A Decade of New Classicism: The Flowering of Traditional Church Architecture

by Denis McNamara, appearing in Volume 21

In 2001, the newly-founded Liturgical Institute at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, hosted a conference entitled “Building the Church for 2010: Continuity and Renewal in Catholic Liturgical Architecture.”1 Invited speakers addressed the topics of renewal and tradition in church design, and the firm of Franck, Lohsen, McCrery presented the “Church for 2010,” a hypothetical church design using New Classical architecture. Because of the liturgical-architectural climate of the time and the requirements of the edition of General Instruction on the Roman Missal then in effect, the proposed church appears today as something of a hybrid compromise. Though it showed a skillful application of the language of traditional architecture, a blending of liturgical and devotional areas, monumental Christian iconography, and a classically-inspired atrium based on those of early Christian basilicas, it nonetheless displayed a compressed, centralized plan, seating in the round and a separate chapel for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament.

As a classical design for a new Catholic church, the “Church for 2010” was no doubt a revelation to many of the conference attendees. Though the New Classical movement in architecture had found a certain maturity by this time and the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame had established its classically-oriented program some twelve years earlier, one could point to very few newly-built Catholic churches that embraced traditional architecture. Although in 1989 British architect Quinlan Terry had completed England’s new Brentwood Cathedral, a low church, congregation-dominant plan using sophisticated credible classical architecture, it made little impact on the architectural establishment in the United States. Allan Greenberg’s Church of the Immaculate Conception in Union, New Jersey, existed in the architecture world primarily as a beautiful rendering, since the pastor of the parish had passed away during its construction and the design passed on to other architects. Thomas Gordon Smith’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Nebraska, had been started, as had his Benedictine monastery in Clear Creek, Oklahoma, and promising plans were being made by Duncan Stroik for All Saints Church in Walton, Kentucky.

Cathedral of Saints Mary and Helen, Brentwood, Essex, designed by Quinlan Terry. Photo: John Armagh

But two contemporary books on the renewal of Catholic church architecture showed that most of the revival of traditional Catholic church architecture lay in the arena of hope and even perceived wishful thinking.2 Most projects displayed in the books were either hypothetical designs or some odd compromises with modernism, or the prevailing ironic moves of postmodernism, or the dominant view of the nature of church architecture as domestic buildings. Essays and roundtable discussions about the revival of church architecture had appeared in a number of journals,3 but in academic publications and popular articles lamenting the state of Catholic church architecture, no one could point to a completed major commission in the United States for a Catholic church designed by a competent architect using credible classical architecture which could prove to the architectural and liturgical establishment that it could and should be done.4 Prominent Catholic projects that did appear in liturgical and architectural journals, such as the designs for the new cathedrals in Los Angeles and Oakland, embraced mainstream—if somewhat tired—modernist design methods while consciously avoiding the unofficial New Classical alternatives, often by students or graduates of the University of Notre Dame. Prominent renovations, such as those at the Cathedrals of Saint James in Seattle (1994) and Saint John the Evangelist in Milwaukee (2002), still promoted the even then largely discredited notion of church as a meeting house.

Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist, Milwaukee, renovated in 2002. Photo: Duncan Stroik

So the dream for the renewal of the classical tradition in liturgical architecture presented as hoped for by participants at the “Building the Church for 2010” conference appeared largely unlikely to many, or at best, perhaps, a sub-sub specialty within the architectural profession for those communities dedicated to the exclusive use of the Missal of 1962. Though in hindsight one sees that the seeds of the classical renewal in church architecture had already been planted, they had not yet sprouted; and the hopeful church client faced great difficulty in finding an architect with expertise in classical architecture, extreme hostility from the architectural profession, disdain from many liturgical professionals, and skepticism or outright antagonism from some bishops and diocesan officials. Though the year 2010 did not seem far off chronologically, it seemed wishful thinking indeed that the short span of nine years could bring about the necessary revolution in thought and practice required to see a flowering of New Classicism in the Roman Catholic Church.

