Catholic Architecture and New Urbanism: An Interview with Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk

by James C. McCrery, appearing in Volume 4

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk is dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture and a partner in the design firm Duany Plater-Zyberk and Company. She is an ardent promoter of New Urbanism, a movement that has been successful in designing new communities as towns rather than subdivisions and revitalizing older communties. Among Duany Plater-Zyberk’s best known projects are the towns of Seaside in Florida, Kentlands in Maryland and downtown West Palm Beach, Florida, all designed to be pedestrian-oriented with schools, churches, libraries and shops within walking distance of homes.

Sacred Architecture: Why is it important for America’s towns, cities, and communities to include significant church buildings?

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk: Churches are an important place for community life today. The very large, suburban congregation with multiple activities is providing a focus for community in a landscape which otherwise does not have one. In the poor urban neighborhood, the church provides any number of community support services, including outright social services such as feeding the hungry. Across the range of communities, churches are playing a very important role in community life and its quality.

SA: How does the architecture of the church want to reflect that?

EPZ: The church as a place of civic gathering certainly should be reflected in its architecture. A number of issues are important in church design today in the various denominations, but the buildings also need to reflect their role in the community.

SA: Why, if at all, should Catholics be interested in New Urbanism?

EPZ: Many aspects of New Urbanism have to do with the goals of religion in general, but some in particular are related to concerns which grow out of a Roman Catholic spiritual and intellectual foundation.

I will offer three topics as examples: environment, society, and economy. The first is environmental, and responsible stewardship is an inherent part of understanding our role on the planet. Being a good steward of the environment is very much a part of the New Urbanism’s core value system. I found it gratifying to read recently that some priests are preaching that urban sprawl is irresponsible.

The second topic, perhaps more obvious to Catholics, is the social context. New Urbanism is concerned with structuring the physical environment to promote a sense of community while enabling individual autonomy and empowerment, whether allowing children to walk to school or seniors to live independently within their home community. An important aspect of community is interdependence and connectivity. By the proximity and interaction fostered by the physical environment, one understands the role one plays in the community.

The third topic regards the economic context. The New Urbanism proposes a framework for an economic system that is supportive of individuals in community. The economic picture is one of collaboration, diversity, and establishing or enabling institutions, the workplace and commerce that facilitate the community and ensure its longevity.

We’re living in a time in which commercial activity is extremely short-lived. Main Street is dying at the hands of cannibalistic retail development. This does not promote a sense of community, and is not related to any sense of responsibility for people. We think the physical environment can reflect a better way, a better philosophy.

SA: What role do you see the Catholic Church being able to play in aiding the design or development of new towns? Should it have a role in it at all?

EPZ: That is a very interesting question. I think the Catholic Church can play an important role in the revitalization of neighborhoods. But I am not sure that it needs to play an initiating role in new places, except insofar as the Church may be interested in building a kind of ideal community.

There is a design role that should be played by the Church exemplifying the civic role, the community-focused role that a Catholic Church plays in neighborhoods. And the biggest impediment to this design role is dimensions. From my own experience of designing one church in a suburban part of Miami and my understanding of common practice, I find that these churches are very big. The big, suburban church that we designed had to seat 800 in the main sanctuary and then be able to expand to 1,000 or 1,200 for special occasions in the Church year. Of course, you have to have parking for all of those people. Then usually there is a small office component, and a community room, and possibly even a school. Consequently, the church campus is very large.

Even in their smallest permutations, these campuses require an enormous site and the isolation of buildings amidst parking lots, like other institutions in suburbia. However, large dimensions can be mitigated. There are alternative solutions. In the new traditional neighborhood, the New Urbanism, the parking is shared with commercial establishments that are not used much at night or on Sundays. In Canada, public and parochial schools share facilities. They are developed by the government and Church, and they share the big ticket items, things like libraries or playing fields, that also happen to take up a lot of space.

In several Canadian projects, we found there was a feasible way to put schools together in the greenbelt between the several neighborhoods from which they draw their students, who can walk to school. The institution on the edge, rather than at the center of the neighborhood, is the least disruptive of its walkability.

In the New Urbanism, that is, in a compact, pedestrian-oriented community, dimensions and measures are extremely important. The way we build churches now sometimes seems contradictory to the goal of making these places pedestrian-friendly and acceptable.

