Don’t Blame Vatican II
Modernism and Modern Catholic Church Architecture
Many people seem to think that contemporary Catholic church architecture is so ugly because of misunderstandings that arose from the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. This thesis is especially attractive to those of a more “intellectual” bent, such as theologians and liturgists, because it suggests that the problem is one of ideas. Correct the ideas—enforce a proper theology of the liturgy (the job of, guess who, theologians and liturgists)—and voilà, we will get better-looking churches.
As attractive as that thesis is, its one big drawback is that it is largely untrue. Bad church architecture is not primarily the result of bad ideas about the liturgy—however much those abound. No, bad church architecture in America is the result, quite simply, of America having bad ideas about architecture. Our problems began some decades before the Second Vatican Council convened: they began with the embrace of modernist architectural principles by contemporary architects and, more disastrously, by the liturgical “experts” who have insisted on laying down the rules and regulations for all new Catholic churches built in America.
With Modernist “functionalism,” we are left with church buildings that make few, if any, references to the iconic heritage or architectural traditions of the Catholic Church. Photo: Author
An Illustration of the Problem: Speaking of Liturgical Architecture
A good example can be found in a small, but particularly illustrative little booklet published in 1952 by the Liturgy Program at the University of Notre Dame called Speaking of Liturgical Architecture.1 The author, one Fr. H. A. Reinhold, is described in the preface of the book as someone who “needs no introduction to American Catholic readers” because “he has become a household term [sic] in things liturgical.”2 And although the correct expression should probably be “he has become a household name in things liturgical,” the point is clear: he was a well-known and highly respected liturgist who can be said to represent the mind-set of his generation,3 —a mindset that continues to dominate much of the official thinking about church architecture to this day.
Although published in 1952, the lectures contained in Speaking of Liturgical Architecture were actually delivered several years earlier, during the summer of 1947, at “the first liturgical summer school at the University of Notre Dame.”4 Given that these lectures were delivered some fifteen years before the Second Vatican Council began, whatever faults Fr. Reinhold may be guilty of, it would be something of a stretch to blame them on the Council. And, although it is certainly true that Fr. Reinhold may have held in the 1940s and 1950s some of the same ideas that brought about the liturgical reforms of the Council, it is not primarily his ideas about liturgy that are the problem, it is his ideas about architecture. And those ideas are identifiably and undeniably modernist.
Form Follows Function: Functionalism and Modern Church Architecture
Take, for example, the most prominent principle of church design in Fr. Reinhold’s book. The point of publishing these lectures, according to the book’s foreword, was “to focus attention on some simple but basic liturgical requirements in the building and decoration of Catholic churches.” Indeed, this thesis is repeated throughout the book: namely, that the rules governing the building of churches must be derived from their liturgical function. “One thing it is safe to say,” says Fr. Reinhold, “[a church’s] liturgical, sacramental function ought to be the determining factor [in its design].” He expresses his approach to church architecture very clearly: “We are trying to find a principle for our procedure in the liturgy itself.” The title of the book, after all, is not Speaking of Church Architecture, but rather Speaking of Liturgical Architecture. What may at first seem like an innocent, even appropriate, principle of church architecture—design the church with the liturgy in mind—will become in the hands of Fr. Reinhold and his successors a means of forcing all churches to conform themselves to a fundamental principle of modernist design.
So it is that the first major, bold-faced heading in Fr. Reinhold’s text instructs the prospective liturgical “expert” (and church designer) that the most basic principle to be followed in building churches is not “respect the liturgy,” but “form follows function.” Indeed, Fr. Reinhold starts out his book with a chapter entitled “Functional Characteristics” and develops his entire conception of church architecture from this starting-point. The principles of “form follows function” and “functionalism” were, of course, two of the most basic principles of modernist architecture. And although Fr. Reinhold denies repeatedly throughout his book that he is favoring any particular “style” of architecture over any other, it is telling that he bases his entire discussion of church architecture on these fundamental modernist principles.
