Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting
Spaces—and How We Can Change Them Back Again
Reconquering Sacred Space 2000: The Church in the City of the Third Millennium
reviewed by Catesby Leigh
The idea of the city as a repository of meaning is much on the minds of a growing community of traditional urban planners, architects, and artists in the United States and Britain. And yet it is not always clear to the layman exactly what “meaning” means in this context.
Perhaps there is no tidy definition. But surely the idea’s basic underpinnings lie in man’s observation of hierarchy in nature. Historically, man has imitated nature, in an Aristotelian sense, by translating the natural principle of hierarchy into the design of cities and their buildings. At the same time, he has used architecture and its conventions to idealize the various dimensions of human endeavor.
Religious, civic, and domestic buildings have assumed distinct (even typological) identities, so that the city might be architecturally legible, so to speak. The principle of hierarchy, in turn, has found expression in the distinct degrees of physical prominence and artistic articulation imparted to temples, churches, palaces, legislative chambers, and less exalted structures.
The historic city of meaning that has resulted is profoundly human in its characteristics. Its districts and neighborhoods are built on the pedestrian scale, and we instinctively read its buildings—their horizontal repose or vertical thrust—in terms of our own embodied state. Their details are calibrated to human modes of perception. But above all, the city of meaning employs ancient conventions to symbolize the existence of a higher reality underlying the merely phenomenal reality we encounter in our daily lives. In that sense, the historic city provides the otherworldly background to our earthly sojourns. And no architectural type has served that purpose more assiduously or effectively than the church building.
Unfortunately, the machine’s transformation of the means of production also transformed ideas about architecture and the city. In his celebrated 1903 lecture, “The Art and Craft of the Machine” (note the deliberately oxymoronic title), Frank Lloyd Wright prophesied the triumph of an “organic” modernist architecture—and of the romantic naturalism he espoused—by way of an industrialized culture of building. Wright’s rhetorical smoke-and-mirrors clouded the disenchanted city of stark office towers that, alas, figures all too prominently in the contemporary world.
Unlike Wright, the Italian futurist Antonio Sant’Elia forthrightly concluded that nature was no longer prescriptive where architecture and urbanism were concerned. “Just as the ancients drew inspiration for their art from the elements of nature, so we, being materially and spiritually artificial, must find this inspiration in our very new mechanical world,” Sant’Elia wrote in 1914. Hence came the idea of a building designed as a machine, a machine designed to be merely functional, with its members satisfying strictly structural or practical necessities.
So much for the city of meaning.
The spiritual poverty of architectural doctrine conceived in mechanistic rather than humanist terms, evident enough in principle, quickly became evident in fact. Having taken control of “enlightened” architectural discourse during the thirties, a modernist elite of academics, designers, and critics monopolized corporate and institutional commissions after World War II. This elite managed to decimate the arts and crafts without which the city of meaning—and its magnificent cathedrals and churches above all—could never have been built. In so doing, they all but destroyed a traditional culture of building and decoration, leaving room for little more than postwar suburbia’s naïve, cartoonish, mass-produced renditions of historic residential styles. The functionalist city that modernism created is, in short, a visual catastrophe.
With postmodernism came more “sophisticated” allusions to historic architecture—as well as to literary theories of dubious architectural utility. The familiar modernist rejection of cultural continuity in design persisted. Even so, journalists detect evocations of Spanish mission churches or even the splendor of ancient Rome in the new $195 million Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. To which a traditional architect has quite reasonably responded in an Internet posting that anybody could be subject to such epiphanies—with the assistance of psychotropic substances. In truth, the “meanings” contained in the bizarre forms concocted by José Rafael Moneo, the cathedral’s architect, have nothing whatsoever to do with the city of meaning, but are rather grounded in obscure postmodern notions of “reference” that have addled his creative imagination.
It is simply astonishing that the Roman Catholic Church—of all institutions—should have embraced the modernist project of putting an end to the creation of architecture that symbolizes God’s presence in our lives and replacing it with generic buildings conceived in merely functional terms. In so doing, it allowed its churches to be stripped not merely of beauty, but of meaning, as Michael S. Rose emphasizes in Ugly As Sin. Even with Moneo’s cathedral, where artistic pretense is admittedly at a premium, there is no underlying intuition of the infinite, transcendent God of Christianity or the magnificence of his creation. Moneo’s building might pass for an expressionistically overblown convention center were it not for the Latin cross displayed in a protruding glazed volume.