In older neighborhoods where there usually are already churches, the initiatives may have less to do with the building itself reacting to its role in the physical fabric and more with revitalization. Renovation should not be accomplished in such a way that the building becomes defensive against hostile surroundings, or that it begins to take apart the neighborhood by suburbanizing the urban fabric around it.

I have often thought that wealthy, suburban congregations could adopt congregations in the inner city and do some concrete projects, like building and rebuilding housing for people in those places. I am sure that this already goes on in various parts of the country. But all involved have to pay attention to the fact that the structure of the physical environment is important. Not only for increasing the economic value of the place over time, but to promote good community.

SA: From your experience with church projects, what are some of the issues in designing a new church building, whether it be in an established neighborhood or in a newly planned development?

EPZ: We designed a little church in a neighborhood in Miami. It was initiated by a pastor who thought that if he franchised smaller chapels, creating what he called “missions” within his large parish then he might be able to influence behavior in those areas which weren’t within walking distance of the big church. So, we designed one on a 50 x 100 foot lot in a traditional style. It is very simple, its vernacular details refer to the colonial prototype of Puerto Rico, the predominant ethnicity of the neighborhood. A front building at the sidewalk has a small prayer chapel and an office for social services. Above the entry area is a small apartment for a concierge, a caretaker keeping an eye on the neighborhood. Behind this is a courtyard, as you might find in a traditional Caribbean or Mediterranean building, and then beyond that is the nave, which seats about 200.

SA: How many of these franchised chapels are in this parish?

EPZ: The intention was to have four.

SA: Amazing, and how large is the parish?

EPZ: It spreads out over a large area that has both industrial and residential neighborhoods in it.

SA: That is a fine example of original thinking on the part of pastors.

EPZ: The pastor, Father Jose Menendez, a Cuban with a terrific amount of charisma, is at work in this parish with struggling but very energetic immigrant neighborhoods. On his own initiative, he raised the money to buy a $40,000 lot. The lot was sandwiched between a café with loud, bawdy music and a crack house. The first thing he did was erect a wooden cross and put a sheep in the lot, because this was going to be called “Mission San Juan Bautista.” The cross and the sheep both survived there for many months. He convinced various people who felt a connection to this neighborhood, the owners of the local grocery store, and some contractors whose employees live in this neighborhood, to contribute their time and money. It was built entirely with donations of materials, time and money. It took four or five years to complete.

Father Menendez’s great belief was that the church should be filled with art and be as embellished as any other church. He didn’t like the industrial lamps that we specified, so he began seeking out the church furnishings himself. There is a fountain in the courtyard, which also serves as a baptismal font, constructed with marble slabs he salvaged. He then convinced a Cuban sculptor to do a small statue of Saint John the Baptist that stands on the fountain. He convinced a painter to do a mural on the ceiling of the sanctuary. It is a heavenly scene full of people from the neighborhood.

The church design symbolizes the progression from the profane to the sacred. After crossing a short front yard of gravel, the desert, one enters the front building and walks over a mosaic floor of a coiled snake with an apple in its mouth, depicting the Garden of Eden, the first sin. You are stepping on the snake as you begin your procession from the profane to the sacred. Father Menendez found a Jewish artist from Miami Beach to do this mosaic of Eden. The project manager, Oscar Machado, is of a third denomination. So, here we have a piece of art commissioned for free by a Catholic priest, executed by a Jewish artist, with a man of another denomination as the art director, all looking at Pompeiian mosaics for inspiration.

SA: That is a great American story. What are things for the patron, the congretation, and architect to be concerned about in the commissioning of a church? Anything absolutely crucial?

EPZ: Outside of the urban context, there is one crucial issue. That is the conversation or conflict between tradition and modernism. In the Church this conversation exists, and it is marked by conceptions of “pre-Vatican II” and “post-Vatican II.” There is a dominant directive towards openness, post-conciliarism and modernism.

There are design advisors within the church at large who will be very explicit about what this post-conciliar attitude means: “don’t do what you would have done before,” “don’t enter on axis,” “the cross should not be on axis,” and so on. On the other hand, many people still have an inclination to the traditional form and a very emotional attachment to the history of the church, its ceremonies, its rituals, and its buildings.

