apologise to any readers from this culture for this simplification). It is no distance from this to the old form of the parish church with its memorials, graveyards etc which also give it meaning in the life of the people around it. To suggest that the living only derive meaning from a building when they are in it as a group is to forget why buildings become loved and why, as we have seen in parts of the US recently, people fight to save them even when theological fashion is against them. Sorry for the length.

  22. Timothy O’Brien : The building is never empty because the ancestors are in a sense there and the past is alive in the present.

    Very true.

    A Church is never empty, it is always full with a cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints.

    Architecture that speaks to that would be beautiful indeed.

  23. There is nothing in Vatican II saying that churches may not be built in the shape of the cross. Most of the great Catholic churches are, in fact, cruciform.

  24. As I read the comments, I thought about some of the great cathedrals of Europe with their great “choirs” that block the view of the altar for most of the other people. Seeing the altar is a very important part of participating in the Mass.

  25. I’ve worshipped in so many different types of Catholic Churches, from the grandeur of St. Peter’s to the simple church I had a hand in building for a small Mexican-American community in rural Oklahoma. The latter was only about 10K square feet. But it featured some lovely faceted glass windows featuring the corporal works of mercy and a large image of the Virgin of Guadalupe which allowed much light into the small sanctuary. It held around 125 people. It wouldn’t win any architectural awards but the people there sure loved it even though it didn’t look remotely like any church they had ever seen in Mexico. They were thrilled because it replaced a falling down cinder block structure which had been their first church.
    I’ve seldom been in a church in which I couldn’t really worship, but I’ve been in some really ugly ones. I hate to admit this but churches built since VII probably reflect the liturgical tastes of a particular pastor or bishop. Some parishes and dioceses have lucked out better than others.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #46:

      I hate to admit this but churches built since VII probably reflect the liturgical tastes of a particular pastor or bishop.

      Or, perhaps just as likely, the fear of some of those pastors that they will be thought aesthetic philistines.

      Even in the best of times, pastors are likely to go with the cultural flow. But I think the herd mentality in those years was particularly hard for most to resist.

  26. I think we should look into why so many people like traditional, or “churchy,” looking churches so much. I think it has to do with comfort (which is different from nostalgia), and the deep cultural associations people in the west still have with traditional forms of church architecture. Many older churches have a very human warmth and feel about them. People feel free to pray when they are comfortable.

    A lot of recent modern churches have a “white room” museum quality about them. They are nice-to-look-at but please-don’t-touch places.

    BTW, the Westerville OH parish mentioned in the article replaced the church I attended as a kid. Never seen the new place, but I remember thinking the old one was dark and ugly.

  27. Paul Inwood – thanks for your response. I agree that those further back can’t see easily when they are standing and that this is a flaw which I have no doubt will be corrected one day though we may not be alive to see it – but I don’t agree that they are disenfranchised because I don’t believe that not being able to see everything ultimately makes you any less part of an assembly or less present at an event – to use a theatrical metaphor I don’t think anyone sitting at the top of the gods or in an obstructed view is less present at the opera than someone sitting in the front of the orchestra stalls – they may in fact love it as much or more and be as much or more truly there.
    Regarding the cruciform pattern underlying LA – well, this is just my interpretation based on experience of the church and I fully accept that others might reasonably not see it this way. My real point was that the LA cathedral conforms to people’s idea of what a church is because it has many features which signify ‘church’ in a conventional though very subtly. However it is a fact that there are three steps from the ‘nave’ to the sanctuary area (which I called the altar platform in my original post) Though it is true that these are are not a barrier anyone who treats the floor as continuous will find themselves in a position of extreme prayer and very conscious of any bass vibrations.

  28. I was excited to see two references in the comments on the post to the church I currently serve, St. Michael the Archangel in Leawood, Kansas. That the comments were negative is not a surprise to me, even though local reception seems to have been largely positive. I would disagree with Ann Olivier’s characterization of the style as “bad traditional,” which says too much and too little about what is really going on in this building. I mean not to critique David Meleca’s original design nor the ideas of Dennis McNamara that inform many of its traditional elements. In my view, the biggest problem is not with stylistic unity or the tension between ritual axes and 3-sided theater seating, but that the tradition wasn’t carried far enough – beyond the cosmetic (the “visuals,” echoing KLS above) to materials, methods and timelines, and a resulting structure wherein one experiences all of the senses integrated.

    I would also suggest (again echoing KLS) that “enfranchisement” is at least as much if not more dependent on acoustical realities than lines of sight. Someone sitting in the back row of a concert hall may experience engagement even with binoculars if natural sound is reaching them in a way that they can hear and feel. Someone sitting in the fourth pew can feel utterly alone and exposed if acoustically isolated in a church designed only for one-way delivery of sound/message from the ambo or altar.

    Cost cutting and design compromise: only an issue if it is assumed that a church building must be completed inside and out within a single generation (or 12 months).

  29. Having red Chris Sullivan’s blog piece, I’m still in the dark as to why a change in pontificates should impel us to suddenly change the architectural styles of our churches.

  30. One thing that strikes me about the post-VII churches I’m familiar with is that the signs and symbols, i.e., their art works, are much fewer than in the new ones. This, I think, contributes to the common complaint that the new churches are empty, and I think that they are, relatively speaking. They are plain and bare, and it’s hard to make a bare wall *mean* anything.

    Most specifically, the artworks that are incorporated (except for the traditional stations of the cross) rarely have anything to do with evil, sin, or guilt. In other words, much of the faith that is pure narrative has been lost.

    Plus the stained glass windows are usually abstract designs, and they can mean anything — or nothing.

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