But to the delight of many architects, clients, and parishioners, a flowering of traditional church architecture has occurred far beyond even the optimistic hopes expressed in the year 2001. The controversial iconoclastic document issued by the Bishops Committee on the Liturgy in 1978, entitled Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, was succeeded and replaced in 2000 by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ text Built of Living Stones. Though largely absent of positive theology of art and architecture, Built of Living Stones tossed off most of EACW’s most problematic theological language and firmly rooted its guidelines for art and architecture in the revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal that accompanied Pope John Paul II’s new Missale Romanum.5

The wider New Classical movement operative at the time was once considered so reactionary that its practitioners were characterized in the New York Times by a leading modernist architect as “bizarrely backward… Luddites” who “have no new ideas” and were simply “looking for their market niche.”6 But despite some continued resistance from mainstream architectural professionals, New Classicism matured and carved out for itself a firmly established place in the profession. The Institute for Classical Architecture, founded in 1991 and dominated by domestic and institutional architecture, had grown into a credible place for the study, education, and practice of classical work. Common enough to be almost unremarkable in the architectural press, large university designs routinely provided not only “contextual” campus additions, but designs positively identified as embracing traditional architecture.

Within ecclesiastical circles, certain groundbreaking decisions appeared, notably Bishop Raymond Burke’s decision in 1995 to build a large Marian shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe using classical architecture in the Diocese of Lacrosse. Younger bishops appointed in recent years have become friendlier to traditional architecture and have likewise appointed chancery officials with similar outlooks. Perhaps the peak of success of New Classical architecture for Catholic ecclesiastical use to date was the announcement in September of 2011 that Bishop Burbidge of the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, has proposed a major cathedral commission to be designed by a demonstrated expert in classical architecture, the first new classical cathedral in the United States since the Council, and for many decades before that.7

Postmodernism and New Classicism

The roots of the New Classical churches seen flowering today are found in several differing sources spanning several decades. The broad phrase, “postmodernism” is widely used to characterize many streams of architectural design which followed the dominance of High Modernism. High Modernism’s iconic glass and steel boxes and sculptural concrete forms were heralded in the 1940s and 50s as the pinnacle of the entire history of architectural development, defined by their rejection of traditional building methods, refusal of actual or apparent load bearing masonry, the complete elimination of traditional ornament, and the truly radical redefinition of all architectural typologies as fundamentally based on those of the engineer’s aesthetic and the materials of mass production.

But even the apparent hegemony of High Modern architecture was never as thorough as its proponents desired it to appear. Much has been made of the “classical survival” or “Gothic survival” church architecture which lasted in an unbroken stream through even the early 1960s, exemplified by church architects like Joseph W. McCarthy and Meyer and Cook in Chicago, the enormous ecclesiastical output of Cincinnati architect Edward Schulte, and the still largely underappreciated Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore, a modernized Gothic building dedicated in 1959. An article in a 1955 issue of Church Property Administration magazine claimed that three “traditional” churches were being built for every one “modern” church.8 Nonetheless, academia and the mainstream architectural practice had without doubt “gone modern” by the late 1940s, and such traditional holdovers were seen as retardataire movements of those who had not accepted the great new age of architecture, and their buildings were not covered in the architectural press.9

Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, Baltimore. Photo: wikimedia.org

The year 1966 saw the publication of Robert Venturi’s now famous book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, a polemical treatise that critiqued the monovalence of modernist design, which he argued could be remedied by looking at complexity in architecture and not simply the mechanistic simplicity of the engineer’s aesthetic. Though written only six years after the consecration of a great Gothic Revival church like the Queen of All Saints Basilica in Chicago, its argument came not from an intellectual underclass, but from an architect trained at Princeton who worked for such notable architects as Eero Saarinen and Louis Kahn. He later taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Yale, and Harvard. Though Venturi’s mantra, “less is a bore” answered Mies van der Rohe’s equally famous quote “less is more,” it was certainly not a broadside for wholesale reappropriation of the classical tradition for Catholic use or otherwise.10