So what does “functionalism” entail? If one thought that “functionalism” meant that a building’s form (or structure) should facilitate a certain function (or practical activity), such as worshipping or doing business or drinking coffee, then one would be mistaken. Modernist buildings are not especially “functional” in that sense—as when Mies van der Rohe designed windows that made the occupants of his skyscrapers feel as though they were going to fall fifty stories down to the street and then forbade them to put anything in front of the windows to cushion the effect of the vertigo;5 or when Frank Lloyd Wright forbade the residents of his houses to move the furniture or even to put new pictures on any of the walls. So too modernist churches tend not to be “functional” in terms of the practical requirements of the liturgy; there may be, for example, no way for the priest to process in, no freedom to have statuary in the nave, and often no prominent crucifix at the front. Thus, contrary to what Fr. Reinhold says, it is not exactly the requirements of the liturgy that are governing the design of churches.
By the same token, if one thought that “form follows function” meant that a building’s function should be recognizable from its form, one would also be sadly mistaken. Indeed, one of the most characteristic features of modernist architecture is that it obliterated the differences among building “types.” Whereas we used to recognize a building from what it “looked like,” and we gave it a name because of its form—we called a certain building a “church” because it had the recognizable form of a church, another a “bank” because it had the form of a bank—now if we take the “bank” sign off the bank and put the “church” sign on it, then it becomes a church. In fact, often, if not for the sign, it would be hard to tell the difference.
Fr. Reinhold instructs the prospective liturgical “expert” (and church designer) that the most basic principle to be followed in building churches is not “Respect the Liturgy” but “Form follows function.” Image: Speaking of Liturgical Architecture
Building from the Inside Out: Functionalism and the Principle of “Expressed Structure”
So if “functionalism” does not mean that a church should facilitate the function of a church, namely, the liturgy, and if “form follows function” does not mean that a church should have the identifiable form of a church, then what does it mean? We can perhaps best illustrate what Fr. Reinhold means by “functionalism” by simply turning to his book. What is interesting to note is that this book on “functional” church design does not begin by examining historical examples of buildings that have facilitated the liturgical celebration, nor does it begin with an analysis of the liturgical action itself in order to determine what sorts of structures might be needed. Fr. Reinhold instead immediately informs his reader that, since Baptism and the Eucharist are “the two most important sacraments” in the Church: “the prominence of these two sacraments must determine the architecture of a church, inside and out.” “A parish church,” he declares, “is above all a Eucharist ... and Baptism ... church. Its inside should express this. If its inside organs are thus disposed and visibly emphasized,” he says, “honest architecture (functionalism in its true sense) should manifest these two foci on the outside—in the right place.”
Now one could certainly quibble with this particular hierarchical view of the sacraments (and every person to whom I have explained Fr. Reinhold’s position has, and usually with some vehemence). Even if we granted—just for the sake of argument—that Baptism and the Eucharist were the two most important sacraments, it would not necessarily follow that this factor should determine the structure of the church building, both inside and out. It is not a principle one finds in the works of any of the great church architects of the past. So why has this become the absolutely essential principle of church architecture for Fr. Reinhold?
The answer, quite simply, is that it was an essential principle of architecture for architectural modernists. It is what they meant by “functionalism.” So, for example, The Columbia Encyclopedia, describes “functionalism” as follows:
Functionalist architects and artists design utilitarian structures in which the interior program dictates the outward form, without regard to such traditional devices as axial symmetry and classical proportions ... Functionalism was subsequently absorbed into the International style as one of its guiding principles.6
Indeed, it was the famous Swiss modernist architect Le Corbusier who instructed his disciples in his landmark book Towards a New Architecture that “The Plan is what determines everything” and that “The Plan proceeds from within to without; the exterior is the result of the interior.”7 This notion that “the interior program should dictate the outward form” is also known as “the principle of expressed structure.” In his best-selling book on modernist architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, author Tom Wolfe explains:
Then there was [among the Modernists] the principle of “expressed structure.” ... Henceforth walls would be thin skins of glass or stucco ... Since walls were no longer used to support a building—steel and concrete or wooden skeletons now did that—it was “dishonest” to make walls look as chunky as a castle’s. The inner structure, the machine-made parts, the mechanical rectangles, the modern soul of the building, must be expressed on the outside, completely free of applied decoration.8
This is why Fr. Reinhold believes that, if the inside organs are visibly emphasized on the outside, this is “honest architecture (functionalism in its true sense).” The unexamined question, however, is whether all buildings must be built this way. The “principle of expressed structure” is merely presumed to be true. It has become by Fr. Reinhold’s time—at least in the circles he runs in—an unexamined, self-evident truth.
