It is time for the people to begin organising against modernist architecture and the ravages of 'reordering', says Moyra Doorly According to Michael S. Rose, author of Ugly as Sin, "Modern churches violate the three natural laws of church architecture and lead Catholics to worship a false god".
It takes time to defeat The modernists have had the spirit of the age on their side and the impulse to re-order much loved churches and build grotesque new ones has been as strong as the desire to replace familiar streets and squares with brutal 1960's and 1970's housing estates and shopping precincts. The Church responded to the claims of the modernists just as post-war governments and planning authorities took to heart their advice on how to design towns and cities.
The sun then rose on the Birmingham Bullring and Liverpool Cathedral and so far only one of them is scheduled for demolition, along with numerous other 1960's and 1970's buildings. Those in a hurry will notice that there are no modernist churches on the list —yet. But wait, because all the signs are there.
The arguments against secular modernist architecture were not won on aesthetics alone. People had been shouting about the ugliness of the buildings for years but to no avail. If pain had to be borne in order to achieve progress, the modernists shrugged, then so be it.
When people started vandalising and
generally wasting the monstrous developments that had been deemed appropriate for them. the architectural establishment was forced to sit up. The authorities in St Louis, Missouri were among the first to give in and in 1973 the much heralded and prize winning Pruitt-Igoe estate was blown up on camera. Architects began to ask why modernist architecture could not create places, why modernist ideas about space could not translate into buildings that people wanted to live in. They talked about the need to re-adopt traditional urban forms by recreating the street, the square, and the neighbourhood. Ugly as Sin with its lengthy subtitle Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Place to Meeting Spaces — and How We Can Change Them Back Again, is a sign that the argument against modernist church architecture has reached a crucial stage. According to Rose, lovers of traditional-style churches are not motivated simply by taste or nostalgia after all. Modern churches are more than just aesthetically ugly, he maintains. They are "theologically ugly". They distort
an argument. and misrepresent the Catholic faith they are meant to embody and preach a false theology. Thus, they are "ugly as sin".
Modernist churches flout the three natural laws of church architecture. The first of these laws is that a Catholic church must have verticality, which is "the massing of volumes upwards (that) most readily creates an atmosphere of transcendence and, in turn, enables man to create a building that expresses a sense of the spiritual and the heavenly. In turn, the church's architectural elements, such
as windows, buttresses and sacred art, should reinforce this heavenward aspiration."
According to the second law, a Catholic church must have permanence, for "just as the Church is enduring and permanent, transcending space and time, so the church building, which represents Christ's presence in a particular place, is constructed as a solid and enduring structure, a perpetual reminder of Christ's presence active in the world."
And according to the third law, the Catholic church must have iconography, since a church building is a "vessel of meaning with the greatest of symbolic responsibilities .... through art, Christians have developed an ingenious symbolism that raises our faculties of soul to God .... art in sculpture, mosaic, painting, glass, can teach the truth necessary for salvation."
`The Church responded to the claims of the modernists just as post-war governments and planning authorities took to heart their advice on how to design towns and cities'
Rose claims that these three laws transcend the different epochs of Christianity and are qualities of all the truly great churches of Christendom. On these foundations, "church architects build churches that succeed in becoming ... for all generations gates of Heaven and worthy houses of God."
The reader is then asked to accompany a pilgrim as he goes firstly "into a house of the Lord", which is the traditional church building and then "into a worship space of the people", which is the modem church building. And while the traditional church building beckons souls from afar and its façade tells of the riches inside, the modern church building tries not to be conspicuous by looking like a post office or a garage or somebody's house. If it is conspicuous, it is because of its ugliness and its façade has no treasures inside to proclaim.
Each element is taken in turn. In the traditional church building the narthex, for example, draws us in towards the sanctuary; the pulpit is subordinate to the altar: the choir serves the Mass without drawing attention to itself; its sacred art teaches and evangelises; the altar is the focal point of unity, reverence, prayer and worship; the tabernacle reminds us that Christ is truly present here.
The modern church building achieves none of this. Its "gathering space" doesn't draw us towards the sanctuary; the lectern competes with the altar; the music ministry draws attention to itself; there's hardly any sacred art to speak of; the altar is only one of many focal points; the tabernacle is absent or separate.
Rose then turns to the question of how it happened, why it is that architects in the 20th century set about secularising Catholic churches. For the answer, he looks to the influence of modernist architectural theories on certain Church liturgists who had deemed traditional church design to be "irrelevant" long before the Second Vatican Council.
The post-war building boom had allowed some scope for new and innovative church building, but not on any great scale. Following Vatican 2, and taking advantage of the changing atmosphere of the day, the new ideas were sold as being required by the Council. The post-conciliar liturgical establishment became enamoured of the innovations and the modernist attempt to dismantle the form of the church building took off. This is only the most recent stage in a centuries old-war on the church building,Reformation, through the French Revolution to the present day.
The Lutheran architect Edward A Sovik had a huge influence on the liturgical establishment in the 1960s and 1970s. His ideas contained in "Architecture for Worship", published in 1973, were adopted by liturgical design consultants everywhere and formed the basis of Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, which was published in 1978 by the United States Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy. Sovik's ideas also greatly influenced the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales in the production of their liturgical design guide, Principles of Liturgical Design and Rendering, published in 1984.
Sovik's stated aim was the continuation of the work of the Protestant Reformation. He complained that the idea of the church building as "the house of God" had survived the reforms and that this was a misguided Medieval pattern.
In its place he advocated the "nonchurch" or "house of the people", the
church building designed as a worship space which should be domestic in scale and multi-functional, lest anyone think it a church.
In his handbook for both Protestant and Catholic churtches, Sovik's proposals include using chairs instead of pews; reserving the Eucharist (if any) in a separate room; avoiding artwork that might be construed as religious; dispensing with a sanctuary that is distinct from the nave; setting up a table in the midst of the congregation and arranging chairs around it; eliminating the use of crucifixes.
Needless to say, the "non-church" breaks all three of the natural laws of church architecture. The "non-church" is an attempt to eliminate the sacred from the church building. Modernist thinking claims that the church isn't a sacred building as such butthat it is made sacred by the liturgical action of the people. The house of God becomes the people's worship space.
Thankfully a new trend is emerging that of restoring re-ordered churches to their former selves. The final chapter of Ugly as Sin, entitled "How we car inalc‘ our churches Catholic again", slows a number of examples to lift the heart. One of these is the chapel at Notre Dame College in Baltimore which was built in 1869 and re-ordered in the 1960s. A flat ceiling with metal ducting above obscured the vaulted spaces above, wood pawning covered the walls and carpets wee laid OfiLtht work of peeling away these alterations was begun. Now there are architects wlo will adhere to the traditional principles that make buildings churches rather than worship spaces and several designs for new, traditional-style churches ae also illustrated.
The urgent need is to reclaim the Catholic church building: it is a battle which must be won, which can b won. The present liturgical establishmea may be stuck in its modernist ways butso too was Camden Council in the 1970 when it proposed to demolish Covent Garden and build ring roads and office hicks in its place. A residents' associatios was formed to do battle, they won and the rest is history. The same process isunderway in the Church. All the sins are there. e oho Michael S. Rose's book Ugly s Sin: Why They Changed Our Churchc from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaceand How We Can Change Them Bachigain, is published by The Sophia InstitutPress.