Rose’s book is a welcome antidote to this cathedral’s depressing inauguration. Particularly impressive is the straightforward manner in which the author, editor of St. Joseph Messenger and St. Catherine Review, establishes the three cardinal principles, or “natural laws,” of traditional church design—verticality, permanence (in terms of both mass and formal vocabulary), and iconographic richness—without getting mired in art-historical minutiae.
Rose’s prose is not elegant and seems rushed in places. But his explanation of the relationship between the traditional church and the worshiper’s experience of the sacramental essence of the Catholic faith is clear, jargon-free, extremely informative, and generously illustrated with photographs. He throws in just the right amount of historical detail regarding the advent of church fixtures such as pulpits, pews, and kneelers. And he emphasizes the ramifications of church design for Catholic orthodoxy. “Church architecture affects the way man worships; the way he worships affects what he believes; and what he believes affects not only his personal relationship with God but how he conducts himself in his daily life,” he writes.
Modernist church design, Rose argues, undermines Catholic orthodoxy. It caters to an insidious downplaying of Christ’s sacrifice in the celebration of the Eucharist, as suggested by the frequent replacement of the traditional altar stone with a wooden “Eucharistic table.” Moreover, the idea of the Mass as a multimedia “celebration,” to which modernist “liturgical church designers” subscribe, is incompatible with the acknowledgement of man’s radical incompleteness, which the act of kneeling implies, and with the traditional Liturgy’s related emphasis on adoration and atonement.
So out go the kneelers and the pews, along with the high altar, reredos, baldacchino, and altar rail—and not just in the name of liturgical reform, but also in order that the “worship space” can more easily be rearranged to serve secular functions. Chairs replace the pews. Less portable, perhaps, are the hot-tub-style fonts that have facilitated full-immersion baptism in numerous Catholic churches since the eighties. The tabernacle, for its part, is exiled to a side chapel in order to encourage the “faith community” to focus on the “liturgical action” during Mass. And the richly figurative character of traditional sacred art—the source of yet another dimension of meaning that renders a traditional cathedral or church a “gospel in stone,” in Rose’s words—gives way to sterile abstractions whose religious character is sometimes obscure. (For example, the crucifix has been replaced in some instances by a “plus sign” derived from the Greek cross.)
The upshot of these environmental innovations is that the admittedly paradoxical but nevertheless very real idea of the finite church building as the dwelling place of the infinite God is lost. Rose reports that the behavior of congregations during Mass is less reverent and more noisy as a result. Fortunately, more of the faithful are becoming aware of this unnecessary impoverishment of their religious and cultural heritage, protesting modernist “renovations” and restoring older churches that were badly redesigned in recent years to their original state or something like it.
Rose describes the typical modernist Catholic suburban church as not only unimposing but remote. This brings us to the problem of modernist urbanism, which is a separate issue. Many new churches are squirreled away in cul-de-sacs as a result of the postwar transformation of public urban space into privatized precincts defined by the rigorous separation of uses (zoning problems, anyone?) and the automotive scale. In the new, spatially disintegrated city that modernist urbanism has wrought, it would be very difficult for even a vertically imposing, traditionally designed church to be situated so as to have a commanding presence.
For an analysis of the dumbed-down modernist church in its degraded new-city context, there is no better place to start than Duncan G. Stroik’s fine essay, “Can We Afford Not to Build Beautiful Churches?” in Recovering Sacred Space 2000. This volume covers quite a lot of ground, presenting philosophical essays about the historic relationship between church and city; a host of contemporary designs of a more or less traditional nature (and of widely varying quality) for churches in the United States, Latin America, and Europe; an interesting section devoted to twentieth-century Italian churches in old cities as well as in the new towns founded under the Mussolini regime; and even a section on the Armenian tradition in sacred architecture. The text is in Italian and English, but unfortunately some of the translations, notably of Giampaolo Rossi’s insightful essay, “The City Without God,” are uneven at best.
Nevertheless, Recovering Sacred Space 2000 bears impressive testimony to the process of cultural recovery that is getting underway in Western architecture and urbanism. Sacred architecture will play a fundamental role in this process, and Stroik, a practicing architect as well as a professor at Notre Dame’s classical architecture school, has the good sense to emphasize the crucial role of enlightened patronage at a time when design grounded in the historic ideal of the meaningful city remains a counter-cultural trend.
All Christians concerned with the artistic patrimony of the faith and with the restoration of design firmly grounded in human nature will find these two books of interest.
Catesby Leigh is an art and architecture critic in Washington, D.C., and a member of the Anglican Province of Christ the King.
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“Church Ugly” first appeared in the December 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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