Using the Principle of “Expressed Structure” to Judge All Church Architecture of the Past
Indeed, this set of modernist principles and presuppositions seems to trump every other authority for Fr. Reinhold, even the authority of his own Church’s traditional heritage of architecture. Take, for example, his view of the Gothic. What Fr. Reinhold admires about the Gothic is not its simple yet elegant lines, the amazing feeling of lightness it conveys, the breathtaking way it draws the eye upward, or even the beautiful windows such construction made possible. No, what interests him about the Gothic is that it reveals the interior structure of the building externally. So, for example, he says of the Gothic use of the flying buttress: “The skeleton that was hidden in the Romanesque church has, [with the Gothic], grown out of its layers of skin and flesh, and man is turned inside out in his Gothic churches: he shows his interior ... This honesty in construction ... is something we begin again to love.”
And yet, while admiring the Gothic’s “honesty in construction,” still Fr. Reinhold finds it sadly lacking as suitable church architecture. For example, he writes of the magnificent Gothic cathedrals of Canterbury and York: “The beautiful ‘central’ towers of Canterbury and York are a magnificent architectural accent, but have no liturgical, intrinsic function whatsoever.” “The spires of so many cathedrals,” he continues, “though lovely creations, create architectural emphasis around the comparatively insignificant bells—if anything. Even if you consider them as ‘fingers pointing to heaven,’ then the ‘sermon in stone’ or the architectural ‘outcry of the redeemed’ reaches its highest pitch at the gates, or straddles across the joining of the crossbeams in a cruciform church, [but are] unrelated to the internal organs.” Ah yes, the great sin: external structure unrelated to the internal organs.
The scandalous problem of “misplaced accents” besets, as it turns out, the majority of Western churches. Image: Speaking of Liturgical Architecture
In fact, according to this principle, as it turns out, almost all the famous churches of Christendom have been failures. Of the legendary Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople, Fr. Reinhold insists that it suffers from having what he calls “misplaced accents.” Notice how the “architectural focus” (line A) and the “liturgical focus” (line B) are out of synch. This must not happen, something that the architects who built Hagia Sophia seem not to have noticed.
And this scandalous problem of “misplaced accents” besets, as it turns out, the majority of Western churches. “In many cases,” says Fr. Reinhold—namely “medieval England, [the] baroque continent, [and] modern America”—in these churches “the accent question was not answered very well.” Notice how the “liturgical focus” (line C) does not line up with the structural foci (lines A and B). This just cannot be allowed. Though lovely creations, these buildings just do not have the right “idea.”
An “Ideogram” of the Ideal Church
What would be the right idea? In answer, Fr. Reinhold offers his reader a diagram—something he calls an “ideogram” of the ideal church. Notice below that the entryway is in the middle between the baptismal font and the main altar. That is Fr. Reinhold’s ideologically preferred place. Following this plan—this ”ideogram”—will finally give us (after centuries of misguided attempts) “suitable” liturgical architecture.
Now Fr. Reinhold is quick to assure his readers that this “ideogram” is not meant to be an actual “architectural design.” And yet, by the same token, even if an “ideogram” is not a full-fledged “architectural design,” it is still specific enough to stipulate that the architect must always put the entryway in the middle of the building, between the altar and the baptismal font. That is not only bizarre; it is what most architects would consider a very distinctive “design feature.”
Be that as it may, Fr. Reinhold insists that his “ideogram” could be built in “Gothic, Renaissance, or Modern Style, if there were good reasons to decide to do so.” How one builds a Gothic or a Romanesque church without a major entryway at the western end—a fundamental characteristic of nearly all churches up until, oh, about the mid-1950s or so—is hard to fathom. And what is more, nowhere in his book does Fr. Reinhold offer us any “good reasons” to build churches in either the Gothic or the Renaissance styles. Indeed, in the conclusion of his book, he positively discourages it. He says of these older styles that they were “children of their own day” and that our architects “must find as good an expression in our language of form, as our fathers did in theirs.”
