The Beauty of Modernist Church Buildings

Modern church architecture doesn’t seem to get a lot of love these days. The general trend, at least in the U.S., is toward historicizing forms that echo Romanesque, Gothic, Classical, or Baroque forms. And it is perfectly fine if people want to build in those styles—though I must say that many of the recent examples of such churches don’t do much for me, seeming to be pale imitations of the buildings they seek to replicate, not much better than the Pizza-hut style churches that proliferated in the 1970s and 80s. Like those churches, these traditionally-styled churches too often have a cheap, mass-produced feel, or seem like a stage set of what someone thinks a church ought to look like (this is a particular problem when modern churches are remodeled by having a “traditional” sanctuary inserted into them).

In any case, I recently stumbled across a collection of photographs of modernist/brutalist churches by Thibaud Poirier that are quite stunning. Of course, they are as much if not more an example of photographic art as of architectural accomplishment, but they do convey the kind of grandeur and beauty that the best modernist architecture is capable of. Also, aesthetics is not the only consideration in church building, and in some cases I wonder how well these structures accommodate the action of the liturgy, which must have primacy in judging a church building. Still, these striking photographs suggest that Modern churches, at their best, can stand alongside the best of Romanesque, Gothic, Classical, or Baroque churches.

They also remind us that far more important that the imitation of past “sacred” styles is a sense of proportion and design, along with quality of materials and their honest deployment. Not all of the churches Poirier has photographed are to my liking, but they all strike me as serious attempts to create authentic sacred spaces, and as such are worth a look.

19 comments

  1. Off times when one tries to conduct and/or take part in worship in a ‘modernist church’ one has the feeling that these buildings are not made to accommodate the ‘presence of the people’ but rather the people are a ‘negative addition’ to the ‘architect’s vision’.. Some how it is much the same experience that one has when the musicians use the music of Mozart and Hayden (for example} for the celebration of a Mass. One feels that the ‘liturgy is interrupting the beautiful concert’. I quickly add that I have nothing in principle against modern architecture’s engineering achievements, nor the music of Mozart and Hayden. This is not a new plaint — it is much in the lines of the attitudes of the original Cistercians against the Cluniacs.

    1. Maybe. The best “modernist” assessment of a church I’ve heard was from a person who said her church didn’t seem “complete” until the people filled it. The people were the decoration. this was from a visual artist, lay preacher, and liturgy geek.

      One problem I see underlying the thread here and at ND 2.0 is the willingness to “professionalize” architecture. By that I mean the wholesale assignment of the task to a person who “knows best” how to design a church. The ideal is obviously a deep, committed, and spiritual engagement by the faith community. If Notre Dame de Paris lacks a faith community, then there’s no problem handing it over to a state committee. A parish church should be able to get built or renovated with wide input from lay people under the guidance of a mystagogue, someone who can draw out the authentic desires and needs.

      I once served a parish that attempted that. The rich parishioners viewed the effort with skepticism. The final result was beyond the expectations of the engaged, and the dissent grudgingly admitted they regretted their aloof approach to involvement. Turned out, we didn’t need their money anyhow.

      Church architecture must express the people’s vision as inspired by the Holy Spirit. If an architect or any artist is unwilling to engage that, it’s time to find one who is–and there are plenty of such people out there.

      1. “One problem I see underlying the thread here and at ND 2.0 is the willingness to “professionalize” architecture. By that I mean the wholesale assignment of the task to a person who “knows best” how to design a church.”

        A bit surreal to read this. How does this not describe Fr. Richard Vosko’s entire career?

      2. I never worked with Fr Vosko, so I can’t comment on that. I do know the man was a liturgical consultant and not an architect. I can’t quite fathom your “surreal” adjective. There are architects and consultants who ran roughshod over parishes, I am sure. I haven’t experienced them.

      3. Hello Todd,

        I think my point is: given how absurdly lopsided the ratio of modernist church designs to more traditional ones has been over the past five-plus decades, when we speak of “the wholesale assignment of the task to a person who “knows best” how to design a church,” it has overwhelmingly been modernist designs imposed on parishes. Often in disregard to popular opposition.

        Fr. Vosko was particularly notorious in this regard. He was indeed only a consultant rather than a credentialed architect, but he functioned typically as the complete package: A pastor or lay committee (or bishop) would bring him in to consult, and he would gaslight (I think this is a fair word to describe what I and others have witnessed) the parish into accepting a radical new design or renovation.

        But if there’s one thing I suspect we agree on, it’s that parishioners should have greater input into such decisions than they typically have. And if you encounter substantial opposition to what you’re proposing, perhaps you should step back and reassess.

      4. Richard, I think you are behind the times. The Dark Ages of US Catholic architecture would be 1945-1980. There were exceptions. Some places are still under orders from bishops to build schools first and worship in gyms and social halls. I might understand the demographic reasoning behind that, but it still has consequences for the parish’s worship and spiritual life even if the soccer field gets planted, watered, and all.

        I think some church people use the term “modernism” and it’s not quite the same as what the next person thinks.

        As for Fr Vosko, I think priests liked having a fellow priest to ride into town and take the heat. But as you say, a community process, with traditionalists willing to move the building forward on some fronts–that is best of all. I remember one parish where the separate Eucharistic chapel got a “compromise” location in an intimate spot in the main church very near the main altar. But one hardcore dissenter was still harping after the architect drew up the plan everyone else agreed was great. Sometimes people just have to be cut loose if they can’t play well with others.

  2. One of the difficulties in liking the spaces in the photos is the absence of art other than the building, itself. While many are beautiful, I get little sense that while worshiping there I would be joining with all the angels and saints in my worship.

  3. Brilliant photography. Some of the churches are quite inspiring; others, intriguing; still others send chills down the spine. Two of the ones from Japan could vie for best cathedral in Mordor.

