Think Before You Order a New Church
By A. HODSDON ARCHARD F.R.I.B.A.
AMER the sense of hearing. it is probably true to say
that man is next influenced for good or evil through his sight
and it is clear that the Church has been conscious of this from the beginning, encouraging artists in every field in the adornment of Her buildings.
Since this article is to concern itself purely with the design of buildings it is not proposed to trace tilse history of Christian Art in the field of applied ornament; suffice it to say that Christian Art of this kind can be said to have begun in the Catacombs.
EARLY Church history tells us that the phases through which she passed were (a) active persecution, (b) a grudging toleration by the Romans, (c) favour and protection.
Under (a) Holy Mass was celebrated in the confined spaces of the underground chambers, under (b) occasional use of public buildings was possible but the Christians were not permitted to erect buildings of their own, neither were they allowed to adapt existing buildings for their own uses.
Under the third phase they found themselves in possession of the Roman Basilicas which they utilised without any major change in plan arrangement or design. It is interesting and perhaps not without profit to speculate upon the form which churches might well have taken had the course of the early Church history been different.
Tw° questions arise here. Was the basilica type plan really well suited to the true use of Christian worship? Is it not possible that the economic and other advantages attached to the taking over of the pagan buildings outweighed consideration of a more realistic approach to the practical and aesthetic needs?
The atmosphere in which the First Mass in the Upper Room was celebrated was clearly one of great intimacy and celebrated essentially for the chosen apostles, but that this intimate atmosphere continued in the catacombs and in the homes of the persecuted Christians for a long time is obvious.
With the ever increasing numbers to be catered for, this sense of participation was in danger and one can well believe it was removed still further by the plan
arrangement of the Roman Basilicas. The fact is, that what began as an expedient remained and became interwoven in the fabric of church design almost exclusively until the present time.
THE basilica type plan in its essentials has survived the development of the ritual from those early days until now, and it has become synonymous with the very word Church.
Here and there one hears of a departure but in these cases the projects have not often been carried through without grave misgiving that such a course was fraught with danger.
Jest precisely the reasons which lie behind this timid approach are difficult to define, but perhaps they are a combination of (a) a fear of the consequences of departing from the traditional, (b) pure sentiment, (c) nostalgia.
Accompanying planning is its
corollary — the aesthetic. In this field there are two main streams of opinion, the Romanticists and the Gothicists.
In the last 900 years their exponents have vietfwith one another
for popular favour. Here one recalls the vituperation in which Pugin indulged when describing those who felt that the Classic style had something to commend it in church building. Indeed violent wordy battles were fought over whether Roman vestments should be worn in Gothic churches !
LET us leave architectural strifes and fashions for the moment and restate some first principles about building.
Through the ages the three chief considerations have been — and will remain — (a) the utilitarian, (b) the economic, (c) the aesthetic. Expressed in another way, tAe building should serve its purpose perfectly in so far as planning
is concerned, its cost should be in reasonable proportion to its purpose and its final form should be such as will satisfy the spirit of those using it,
The reader will be aware from earlier paragraphs as to the utilitarian aspect of church design. so let us pass to the economic which involves engineering and the writer hopes to show how this is linked with aesthetics and architectural "styles."
It is necessary at this point to enunciate the three basic historical principles of construction (a) the beam or lintel, (b) the arch, and (c) the dome. In the same order evolved by the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans.
Today these principles still remain but new material and techniques give the architect much greater scope, since he is no longer confined to the use of stone and timber which restricted the early builders within the limits imposed by these materials.
The Greeks and the Romans evolved great architecture from the logical WC of the materials they used. Right through the Romanesque and Gothic periods the same basic principles were valid and were being developed all the time in the sphere of pure engineering, i.e. the vault and the flying buttress.
GREAT architecture evolved but the same limitations of materials were with the medieval builders as were with the Greeks and Romans.
It is true to say that most seriously minded architects in this 20th Century are endeavouring to keep to the principles which have been enumerated in the belief that by adhering to them great architecture will evolve. Indeed some will say it is evolving already.
However great our fears about departing from the traditional styles, however great our sentimental attachment to Romanesque or Gothic, the facts must he faced.
The customary outdoor headdress not so long ago was the top hat. The mode of transport was the horse drawn trap or chaise. We may look back with longing to those days but few would venture out in them nowadays, to do so would be ostentatious nonsense or an indication of eccentricity.