Fr. Reinhold’s “ideogram” of the ideal church. The entryway is in the middle between the baptismal font and the main altar. This “ideogram” will finally give us “suitable” liturgical architecture. Image: Speaking of Liturgical Architecture
Church Architecture and the “Spirit of the Age”
But this comment merely shows how distinctively modernist Fr. Reinhold’s mind-set is. For it was Mies van der Rohe who famously described architecture as “the will of the age conceived in spatial terms,”9 and it was Le Corbusier before him who declared: “Our own epoch is determining, day by day, its own style.”10
It would have been completely foreign to a medieval or Renaissance church architect to talk this way. Not only because most of them believed they were expressing their Christian faith by means of their craft, but also because they saw themselves as part of an artistic tradition—one whose standards they had to live up to. Far from looking back on the past with scorn and disdain as something passé (“architecture,” insisted Le Corbusier, “is stifled by custom”11), medieval and Renaissance architects looked upon the tradition of which they were a part with a sense of both pride and humility as something to be emulated and imitated.
And what if the “spirit of the age” is somehow at odds with the “spirit of Christianity”? That thought does not seem to have occurred to Fr. Reinhold. But it certainly occurred to modernists like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, for whom the “spirit of the age” was clearly meant to effect a “revision of values”12 that would help people to realize that “God is dead” and Christianity obsolete.
Starting from Zero
Indeed, the modernists, rather than seeing themselves as part of a tradition, sought to throw off all those “chains” of the past and create architecture anew—from the ground up—much as Descartes had attempted to re-create philosophy by methodically doubting everything that had come before him. Author Tom Wolfe has written about those who studied in Germany’s Bauhaus, for example, that:
The young architects and artists who came to the Bauhaus to live and study and learn from the Silver Prince [the Bauhaus’s founder, Walter Gropius] talked about “starting from zero.” One heard the phrase all the time: “starting from zero” ... [H]ow pure, how clean, how glorious it was to be ... starting from zero! ... So simple! So beautiful ... It was as if light had been let into one’s dim brain for the first time. My God!—starting from zero! ... If you were young, it was wonderful stuff. Starting from zero referred to nothing less than re-creating the world.13
Just as after Descartes there no longer seemed to be any point in reading the likes of Plato or Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas, so too after Le Corbusier and Gropius, there no longer seemed to be any point in studying Vitruvius or Palladio or any of the work of the classical architects and designers. They were, quite literally, banned from the curriculum in favor of “starting from zero.”
Indeed, modernists would often deny that “functionalism” was part of a “style” at all. For them, “starting from zero” meant getting behind the “mask” of all styles and getting at the essence of what a building is, without any additions of style. This helps to explain the draconian minimalism of most modernist buildings: you strip away all the supposedly superfluous external additions, and what you are left with is just the essence of the building—without “style.” This also helps to explain why, although Fr. Reinhold denies repeatedly throughout his book that the Church should favor any one “style” over any other, he is more than willing to base his entire discussion on one of the central tenets of modernism.
The Church as a Shelter or Skin for Liturgical Action and the Loss of a Recognizable Language of Form
“Starting from zero.” A draconian minimalism. A style which seeks to get behind the “mask” of all style, and a principle of design that says a building should be designed from the inside out. All of these characteristics of modernism go a long way toward explaining why contemporary churches often look so odd: multiple roofs jutting out at perilous angles; impossible-to-find doorways; oblong, narrow, or triangular windows that one never seems to be able to see out of; a bevy of bizarre angles in the nave; little or no symmetry anywhere. Why so strange? Well, one problem is that when you design a building from the inside out, the exterior is often the last thing on your mind. An architecture that designs buildings from the inside out tends to see the exterior of a building primarily as a “covering” or “skin” around a particular interior space or action. For example, the caption of this next photograph, taken from the highly influential little book Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, claims: “The building or cover enclosing the architectural space is a shelter or ‘skin’ for liturgical action.”14 Le Corbusier famously said that a house is a “machine for living in.” Given this view of architecture, I suppose we would have to call a church a “machine for worshipping in.”15 The difficulty with this view, however, is that, in most cases we do not care very much what the outside of a machine looks like. Yes, sometimes we smooth over the rough edges a bit: we put the sewing machine mechanism in a nice, smooth beige-colored container, just as we put the hardware of a computer in a nice beige-colored box. But the automobile engine does not have the shape of sewing machine, and the sewing machine does not have the shape of a laptop computer. In each case, the shape is largely determined by the nature of the mechanism; the outside is a skin that simply covers the mechanism. Such seems to be the mentality that goes into much contemporary church design.