Although Venturi is hailed as breaking open the possibility of mainstream academic use of traditional architectural forms, the coherent initial phase of postmodernity in architecture lasted for only a few years, and was imbued with a modernist sense of irony and wit intended to remind the viewer of the continued relation of new buildings to the break with architectural tradition espoused by modernism. One finds therefore in this postmodernism a certain kind of faddish relativism which made no specific claims for the classical tradition other than as an interesting Hegelian antidote to the univocity of modernism. Simply stated, postmodernism was not what we know of today as New Classicism. However, by breaking the stranglehold of modernism and its extreme prohibitions against any literal use of traditional forms, it shattered the architectural profession into many shards, one of which was picked up by those believing that continuity with a legible, coherent classical architectural tradition, sometimes called “canonical classicism,” was an aim worth pursuing. From this post-postmodern lineage grows an even smaller subset of architects who have chosen to specialize in church architecture.

In the United States, one can not address the emergence of New Classicism in Catholic ecclesiastical architecture without underlining the importance of architect Allan Greenberg. A native South African born in 1938, he learned traditional architectural methods while in architecture school in Johannesburg, though his early work was with leading modernists in Europe. In 1963 he came to the United States, earning a master’s degree at Yale University in 1965. By the early 1970s he had encountered the critique of Yale colleagues Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and became associated with an architectural movement dominated by architects known as “the Grays,” those who rejected modernism’s “black and white” rejection of the use of traditional architectural forms. By the early 1980s, he was established as one of the few architects in the world willing to design buildings using canonical classicism, developing a successful practice largely dominated by private homes and institutional buildings. While not known for church designs, Greenberg’s office became something of an unofficial postgraduate academy, taking in recent architecture school graduates with an interest in classical architecture and teaching them how to make their self-taught and postmodern designs convincingly canonical. Two of today’s leading classical church architects, Duncan Stroik and James McCrery, worked as young designers in Greenberg’s office.

Immaculate Conception Church, Clinton, New Jersey, designed by Allan Greenberg. Photo: Hansob

But even the work of such a committed canonical classicist as Duncan Stroik depended in part upon the appearance of postmodernism in secular academia. As a 1984 graduate from the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia, Stroik’s education came under the deanship of architect Jacquelin Robertson, a man deeply involved with the postmodern movement of the 1980s and known for bringing leading postmodernist architects like Allan Greenberg, Robert A. M. Stern, and Leon Krier to the school to discuss architectural practice. Robertson’s 1982 conference on postmodernism brought together twenty-five leading American architects and became the book known as The Charlottesville Tapes. Historians and theorists like Carroll William Westfall gave the embrace of classicism and urbanism a deep theoretical base. This short-lived embrace of postmodern architecture at the University of Virginia nonetheless created at least some alumni who would embrace the New Classical mode of architecture. Almost at the peak of the postmodern movement in the mid-1980s, Stroik continued to Yale University to earn a graduate degree, where under the deanship of Thomas Beeby, professors like Robert Venturi, Andres Duany, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk continued a postmodern approach to architecture and urbanism.

But Stroik credits his awakening as a classical architect to the influence of Thomas Gordon Smith, himself one of the first of the postmodern architects to embrace canonical classicism. As early as the 1980 architecture exhibition at the Venice Bienniale, “Smith was almost alone in adopting a literate treatment” of classical forms, earning the praise of architectural theorist Charles Jencks, who wrote: “Smith is the only architect here to treat the classical tradition as a living discourse.”11 Stroik was deeply impressed that Smith called himself a “classicist,” and encouraged his students to look broadly at all eras of classical architecture. Moreover, Yale’s legendary art historian Vincent Scully had begun to promote the postmodernism of Robert Venturi. Another art historian, George Hersey, championed Allan Greenberg, notably in an article in Architectural Record, and later wrote The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture, one of the first systematic attempts to search for the underlying meaning of the terminology of classicism.12 Here Stroik found a certain completion of thought, combining his love of the classical work of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia, the urbanism of Europe, and the creative melting pot of intellectual inquiry into architecture’s historic roots evidenced by the visionary leadership of broad-minded academics. He found his first job after graduate school in the office of Allan Greenberg, and was later hired by his mentor Thomas Gordon Smith as a faculty member at the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame in 1989, where Smith presided over the founding of the first classical architecture curriculum in the United States in nearly half a century.

