Page 6, 12th September 1969

12th September 1969
Page 6
Page 6, 12th September 1969 — A golden decade

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Locations: Cologne


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A golden decade


EVERY year since 1953, a publishing firm in Lanimshire has produced the Catholic Building Review, in two thick editions, illustrating current work commissioned by the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

Most of the buildings are churches, schools, or parish halls, occasionally a convent or a monastery. In the 1950s it was a very depressing experience to look through these publications. Most magazines devoted to architecture and building illustrate only the best —or what the editors think are the best--of the work which is offered for publication.

A review which seeks to show everything in its field that is designed or built may not be very rewarding to the general reader but it can give an accurate and useful picture of what is going on.

The Catholic Church in England and Wales was certainly not an enlightened patron of architecture in the 1950s. Some progress has, happily, been made since then. The standard of work shown in the current Review is immeasurably higher (especially in the Northern Edition) than in t 960.

I think it may be true to say that this contrast reflects a more rapid improvement than can be claimed by most of the other large-scale architectural patrons of the decade — the commercial developers, the house-builders and the industrialists.

The shame one feels in looking at this publication has been steadily reduced each year since 1960. This is encouraging, even if it isn't very exciting.

In the 1950s the general standard of architecture in Europe rose steeply from the abysmal depths of the 1920s and 1930s. At the same time much thought was being given to the meaning of the liturgy and the purpose of church building. Many good churches were erected between 1950 and 1960 in, Europe—especially in the Archdiocese of Cologne-and a few—very, very few-in these islands.

I was first asked to design a Catholic church in 1953 (the design remained on paper for five years before we received approval to build it). Nearly nine years after receiving this first commission, I was asked to design another Catholic church., and since then I have received. at fairly regular intervals, commissions for Catholic. Anglican and Nonconformist churches.

Almost without exception, on each occasion the amount of money available has been less than for the previous church, and a few months ago I was asked to design a (permanent) church, parish centre and priest's house, all to be built for £17,000!

It would be unwise to draw general conclusions from a limited experience, but it does seem to me that the decreasing budgets reflect something else besides the financial disasters which we have suffered under successive Governments.

I think that the propriety of lavish spending on monumental church building is being more and more questioned by Christians, as inappropriate to a religion which emphasises the importance of charity and humility, and looks askance at pomp and circumstance.

I do net think that this is the only proper view: it seems right that God should be worshipped with the help of all the best that we can produce in music, architecture, sculpture. and painting; with exuberance as well as solemnity and simplicity.

But perhaps in present circumstances it may be better to leave the universities and the municipalities, the developers and the industrialists, to get on with their lavish monuments, and to let the most modern shelters suffice for the eucharistic celebration. And yet . . perhaps there is still hope for the builders of monuments!

It would be rash to think of the present pattern of pastoral organisations in our large towns as something which will never change, and a possible development might be a grouping of Parishes, where each parish would have its own modest church and social buildings, but would also share in the use of a central (deanery?) site, where a church of more traditional scale might be appropriate.

Eleven years ago I went to look at some of the best European churches of the 1950s. A few months ago I made a similar tour, and this time it seemed to me that the best efforts in the '60s had been put into the design of humbler churches.

For example, I was much more excited by a simple church recently erected in a Belgian town (when I saw it. the altar and font had just been removed—temporarilyto make space for a "spectacle") than by another much publicised church built ten years earlier a few miles away.

In the older building the liturgical arrangements anticipated in almost every detail the liturgical decrees of the Council, but the spirit of an earlier, perhaps less Christian, outlook seemed to prevail. In architectural quality the newer building was better, but I do not think that this alone explained my reactions.

I do not advocate the building of temporary liturgical hutting (except in special circumstances, where immediate shelter is required with little money to pay for it—but when it is recognised that later replacement will be necessary).

On the other hand, there is certainly no need to compete with the lavish expenditure on materials and finishes which is required (apparently) to sell consumer goods to the affluent peoples of America and Western Europe; not, at any rate, while half the world starves I wish that all those who commission church buildings would read paragraphs 23 and 24 of the Pastoral Directory for Church Building: "23. Works of art, including stained glass, should be considered as part of an organic scheme concerned with greater themes of the faith as contained in the Scriptures and in helpful t r ad i tional symbolism. These works of art should assist the assembly, not

distract from the mysteries which the liturgy celebrates.

"24. Mediocre and superficial works must be firmly rejected. Those responsible for building or re-ordering a church will seek the assistance only of able artists. The artist practices the art of his time. It is highly desirable that he should put contemporary forms, materials and techniques at the service of the Faith.

The true nature of materials is to be respected."

I have been trying to put these injunctions into practice for many years, and I have not always found it easy. Sometimes talented artists are rejected by parishes because their charges seem too high, because their works are unsuitable for devotional use, or more often simply because their worth is not appreciated.

Perhaps it would be better if the selling, by retail traders, of images for use in churches were forbidden (but who wants to add to the list of things which are forbidden?) Then, at any rate, parishes would be forced to commission these works, and the economics might get sorted out.

It is very difficult indeed. Architects can usually design furniture, but very few are also sculptors or silversmiths. Trying to get a talented silversmith (for example) to produce designs, and then the goods, can be quite a tiresome experience.

The architect can design candlesticks and sanctuary lamps himself with a fraction of the effort, but the results are not invariably encouraging. and the commercial workshops are sometimes not scrupulous in the execution of architects' designs.

I have mentioned the Pastoral Directory for Church Building, of which "Book One" has been produced by a sub-committee of the National Liturgical Commission (Burns and Oates 1968). "Book Two" of the Directory is to be "a building handbook compiled by architects at the request of the Hierarchy to assist those who are to provide buildings suited to the liturgy."

I understand that some of the authors of an excellent series of articles on church buildings, published by the Architects' Journal in 1967, have been made responsible for the promised handbook.

If this is so, perhaps the highest standards achieved in the 1960s may become commonplace in the 1970s.

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