Things were not always thus. Traditionally, architects conceived of the inside and outside of a building as serving two very different purposes and functions. Unlike the private, interior space of a building, the exterior form was generally thought to have a distinctively public, civic function. Indeed, in different places and within various cultures, there generally arose over the years a common and characteristic “language of form” that local building designers could call upon—a language that local citizens could generally recognize and understand.
With modernist “functionalism,” however, we are often left with church buildings that make few, if any, references to the iconic heritage or architectural traditions of the Catholic Church. How exactly, then, are the common, working people of the parish supposed to recognize and understand their own building when it is not speaking their own language of form?
And for those elite few who do understand the “meaning” of the building, what can they say to the pious, hardworking churchgoers whose tithes have gone to pay for the building? That it was the goal of modernists to sweep away all the traditions of the past in order to make way for an architecture that would not only “represent,” but in fact help to create, the new industrial, technological man of the future? It was Le Corbusier who wrote that:
Architecture has for its first duty, in the period of renewal, that of bringing about a revision of values .... We must create the mass-production spirit. The spirit of constructing mass-production houses. The spirit of living in mass-production houses. The spirit of conceiving mass-production houses.16
How would the non-elite, working-class Catholics for whom most of these churches are built reconcile all this—the elitism, the rejection of tradition and authority, the revision of values—with their faith in a Church based on centuries of tradition and authority? Was the new “technological man” of the modernist architects the sort of human person their Church was trying to inspire them to become? How, in other words, do you function in a building where the philosophy of the designers involves rejecting everything you hold dear?
Coming to America
But this obvious contradiction between the goals of modernism and the principles of the Catholic Church merely begs another question. How did H. A. Reinhold, an American Catholic priest, end up imbibing so much of the spirit and forms of modernism? This has a lot to do with the fate of American architecture schools in the years prior to the Second World War. Tom Wolfe has described the somewhat unexpected character of this prewar European “invasion” of America as follows:
All at once, in 1937, the Silver Prince himself was here, in America. Walter Gropius; in person; in the flesh; and here to stay ... Other stars of the fabled Bauhaus arrived at about the same time: Breuer, Albers, Moholy—Nagy, Bayer, and Mies van der Rohe ... Here they came, uprooted, exhausted, penniless, men without a country, battered by fate ... As a refugee from a blighted land, [Gropius] would have been content with a friendly welcome, a place to lay his head, two or three meals a day until he could get on his own feet, a smile every once in a while, and a chance to work, if anybody needed him. And instead ...
Well, Gropius was made head of the school of architecture at Harvard, and Breuer joined him there. Moholy-Nagy opened the New Bauhaus, which evolved into the Chicago Institute of Design ... [And] Mies was installed as dean of architecture at the Armour Institute of Chicago ... It was embarrassing, perhaps ... but it was the kind of thing one could learn to live with ... Within three years the course of American architecture had changed, utterly ... Everyone started from zero.17
So it was that when liturgists such as Fr. Reinhold turned their minds to church architecture, they breathed in, as it were, “the spirit of the age”: the modernist currents that were blowing like a tornado through all the American schools of architecture. And it is this modernist approach that still dominates many contemporary discussions about church architecture today—and in ways that most churchgoers would recognize instantly.
The Ideal Interior of the Modern Church: Church-in-the-Round
Take, for example, the following statement from Fr. Reinhold about the “ideal parish church”: “[T]he ideal parish church is the one in which the architecture creates the ideal setting for full participation.” Now, the notion of “full and active participation” is one that most people associate with the Second Vatican Council. But here it is already in 1947. And note that, once again, instead of beginning with a survey of churches that have been shown to successfully encourage full and active participation, Fr. Reinhold “starts from zero,” so to speak, as though no church had ever been built before, and derives his norms for proper functionalist design from his own a priori conception of the “ideal setting.”
And what is the “ideal setting for full participation”? You can see the basic, a priori “idea” if you look again at the figure on page 13; the “ideal” arrangement is diagramed under that large, bold-faced heading that says “form follows function.” Looking again to his text you will find the actual seating configurations Fr. Reinhold proposes for new churches. The “ideal setting” for a church, according to this pre–Vatican II liturgist, is the fan-shaped congregation, or what is sometimes called “church-in-the-round.” If you are a Catholic, you see it all the time. In fact, you can hardly manage to escape it. Indeed, liturgical “experts” have even taken regular straight churches and turned the congregation sideways to accomplish this “ideal” setting.