AS soon as the subject of aesthetics is entered upon one crosses into what one might call the outer zone of the Spiritual.
Shapes and forms, as do musical notes, have a quality which react upon the soul favourably or otherwise. We are uplifted if they satisfy us and conversely we are offended — maybe outraged — if they do not.
The standard by which we judge these things in art is less easily defined than it is in music. Some at a very early age develop a high musical sense, others well gifted in
other ways clearly have none at all.
It may come or be drawn out in later life, but' as often as not it fails to show itself at all and they go through life without an ability to recognise any tune at all.
Fortunately such folk do not play a part in selecting items for Symphony Concerts ! Even in the musical world where harmonies and discords can be clearly recognised there is a difference of view on some matters of consequence. In the 'sphere of art, as we said. hard and fast definitions are less easily come by although there are canons which relate to
Diagram illustrating spans in common use today, accomplished with various types of reinforced concrete and not involving the use of thick stabilising walls. The diagram shows a span of 300 ft., but there are many cases where this has been exceeded.
proportion and colour. As in music early talent frequently manifests itself in art, but those without a sense of proportion and even colour are less easily discovered.
NOS TALGIX AS a result. whilst few are rash enough to express themselves forcibly as musical critics, the great majority feel fully able to praise or condemn art or architecture.
More often than not the standard used by most in this criticism, is based upon an association of ideas. 'they have seen some of the great works of the past and are judging upon features which pleased them without regard to the reasons which brought those things into being. One frequently loves a place, not necessarily beautiful, because of it's nostalgic appeal.
This article set out to clear away by logical reasoning some of the cobwebs which tend to collect on the subject of church design and to make it clear that great architecture grew out of providing honest and straightforward solutions to the problems of the age in which it occurred and not by a wistful looking back.
A year or so ago Peter Anson published in America an excellent book entitled "Churches, their Plan and Furnishings" which carries the Imprimatur of the Archbishop of Milwaukee. On page 11 he says " Yet many in authority when faced with the job of building a new church,
make up their minds first of all that they want to reproduce some favourite features of an ancient building and require the architect to carry ceit their wishes. More practical details are regarded as comparatively unimportant."
He goes on to quote from Julian Leatharts book "Style in Architecture" (1940): "Architecture is primarily related to the science of construction and that man, having mastered the fundamental problem of ensuring stability in his buildings, thereafter, and only thereafter, proceeded to satisfy his instinctive primal urge to decorate. The reversal of an essentially logical sequence is responsible for the present mass of dishonest architecture, which unfortunately, appears to meet with general public approbation."
Fsic Gill expressed himself very strongly indeed in his book " Sacred and Secular" on the subject of the positioning of altars Out this article has no intention of crossing a line which would take it into the theological sphere.
WE have earlier referred to new materials and techniques.
The word technique involves another very important factor to be considered and it is the decay of craftsmanship. The craftsman as he was known 50 years ago has disappeared, largely through the introduction of machinery in every branch of industry.
More and more is a building becoming an assembly of units. prefabricated in factories and workshops and if an architect is to keep down the cost of a particular building he cannot ignore that these units are available to him. He must use his skill to blend them in such a way that they will make a satisfactory whole. Indeed the Royal Institute of British Architects is very conscious of the trend towards standardised units .and strives to arrest the worst dangers by insisting that architects play their part in the design of such things.
Gone virtually are the days when masons, woodcarvers, joiners and carpenters found joy in their work and were content to live their lives, in frugal simplicity. erecting and decorating churches to the Glory of God and for the salvation of their souls. Instead we have the 40 hour week worked in a factory by the man who finds a little satisfaction in his calling.
Here and time in little country workshops one finds the last of these fine craftsmen, men of perhaps 80 years of age, unable to understand why no apprentices come forward to learn their trade.
THESE are the facts which have to be faced,—much as we may regret it—but if church building is to go on they cannot (Condoned in next column) be ignored. If we refuse to accommodate ourselves to these changed circumstances our building projects will stop altogether or bankrupt us. In any event we shall be unable to find the materials we want or the craftsmen to work them .
This is not a plea for " surrealism " in architecture or for that matter in any other of the cliches or isms current today. neither is it an attempt to justify the "aircraft hanger" or the "glass box" church, but it is a plea for an understanding approach, to the subject of church design generally.