Today’s New Classical church architecture also finds an unlikely source in two graduates from the Ohio State University, James McCrery and David Meleca. Though known as an unremarkable program in modernist design in the 1970s and early 1980s, Ohio State’s Knowlton School of Architecture stabilized after the arrival of architect Robert Livesey as chair of the Department of Architecture in 1983. Architects who represented several of the existing strains of postmodernism began coming as critics and teachers to its graduate program: Peter Eisenman, Charles Guathmey, Stanley Tigerman, Michael Graves, and Charles Moore among others. The school was perhaps best known at the time for its visiting architecture professor, Deconstructivist Peter Eisenman, designer of the campus’ Wexner Center for the Performing Arts. Though the architecture school at the Ohio State University could hardly be called friendly to New Classicism, even an architecture school infused with Deconstructivist thinking had to set itself in the context of postmodernism, since Deconstructivism itself grew as a variant of the postmodern explosion of the modernist breakdown. McCrery listened to the postmodern critics in graduate juries while an undergraduate, but later became philosophically convinced of the Eisenman-inspired theories of Deconstructivism. Meleca’s time at the school came just before Livesey’s reforms, and though he personally had an interest in traditional architecture and urbanism from studying abroad in Oxford, he found no support–and much resistance–from the school itself. McCrery earned a master’s degree at Ohio State and then worked in Eisenman’s office, only later to find himself unconvinced of Deconstructivism’s claims. Inspired by the caliber of Allan Greenberg’s work, he was received into Greenberg’s office where he spent nearly eight years learning and practicing classicism. Later he discovered service of the Church as a vocation within his vocation to architecture.

By the late 1980s, the initial postmodern interest as a defined architectural movement was winding down, yet postmodernity’s shattering of the modernist stronghold allowed the emergence of New Classicism. In Columbus, a major move toward practical and tangible use of classical design methods was made possible by a son of Russian-born Jewish immigrants named Les Wexner, retail entrepreneur and owner of The Limited Brands. Wexner had not only been the philanthropist behind Eisenman’s Wexner Center for the Performing Arts, but cofounder of the New Albany Company, a real estate development company in Ohio consciously incorporating traditional architecture as a quality of life issue. The New Albany Company hired the aforementioned University of Virginia Dean Jacquelin Robertson to design a pivotal classical building in the new community: the New Albany Country Club, completed in 1993.

Architects who wanted work at the New Albany development were strongly encouraged to learn traditional architecture for both domestic and commercial designs, and, as one architect who worked there at the time stated, “Columbus got serious about classicism.” Traditionally-minded architects like Brian Kent Jones and John Reagan of Columbus became influential local designers, while Wexner encouraged new architects and builders for the company to study traditional examples, even sending some on a study tour to Colonial Williamsburg. So the New Albany Company as a private enterprise became a critically important tastemaker and place for builders and architects who had otherwise received very little training in canonical classical architecture to learn with a serious approach to New Classicism. Meleca benefitted from this informal design studio while working with Columbus architects. He stayed rooted in Columbus, eventually being asked to develop the architecture for New Albany’s Catholic Church of the Resurrection, a large building inspired in part by Franck, Lohsen, McCrery’s Church of 2010, exhibited at the Liturgical Institute conference which Meleca himself attended. Meleca has since amassed a number of large-scale New Classical Catholic churches in his portfolio. McCrery has made a name for himself as the architect of the aforementioned proposed new cathedral for Raleigh, North Carolina, with a number a church projects in his portfolio and on the boards.