The “ideal setting” for a church, according to this pre-Vatican II liturgist, is the fan-shaped congregation, or what is sometimes called “church-in-the-round.” Image: Speaking of Liturgical Architecture
Ever wonder why it seems impossible anymore to build a church with straight aisles? Well, now you know. This configuration was not specified anywhere by the Second Vatican Council. What the Council did was merely to exhort the faithful to “full and active participation” at the Mass. When American liturgical “experts” heard those words in 1965, however, they had already long been conditioned to connect “full and active participation ” with “fan-shaped” congregations. To “go back” to straight aisles in a church would be tantamount, in their eyes, to rejecting the Council’s call for “full and active participation. ” And thus what used to be an “ideal” is now an absolute requirement.
I found a remarkable example of this recently in a magazine called The Classicist, where I found a church that had recently been built for a Catholic congregation in Texas. It is a traditional structure, which the architects had taken pains to ensure would fit in with the character of the town. But then they ran into a problem. The Classicist put it this way:
The congregation, wishing to replace its building as soon as possible [after a fire], found that the liturgy had changed significantly since the Civil War. Contemporary liturgy often renders church architecture in the round [sic], a condition which presented a seemingly irreconcilable difference between religious requirements and the client’s desires ... The result is a balance of the client’s wish for a pre-Vatican II church and the new requirements in Catholic religious architecture.18
My first reaction upon reading this description was: When did the fan shape become a “requirement” in the Catholic Church? In a church of this size—with no more than twelve rows of pews—it is unclear why anyone should have thought that “full and active participation” required fan-shaped seating, apart perhaps from the a priori conviction that this had become a “religious requirement” (although no one could have pointed to the actual canon requiring it, since there is none).
The architect of this church wrote me to say that: “There was a very lengthy and difficult process as we worked through a Vatican II Diocese and a Pre–Vatican II Mission Church. The parishioners just wanted their church back and could not understand what inflecting the pews to insure eye contact had to do with being a good Catholic.” “It was a grueling process,” he went on, “the interplay was tough as the liturgy was being interpreted very strictly in this diocese.” But notice that it wasn’t, as the architect suggests, really the liturgy that was being interpreted strictly in this diocese, it was the so-called “liturgical” requirements for church architecture.
But is it really the liturgy that has taken precedence here? After all, effective and impressive liturgies have been going on in all sorts of different buildings for hundreds of years. No, what takes precedence is the “idea” to which all buildings must conform. This is fundamental. We must begin with an a priori “idea,” not with the living reality of what has actually been shown to work in practice. Then we enforce that form on the worshipping community, whether they like it or not. The result, as often as not, is a “functionalism” that is not all that functional.
The Great White Wash
The blank, white back wall of our little Texas church reveals another of those architectural innovations that people have mistakenly associated with the postconciliar period. In Fr. Reinhold’s 1947 book, he mentions a wonderful new innovation he has discovered: “Rudolf Schwarz proposes a white-washed wall behind the altar.”19 “There is great beauty in this original approach,” says Fr. Reinhold, “but are we ready to carry it out?”
The answer to that question would have to be an emphatic “yes.” But now the question is: Can we ever get liturgical experts to stop? Must every new church in Christendom have a blank, whitewashed wall behind the altar? Worse yet, how many beautiful high altars were torn out of old churches to make way for the miracle of the ubiquitous blank, white-washed wall behind the altar? Unfortunately, when American liturgists heard the Second Vatican Council’s call for a “noble simplicity” in church decoration,20 they could think of nothing other than the radical, abstract minimalism of the modernist style.
De-constructing Modern Church Architecture
But that’s enough about Fr. Reinhold and his ideology of church architecture. My point is simply this: Here in this 1947 treatise, we find a popular course of lectures delivered to scores of prospective liturgists proposing all sorts of architectural “reforms” that most people associate with the Second Vatican Council, none of which are actually called for by the Council. When the Council documents finally did reach America in the mid-1960s, however, they were delivered into a social and cultural context that was already well imbued with the modernist architectural ethos. And thus when American liturgists read and interpreted those conciliar documents, they did so through the interpretive lens of the modernist architecture handed down to them by “experts” like Fr. Reinhold. In other words, we were well on our way to the kind of churches pictured in Environment and Art in Catholic Worship long before the Council fathers ever wrote a word of Sacrosanctum Concilium.
