A Response to Ottokar Uhl’s Church Building as Process

by Heidemarie Seblatnig, appearing in Volume 17

Editor’s Note

Ottokar Uhl, born in 1931, is a retired Austrian architect who lives in Vienna. He studied modernist architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, where he received his degree in 1953. The influence of industrialization on building and constructive possibilities was particularly interesting to Uhl over the course of his career. He taught architecture at the University of Karlsruhe beginning in 1973 and designed several church projects across Austria. Some of his built works include the Student Chapel Peter Jordan Strasse, the Siemens Street Church and the Saint Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Vienna. In 1994 Uhl served as professor of Liturgical Studies at the University of Vienna. In response to the Second Vatican Council, Uhl wrote the controversial essay “Church Building as Process,” which was part of a book called Building Churches for the Future compiled by Günter Rombold in 1969. This article, by art historian Heidemarie Seblatnig of Vienna, is a response to quotations from Uhl’s original essay in the form of a debate:

Uhl: The church building cannot be considered a sacred object. The need for built churches arises first from the necessity of having a place where the community can assemble for the Lord’s Supper. For Christianity, the difference between “sacred” and “profane” is fundamentally transcended (“aufgehoben”). Thus, there can be no prescriptions for a “sacred” architecture.

Seblatnig: The transcending of the difference between the sacred and the profane is worked exclusively by the activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church, all that was profane transcended to the level of the sacred. This “transcending” of the profane needs to express itself in the life of the Christian and in any and all of the works that he is called to bring to completion: should it be deemed sufficient for a sacred building to be incomplete and profane, it would contradict this transcending of the profane by reintroducing the latter into the Christian world. Because the church building becomes a sacred object by consecration, often it is placed under the protection of a saint, and thus it is removed from the profane sphere by its very nature. Yet if its architecture suggests the profane, it introduces an inner division between the profane and the sacred, contradicting its natural character—such a division is entirely opposed to Christianity, which tends toward unity in God and not toward division. True sacred architecture can thus never be profane, and the same counts the other way round.

The division becomes clear when a structure conceived in a profane manner becomes the home of the real presence of God: we find the paradox of the light of the Eucharist placed “under a bushel,” that is, in a completely inadequate environment where it can scarcely shine. For, unlike Protestant assembly halls, which are constructed for a simple “Lord’s Supper,”1 the Catholic church is home of the physical presence of Christ, the Blessed Sacrament—and that must be evident.

The interior of the Student Chapel Peter Jordan Strasse in Vienna by Ottokar Uhl, 1963. Photo: Heidemarie Seblatnig

Uhl: The atmospheric and even sentimental requirements made of “sacred” spaces, inherited from tradition, result from a problematic attitude. Why should people want to be enveloped by an atmospheric space during the Eucharistic celebration? Is private “devotion” more important than active participation in the activity of the community?

Seblatnig: The active participation of the faithful in the liturgy is possible only by entering into the presence of God within the silence of the heart, that is, in prayer. It is in prayer that the individual truly becomes himself, because there he is member of the Body of God. Only when a person has been formed by the experience and by the regular practice of prayer and true communion beyond “private devotion” and the “activity of the community” can he or she be able to create a space that makes this experience accessible for others, and that leads them toward it. The requirements of sacred space are thus in no way “sentimental,” nor do they [28] come from “tradition,” but they are the logical consequence of prayer. This is why the monks of Mount Athos must demonstrate, not just the necessary talent and formation before they can become active as iconographers, but they must also put their vocation to the test in the spiritual life and in prayer and through long years of ascetic exercises.

By analogy, before the construction of a Catholic church building can be realized, the architect planning it must discern his or her vocation to the realization of the given plan. If this does not happen, the work at hand remains a vain human effort and can never become sacred architecture. Thus, without prayer and a lived faith, no Christian sacred architecture come into existence, but only hapless caricatures, not motivated by the love of God but by bloated vanity. If an architect is not willing to accept this, he has to be consistent enough to spare the church from having to bear his exaggerated ego (which threatens to eclipse even God).

Ottokar Uhl himself contradicted his own thesis in 1991, in wanting to create a “very introverted space” in his construction of the chapel on the first floor of the Catholic theological faculty at the University of Vienna. With his confidence in technology, he wanted “different moods to be created by light effects and picture projections”2 within the sacred space—just as if prayer were a “mood.” His multipurpose idea, however. seems to have curbed the realization of a truly “introverted space.”

Sanctuary of Ebendorfstrasse church in Vienna by Ottokar Uhl. Photos: Heidemarie Seblatnig

Uhl: Nor does theology require specific methods in planning community buildings.

Seblatnig: The “buildings of the community” may generally resemble public housing, as corresponds to their function: but the building erected for God also needs to resemble a house of God, otherwise it is divorced from its purpose. Church buildings are called churches—and not community buildings—because they represent the mystical body of the Holy Church. Just as the communion of the faithful is not a simple crowd, but a body, the place of their encounter with the incarnate God cannot be a simple building: it must necessarily have a lot of “specific” elements to it if it is to realize its unique vocation.

Uhl: A dominant placing of the church building within the city is not a desirable image of social position in our time.

Seblatnig: A hidden and unrecognizable church building, on the other hand, is not a desirable image of the ecclesial situation.

Exterior and interior photographs of Saint Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Vienna by Ottokar Uhl, 1966-7. Photos: Heidemarie Seblatnig

Uhl: Church buildings do not need to be symbolic. Christianity has defied all myths and continues to do so. In this sense, secularization is a Christian process.

Seblatnig: Following Judaism, Christianity has since the very beginning been fighting the superstitious pagan myths that make symbols—animals, objects, stars, dreams, etc. —into gods and submit to them. The Christian effort consists in assigning the symbols, i.e., the “gods” of the heathens, their true place: indicating the one true God. Their true significance resides only in their being “road signs” toward God. For God is not intellect, and Christianity is not an intellectual mind game, but God is love (1 John 4:16), and love does not express itself in technocratic clauses, but in symbols and signs. To get to know God, we need to treasure in our heart all the little signs that point toward Him in this world: with cold reason alone, one does not become a Christian, but an ideologue. In the [29] words of Pope Benedict XVI: “The profound fertility, the forces that truly form and transform history, can only come from what has ripened a long time, from what has deep roots, from what is proven and reflected, what has been assimilated by experience and suffering” (Homily, Donauwörth, 2005).