    Yes, it is clear that no cost was spared in building these edifices, and that they represent something other than mere utility. They are built on a grand scale. Unfortunately, some of them hardly transmit anything of the Christian message and could be just as well Jewish synagogues, Islamic mosques, Universalist Unitarian centers, or Buddhist meditation rooms. At their worst, they are cold and terrifying, and would certainly not draw ordinary people in, except those who are curious about feats of modern architecture.

    I am reminded here of a sculpture I saw in a chapel in Australia recently, of St. Mary MacKillop. It was so awful in its brutalism that my guide said children are afraid to enter the chapel. And I can believe it. I was spooked myself. It never occurred to me to pray to the figure depicted in that statue.

  4. Like Peter, and Fritz, and others, my evals are mixed. Some are inspiring, some are intriguing, some are unappealing and not very beautiful.

    As much as I accept in principle that the Catholic Church is in dialogue with the contemporary world and open to all that is good in it, our ultimate allegiance in church art and architecture is not to the march of progress among the specialists, but to the (reformed) rites and their purpose in facilitating the assembly’s corporate worship. Of course our allegiance to the reformed rites also trumps any allegiance to any past canon of great western architecture. We don’t favor beauty for its own sake, but the kind of beauty that allows the rites best to unfold, that doesn’t distract from the rites, that makes possible the rites’ sacred purpose.

    I’m not convinced that all modernist architecture really puts sacred rites and God’s people first.

    awr

  5. Two of the French cathedrals pictured (Le Havre and especially Royan) are in a sorry state, due to degradation of the fabric of the building. Parts of Royan were fenced off the last time I was there because of the risk of falling chunks of concrete from the roof. The dingy grey concrete there is very depressing to look at, too, and when stained by numerous damp marks is a shadow of what it must have been like when new..

    The cathedral in Evry, the newest cathedral in France, is a classic example of a wasted opportunity: an architecturally interesting design and exterior coupled with a liturgically unenlightened interior, typical of problems with architects (and sometimes their advisors) who do not understand the liturgy. The building is circular/elliptical in shape, inside and outside. It is placed literally in the middle of the town square, sitting like a vast brick cylinder, and has trees growing out of its roof. The photo on Poirier’s website does not do justice to the interior, which completely contradicts the circular shape by having large numbers of serried rows of seats for the people in which they are imprisoned for the duration of a liturgy. From the shape of the building, you would expect the seating to follow the circular shape, but it does not. One wonders why an elliptical shape was even chosen. The sanctuary area at the end — a bare stage with a dirty floor on top of a forbidding, black, tall (5 feet+ high) wall with no steps or visible means of access for the people — gives the strong impression that it is there to keep people out, and indeed it actually is completely inaccessible to anyone in a wheelchair. A breakwater against which the faithful must pound impotently. I have not attended Mass there, but I cannot see how on earth Communion can be distributed in such a layout. There is no provision for musicians, either.

    All of this makes me wonder how many of the other photos also give misleading impressions of the interiors they depict, but it’s certainly very interesting to look at them.

  6. Well they don’t have 800 years of history in their fibre, do they, so that’s hardly surprising. The Enchanted Castle of whatever it’s called in Disneyland isn’t exactly brutalist but I wouldn’t shed a tear if that disappeared either; I wouldn’t even notice.

    Evelyn Waugh was a modern writer.
    Modern writers write bosh.
    Evelyn Waugh wrote bosh.

  7. The expectations placed on large church buildings today vs 800 years ago has some overlap, but also significant differences. 800 years ago, stone or brick was the principal material for the fabric (with variation in vaulting material – wooden vaults were lighter but more vulnerable if there was a roof fire, the risk of which increased with the height of the building, lightning rods being an 18th century invention). No plumbing or electricity or HVAC – so no introduction of water or electricity related risks into the fabric until they were introduced in the modern era, and with risk….. There was little or no seating for non-clerics/religious. Except in places subject to religious orders with mandates for ascetic severity in design*, people did what human beings do: they decorated – and sometimes redecorated – and that was expected and embraced; much of the stone was either painted or expected to be painted eventually, as visual richness was embraced as an ideal though not always achieved.

    * Among them, the Cistercians, but even Cistercians developed the itch for decoration; that said, the principal sensory richness of the Cistercian space would have been its liturgical sound of conventual chanting, to which large well built and sometimes grandly conceived spaces served as a counterpoint. Put a fully chanted liturgy with a chanting congregation, choir and celebrant in some of the better designed modernist spaces, and one might feel a bit differently about them, though one wonders how durable the construction will prove over centuries given the differences in construction expectations.

  8. Two American and ‘modern architecture’ Cathedrals that emphasize the ‘architect’s inspiration’ and are diminished in impact and ‘transcendent awareness’ when ‘the people and the clergy’ are worshiping there are the Cathedrals of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, and that of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. One of the profound problems with them is that they are not ‘human sized’ in their ‘worship furniture’.– altar, ambo, etc. Corbusier’s Dominican Chapel in France has a different sort of problem — it is constructed to promote ‘private prayer’ and not the Divine Liturgy.

  9. “I’m not convinced that all modernist architecture really puts sacred rites and God’s people first.”

    I might scratch the “ist” from this and include “today’s architecture” that attempts an imitation of rosy old times gone by. Striking modernism certainly catches our attention. I can’t say I see “bad modernism” in churches built in the US these past three to four decades. Errors and misunderstandings, certainly. Cheap stuff. But the most notable churches today are not the big ones. Even more of a favorite than my cathedral is this parish: file:///C:/Users/Music%20Director/AppData/Local/Packages/Microsoft.MicrosoftEdge_8wekyb3d8bbwe/TempState/Downloads/parish-history-chapter-11%20(1).pdf

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