As I have indicated several times above, it may well be—indeed, it seems likely—that Fr. Reinhold was not a conscious modernist. It seems likely he had just taken in bits and pieces of what passed for the reigning wisdom in the architectural schools of his day. That’s not a crime. But it may be a problem if you take it upon yourself to dictate to architects how they must build a church. Sadly, Fr. Reinhold was merely the first in a long line of liturgists who have had the presumption to think that they can substitute for an actual architect. Nothing is more common in contemporary church building projects—especially the bad ones—than for the architect to have to work under the tutelage of a “liturgical consultant.” The liturgical consultant is not there merely to teach the architect about the liturgy, but to “help” the architect in matters of design. Most architects find this intrusion to be extremely frustrating. The liturgical consultant is a person who knows little about architecture telling someone trained in architecture how a building “must” look. Says who? As it turns out, not the Council; nor the Church; and definitely not the tradition of architectural design. So who then? Well, as it turns out, pretty much just the liturgical consultant who sells himself as capable of doing the job an architect is trained to do. Indeed, the claim seems to be that the architect simply cannot build a church building without the guidance
of the liturgist. Oddly, the liturgist does not seem to think he cannot plan a liturgy without the help of the architect.
The principles that Fr. Reinhold espouses are not independent of any style, as he repeatedly insists; rather, they are central tenets of modernist design. Thus, if it is to be the case, as even Fr. Reinhold repeatedly insists, that the Church should canonize no style in particular, but remain open to all styles, then we must set about disengaging these modernist principles from the general prescriptions for the building of churches. What is clear, moreover, is that forcing modernist principles of building design upon unwilling church congregations and passing them off as if they were principles of the Council simply must stop.
Randall B. Smith is an Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Saint Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture. He writes regularly for The Catholic Thing and Crisis and has a forthcoming article in the journal Nova et Vetera on “How to Read a Sermon by Thomas Aquinas.”
1. H. A. Reinhold, Speaking of Liturgical Architecture (Notre Dame, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Liturgical Programs, 1952).
2. Ibid., see the “Foreword” by Fr. Michael Mathis, C.S.C.
3. All of Fr. Reinhold’s notable books involved the pre-Vatican II liturgy, e.g., The American Parish and the Roman Liturgy (1958), Bringing the Mass to the People (1960), and The Dynamics of the Liturgy (1961).
4. See the book’s first foot-note: Speaking of Liturgical Architecture, 1 n.1.
5. The story is recounted in Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House (Toronto: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1981), 36.
6. See “Functionalism” in The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th edition.
7. Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, tr. F. Etchells (New York: Praeger, 1946), 10, 11.
8. Wolfe, 24.
9. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, “Working theses,” , in: Ulrich Conrads, Programs and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1975), 74-75.
10. Le Corbusier, 9.
12. Le Corbusier, 12. See the quotation below, n. 14.
13. Wolfe, 14.
14. Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1978), illustration 25. It would be hard to overstate the extent of the influence of this simple, little book. Though it was never ratified by the Bishop’s conference, it became the de facto Bible for all church design in America. Indeed, its influence would probably be worthy of its own historical study, or tragic novel.
15. Le Corbusier, 10.
16. Le Corbusier, 12.
17. Wolfe, 45 f.
18. See The Classicist, vol. 4, 36.
20. Sacrosanctum Concilium, section 34, states that “in encouraging and favoring truly sacred art, they [church designers] should seek for noble beauty rather than sumptuous display.” The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, section 279, also affirms that “church decor should aim at noble simplicity rather than ostentatious magnificence.” Oddly enough, there is no footnote in either document to white walls. In truth, the term “noble simplicity” arose originally in the mid-eighteenth century and was used to describe the beauty characteristic of ancient Greek works of art. See, for example, the work of art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst (Stuttgart, 1755), 26, 29, who described Greek art as having a “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” [edle Einfalt und stille Grösse]. Thus, if the Council were implying anything in particular by the use of the term “noble simplicity,” it would be that churches should have the classical beauty of ancient Greek works of art. Be that as it may, there is no historical or conceptual relationship between the term “noble simplicity” and modernist functionalist minimalism.