Church of the Resurrection, New Albany, Ohio, by David Meleca. Photo: franklincountyauditor.com

Amidst the machinations of the academic and professional worlds of architecture in the 1990s came growing theological clarity, largely around the work of Monsignor Francis Mannion, founder of the Society for Catholic Liturgy and then-Rector of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. The first issue of the Society’s journal, Antiphon, appeared in 1996 and included its statement of principles in an article entitled, “What is the Society for Catholic Liturgy?”13 Among the Society’s general principles were expressed deep interest in careful scholarship, a transhistorical view of the many strengths of the Catholic tradition, a renewed attention to Catholic devotional life and its relation to the liturgy and insistence on the importance of artistic beauty, “especially in the areas of music, art, and architecture.” From the outset, architect Duncan Stroik was a member of the Society’s governing board, and other architects in leadership positions have since included Thomas Gordon Smith, Dino Marcantonio, and James McCrery, who now serves as the Society’s president.

Mannion had already put his stated principles to work as cathedral rector, overseeing perhaps the most sensitive renovation of an historic cathedral building since the Council, and helping to found a cathedral choir school. Mannion’s influential contribution on liturgical architecture was made clear in his essay “Toward a New Era in Liturgical Architecture,” which appeared in Studia Anselmiana in 2001.14 His carefully-considered approach synthesized an immense amount of scholarship on the subject of liturgy, art, architecture, and ritual studies, zeroing in on deficiencies in modern praxis and theology while providing workable alternatives which remained within both the mainstream teaching of the Church and the legacy of the Second Vatican Council. Under Mannion’s leadership, priests, lay people, academics, clients, and architects who had been developing notions about the renewal of Catholic architecture found similarly-minded colleagues. As director of Mundelein’s Liturgical Institute, founded by Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I, in the year 2000, Mannion brought his expertise and connections to conferences and publications supporting a renewal of church architecture. Since then, the faculty and students of the Liturgical Institute have contributed significantly to the scholarship and practice of liturgical art and architecture both at the academic and professional levels.15

The intellectual prehistory of a movement is by definition complex, formed by a vast network of contributions by many minds and hands working together and alone, meeting in academia and on the construction site. The architects and thinkers highlighted here are no way meant to be considered the only people involved in the movement, but represent a first attempt at a study of New Classicism in church architecture. Moreover, a whole generation of architects has graduated from the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame since its refounding as a classical program in 1989, many of whom have made names for themselves as newcomers in the field. A perusal of the last thirteen years of Sacred Architecture, diligently produced by the Institute for Sacred Architecture, surveys well the achievements of the last decade and more. Architects like Ethan Anthony, William Heyer, Dino Marcantonio, Michael Imber, Matthew Alderman, Michael Franck and Arthur Lohsen, and many others rightly deserve the publicity and attention that they have received. One would be remiss not to mention the influence of the popular writings of Michael Rose, especially his 2001 book Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Places and How We Can Change Them Back Again, Steven J. Schloeder’s 1998 book Architecture in Communion or the influence of Mother Angelica’s Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Alabama, an early attempt at recapturing Gothic architecture. The New Classical movement in Catholic liturgical architecture has reached something of an adolescence, perhaps even in some places a vigorous young adulthood. Careful study of its leaders, thinkers and practitioners will someday produce a significant chapter in the renewal of sacred art and architecture found in the post-Conciliar and post-postmodern periods.

Saint Cecilia Chapel, Nashville, Tennessee, by Franck Lohsen McCrery. Photo: orderofpreachersvocations.blogspot.com

Saint Edward Chapel, Casady School, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, by Ethan Anthony, Architect. Photo: Chris Landsberger

Going Forward

In the year 2000, the National Catholic Reporter featured an article on several of the architects at the center of the University of Notre Dame’s ecclesiastical renewal of architecture. Skeptical of the movement, the article’s author pointed out some of its genuine foibles, but at the same time characterized some of New Classicism’s promoters as people who “trivialized public discourse” and reflected “an attitude of both paranoia and self-righteousness.”16 To some degree, the author put his finger on one of the weaknesses of some of the post-modern talking points of the 1990s, which often characterized classicism as the new “new,” rather than that which was timeless, enduring, and theologically appropriate. An honest reader has to admit that much of the early New Classical polemic in Catholic architecture was often lacking in underpinnings of biblical and sacramental theology, using instead language borrowed from secular academia. The author claimed that the practitioners of canonic classicism were therefore bound to “ingratiate themselves to today’s tabernacle-obsessed bishops, biretta-topped seminarians, and a handful of cardboard monsignori.” Luckily, sacramental theology in relation to the arts has made great strides as well since the year 2000, though it lags behind architectural practice. But it does seem that the author in the National Catholic Reporter was on the wrong side of history.

