Contemporary Church Architecture

Unlike any other building, a church is “an accessible public space amid an increasingly, and occasionally frighteningly commercial and privatized world.” Edwin Heathcote and Laura Moffatt highlight the role of church architecture in the modern world in Contemporary Church Architecture, which follows ten years after Heathcote and Iona Spens published Church Builders. In the new book, the authors document recent advances in church architecture, first with a historical narrative of progressive churches of the twentieth century and then a compilation of twenty-eight contemporary projects.

Church of Christ, Hope of the World, Donau City, Vienna, by Heinz Tesar, 2000.

Heathcote and Moffatt’s chronological history of church architecture assumes an evolution from the “historicism” of the nineteenth century to the seamless, industrial architecture of the modern age. The authors adequately cover projects throughout Europe, aided by drawings and small black and white photos of the more momentous projects. Each innovation is praised as a positive advancement of the building tradition, and the authors perpetuate the call for every church commission to be “of its time.” Instead of addressing the purpose of the church in the community, the authors fuse each architect’s work with broader political and cultural movements. For example, Josef Plecnik’s work in Vienna and Slovenia is considered a felicitous response to the nationalist period in which he was engulfed, while modernist projects in Britain are derided because they lack innovation and too closely imitate the works of Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier. In the text, the authors exalt the role of the architect rather than the patron and praise the church buildings most expressive of their time rather than those that are the most noble houses of God.

Contemporary Church Architecture follows the work of the Expressionists in Germany during the 1920s, including architects Otto Bartning and Dominikus Böhm. Böhm conceived of a perfectly circular church, the first modern Catholic church “unrestrained by the rectangular plan.” The authors give the project specific praise for its innovation for innovation’s sake. The Liturgical Movement in Belgium and Germany and its implication in sacred architecture is mentioned, but the text does not include an in-depth exploration of the meaning of architecture for Christian worship. For example, architect Rudolf Schwarz’s desolate church designs were generated by the liturgy in a so-called “Sacred Objectivity” that responds to the demands of the rites.

Harajyuku Church, Tokyo, by Ciel Rouge Création, 2005.

The contemporary church projects exhibited in the book are mostly small chapels, but they vary in their materiality and use of glazing. Some of the chapels simply consist of poured concrete walls and ceilings. Many of the projects, including a chapel for the Chancery of the Archdiocese of Berlin, bear no Christian symbols on the exterior or interior. In every project exhibited in the book, there are no hierarchical distinctions between the church buildings and their neighbors in the city. Regarding the interiors, many of the chapels fail to properly distinguish the sanctuary from the body of the church, often forming one space without a clear focal point for distracted worshipers. Other projects featured are disorienting in their structural logic and seem to disregard the community they are meant to serve. The authors suggest that the minimalist aesthetic commonly found in contemporary churches is rooted in the Cistercian tradition, but also admit that a global cultural exchange has introduced the sparsity of the Zen tradition into Christian architecture.

Heathcote and Moffatt allude to the uncertain future of church building in a radically secularized world and are realistic in their assessment of the drop in church attendance and its implication for the number of contemporary projects. The text can be humorous at times, especially in its criticism of architectural clichés: “architects approaching church design become obsessed with light. Light is uncontroversial, unlike say art or even form…it appeals to atheists as much, if not more than to Christians.” Despite the authors’ argument that churches are an important bastion of the public realm, Heathcote and Moffatt fail to include contemporary church buildings that incorporate the rich Christian tradition of art and architecture. They fail to convey that a noble and transcendent place for worship should be ordered and enriched by the timeless forms and symbols of sacred architecture. As a whole, the photographic documentation in the book is generous. Small black-and-white images and drawings accompany the historical essays in the first seventy pages, while full-page color photographs and line drawings illustrate the contemporary projects in the latter half of the book.

Thomas D. Stroka is an architectural designer in Indiana.