The modern/traditional discussion is unavoidable and very challenging. It requires a sorting out of intellectual goals and the emotional or visceral effect that a space can have on a people’s spiritual stance. Obviously that wasn’t so much a challenge in the old Church. But I find that truly challenging today, not just in terms of design, but in terms of dealing with the politics of the client and working with any kind of committee.

SA: From your experience can you say that working with committees is beneficial? Are you able to compare working with a single patron or a particularly strong leader of a committee versus a band of semi-interested parishioners? Do you have a preference?

EPZ: I haven’t had the full range of experience. Father Menendez was basically a sole client. Father Greer, the Good Shepherd pastor, did have a committee, but he played a strong leadership role. The committee was eager to expedite the church because for 12 years they’d had only a community hall.

I could give one word of advice about committees. Bring the conversation to intellectual issues and principles and be very explicit as a designer about what different forms represent. Be very involving. It is not always easy for designers to explain what they do, but the more rational you can be, the better.

SA: Fantastic advice. Let’s go back to your comment earlier about dimension. Do parish priests and committees think too grandly when they commission churches that must seat 800, stand 1,200 and accommodate 100 priests in the sanctuary? Would it be better for communities to have several small churches or parishes than one large one?

EPZ: Well, in Miami the Archdiocese is a wise steward and does not let parishes begin projects before they are ready to pay for them. In terms of size, I do think that smaller would be better. But locations and the shortage of priests can create problems.

SA: A question on style. What do you think about the way the Catholic Church has planned and designed its church buildings during the last 30 years?

EPZ: This has not been an outstanding time for church architecture or any other kind of architecture. That is a statement that stands alone. Maybe we could look upon this as a transitional time. We were asked to deal with all sorts of new issues after the Council, and now we are in a shakeout time. Hopefully we can learn from those first attempts and efforts.

SA: I’ve attended other conferences where it has been suggested that after Vatican II in the United States there was a very good atmosphere architecturally and design-wise for Iconoclasm to thrive. Have you ever thought about a possible link; that perhaps the two phenomena fed each other, resulting in a dearth of architectural and artistic expression?

EPZ: That is why I am being kind about calling the last thirty years a “period of transition”. Because, perhaps you need these rough moments of discarding and deciding what to take back in order to foster change. But a lot of people do feel the loss of historical attachment. Certainly, our teaching about the Church and the body of Christ on earth has to do with its history. Christ existed at a very specific time in history, creation was time-based. Every religion brings along its history, so why not allow that physical continuity to occur?

By the same token, we shouldn’t preclude the spiritual opening that discovery and the new can provide.

So, it is still not an easy time to figure things out stylistically. We should certainly have the opportunity to rebuild or to carry on the traditions of building of a specific place. The exhibit, Reconquering Sacred Space, that opened in Rome in November 1999 has some terrific examples of traditional design, but it represents a fraction of church building today.

SA: Do you mean to say that it is okay in America to evoke an architectural style or place in time that isn’t American?

EPZ: Yes, or even one that is traditionally American. Our early Puritan heritage, religiously based, produced some wonderful models of churches that should be acceptable to us for reinterpretation. At various times in American architectural history we referred to earlier times for spiritual reasons. American Neo-classicism connected the new land to the democracy of ancient Greece. In the early Renaissance the Italians were excited by the forms of a prior time that was pagan, cleverly integrating ancient classical elements with the Roman Catholic imagery of the period.

There is a rich tradition of Christian appropriation of symbols from prior cultures and prior spiritualities. That is an age-old kind of inclusivity or appropriation that we don’t seem to be allowing ourselves now. One must acknowledge that for all the hopefulness of multiple interpretations that the abstractions of modernism promotes, the turning away from representation, from evolution, is not an enrichment at all.

SA: So, then what should be done with all of these abysmal churches out there? What do you have to say to the priest who has been committed by his bishop to a parish that isn’t going to build anything soon, but who has an empty hall in which to celebrate the Mass?

EPZ: This is actually the design challenge of our time, not just in the realm of church architecture. A great deal has been built in recent decades which doesn’t lend itself to addition, renovation, and enhancement. It is so autonomous, so aggressively individualistic that it is hard to imagine how to engage it. This is something that we need to be teaching designers: how to deal with the suburban context, individualistic forms and buildings that are far apart from each other with little hope of spatial relationships. In the case of such a church, a parish priest should look for a very sensitive and clever designer who can begin dealing with the situation incrementally.