A strong signal that New Classical church architecture has been welcomed in from the cold is a 2010 cover story on Duncan Stroik’s Chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity at Thomas Aquinas College in the liturgical journal Faith and Form, an interfaith journal on liturgical arts with a long-standing history of promoting both High Modernist design and low church ecclesiology.17 By virtue of the sheer scale and excellence of the project, it proved a force to be reckoned with even by those not inclined to agree with its architectural and theological underpinnings. The author of the Faith and Form article was forced to ask as a subtitle, “What Does the Thomas Aquinas Chapel Mean?” precisely because the building brought New Classicism out of the shadows, making it evident that real, effective, liturgically appropriate, highly desired, supported-by-donors, and beautiful-to-look-at architecture is not merely the dream of an enthusiast, but a building that foils the modernist claim that cultural advancement happens through rejection of the past.

Thomas Aquinas College Chapel by Duncan Stroik. Photo: Schaf Photo

The article’s author, architect George Knight, a critic at Yale University’s School of Architecture, recognized the wide acceptance of traditional church architecture evident today by writing that there is “no shortage of traditional architecture, or at least what aspires to look like traditional architecture, in contemporary church building.” Knight’s quietly-mentioned remark on buildings that “aspire” to look like traditional architecture only hints at perhaps what is the most significant problem affecting traditional architecture today: the extremely common manifestation of pseudo-Classicism, the “strip mall” classicism done by firms with little to no training in traditional architecture hired by clients without the knowledge to recognize canonical classical design.

During the pioneer stages of the recovery of classical tradition, one could almost understand spending money to build buildings full of architectural mistakes, as was particularly evident in the rebuilt Church of Saint Agnes in Manhattan in the mid 1990s. But in 2012, the profession still sees clients spending money badly by hiring architects with little to no education in the principles and requirements of canonical classical design. And so their buildings become inarticulate and illiterate examples which not only discredit the Catholic Church as patron of the arts, but give ammunition to the opponents of New Classicism who desire to characterize traditional architecture as cartoonish and backward-looking.18 When one desires to preach to the world by use of the eloquent language of architecture, there is no excuse for the architectural equivalent of bad grammar and typos, especially when the architectural profession is now rich with competent and talented poets of architectural form. While on the one hand it is encouraging to see clients looking for traditional architecture even on the local level, this inspired intuition would be well served by a quest for architectural excellence.

Restoration at Immaculate Conception Church, Lexington, Missouri, by William Heyer, Architect. Photo: William Heyer

Its trials notwithstanding, it is fair to say that New Classical architecture has not suffered the fate of academia’s postmodernism. In retrospect, postmodernism seems to have consisted, in part, of reactionary moves founded on somewhat shallow philosophical underpinnings unlikely to provide deep intellectual satisfaction except among relativist historians convinced of the principles of Hegelian determinism. Though it found some initial nourishment in post-modern academia, New Classicism has in many ways been supported by numerous grass roots movements, whether the readers of Adoremus Bulletin or the concerned bishops, priests, and lay people who read, attend conferences, visit churches and pray, getting ever more grounded in an authentic understanding of the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the strong theological and aesthetic leadership of Pope Benedict XVI. Practitioners of New Classicism still face obstacles from pragmatists, ideologically-driven liturgical professionals, misperceptions about the costs and practicalities of traditional architecture, and the continued resistance of professional societies in architecture and liturgy. But the momentum toward a theologically-informed reengagement with the Church’s great architectural and liturgical traditions is not waning, but growing. And although every movement must be wary of the “change beyond the change,” even an objective observer can foresee in the year 2012–in a way that could not be seen in 2001–that a more profound understanding of both the Council’s documents and church architecture is currently at play, with even the hint of glory beyond the horizon.