A thought occurs to me as I contemplate the architectural updating of our parish church, which will paradoxically make our church appear older and timeless: Although God doesn’t need beautiful things, he is infinitely deserving of them, and we need to make them—for the good of our souls.
My parish church is undergoing an aesthetic transformation, one that we hope will also foster a spiritual renewal. The pastor announced last year that the narthex (front entrance area) is to be renovated and expanded along a classic design incorporating Romanesque columns and archways.
This actually continues a trend that has been ongoing in the parish for decades. Although built in 1970 following the familiar modern canons of style—fan-shaped nave, electric light fixtures, carpeting, etc.—the interior of the church has been progressively de-modernized since then. Now the sanctuary would not look out of place in Renaissance Florence. The sanctuary of green and white marble, the tabernacle, and prominent crucifix are exceedingly fine, classic, and beautiful. I’m not sure the original architect would recognize his work.
There was a glaring problem, however, in that the outside of the church clashed with the classicism inside. It was far from the worst example of the “suburban spaceship,” but it was dispiriting enough.
Now, finally, the two parts of the church will be in harmony with each other and with the best of tradition. Although the project demanded a large sum from the parishioners and the diocese, we know it is a worthy cause. We are willing to bear with several months of gravel, scaffolding, and boarded-up stained-glass windows, waiting in joyful hope for the new beauty that will hatch from the shell.
I’m intrigued by the idea that one can de-modernize—“turn back the clock,” as some say. It so happens that this year marks the centenary of the founding of Bauhaus, the modernistic school of architecture.
Even if you haven’t studied its tenets, you have probably lived inside its results. The proponents of the style preached the gospel of functionalism (“form follows function”) and created buildings that were styled as “machines for living in.” Beauty as traditionally understood had no place in the brave new world envisioned by Gropius, Le Corbusier, and others associated with the style. Beauty served its purpose in ages past but was now passé, an illusion we had outgrown.
I came across an old book in a thrift shop recently that went a long way toward explaining the connections between Bauhaus and modern churches. Entitled Contemporary Church Art, it was written in the middle of the last century by a Catholic layman and expounds on what he thought the Church of the Future should look like, complete with illustrations. (These include a famous chapel by Le Corbusier that looks to these untutored eyes like a piece of Swiss cheese.) The author grounds his theology in a kind of historical determinism. Modern man demands a modern style of architecture. What does this look like?
The author examines church art through the ages and devises a social-economic scheme to explain the evolution of style. For example, the Gothic style arose in the Middle Ages because the “ruling group” at the time was the “Christian knight.”
And what is the “ruling group” in the modern era? According to the author: “Technical industrial workers, homeless and looking for redemption.” What does their church look like? “A light, airy, tent-like structure of steel-frame construction, originating in industrial buildings.” In an odd leap of logic, the author says that this design resembles a tent and thus revives the Old Testament idea of the “Tent of God” that traveled with the Israelites through the wilderness.
There in a nutshell is the reason why many of our churches look the way they do. They are meant to resemble a tent. Or perhaps an industrial factory—I’m not quite sure which. The author cites favorably a number of Baroque churches that were bombed out during World War II and then rebuilt in modernist style. The effect is that they still appear bombed out, or at any rate shell-shocked. Some triumph over the ravages of war!
What if you happen to prefer a historical style to the particular modern style advocated in the book? The author denigrates such a preference as sentimentalism and sterile “historicism.” Any truly living culture, he argues, creates art and architecture that are of its own time, not imitative of earlier times. The argument seems plausible enough on its face. But there is a huge, unexamined question. The various historical styles (Romanesque, Gothic, etc.) evolved out of cultures that were Christian, or at any rate religious. What happens when the aesthetic of an era is organized around principles that are contrary to the spirit of religion?
One only has to read the statements of Bauhaus-influenced artisans to get a flavor of their thought. Le Corbusier himself said that modern architecture had to effect a “revision of values” and create “mass production spirit.” He declared that “our epoch is determining, day by day, its own style,” evoking history as an impersonal and unstoppable force, not one directed by the human will acting in accordance with true values and principles. For all his better intentions, the Catholic author of Contemporary Church Art seemed to have absorbed this current of thought, stating that “it is modern architects and artists who stand firm in tradition; they are tools of history” [italics mine].
Modern style demands modern building matter, and the author defends the use of iron, concrete, and steel in churches as the materials which “correspond to our needs.” This too is a revealing phrase. Is church-building about “our needs” or about worshiping God? It seems to me that the design features of modern churches conspire to make one forget about God. The circular worship format was originally conceived with the intention of bringing people closer to what is happening at the altar. Its effect is, more often than not, to leave people closed in on themselves. G.K. Chesterton memorably analyzed the difference between the cross and the circle. The cross is “centrifugal,” breaking out and reaching upward; the circle “returns upon itself and is bound.” I see this metaphor as very applicable to the cross-shaped versus tent-shaped church.
In passing, let me put in a word for one 20th-century artistic style—Art Deco—that ought to have been more widely exploited for churches. I urge you to search out some pictures of the several Art Deco churches in Europe and America. The style, while geometrical, is not so stripped down as to look extraterrestrial. It does not eschew charm and ornament. Art Deco seems entirely compatible with the transcendence sought by traditional church design; why advanced thinkers in the Church bypassed it in favor of stark Brutalism is a mystery to me.
When the clergy announced the renewal project at my parish, they stressed that the changes would foster a “more reverent and welcoming” atmosphere. They also said that the new styling of the church would make it splendidly distinct from its surroundings, allowing people to pass from the “banal and vulgar world” into something like a foretaste of heaven.
I find the first idea particularly interesting. One of the claims made for modern church design is that it puts us back into communion with each other. But I think many people would agree that the sort of modern style I have been describing is alienating; it separates human beings from their humanity, from tradition, and ultimately from God. Could it be that the modernist church, with its characterless slabs of concrete and blank white walls, is just one more expression of the mechanistic, dehumanized world we have been steadily building for ourselves?
One final thought occurs to me as I contemplate our updating, which will paradoxically make our church appear older and timeless: Although God doesn’t need beautiful things, he is infinitely deserving of them, and we need to make them—for the good of our souls.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “Interior of a Gothic Cathedral” (1612) by Paul Vredeman de Vries (1567-after 1630), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.