Rediscovering Tradition in Twentieth Century Liturgical Architecture

by Jan Maciag, appearing in Volume 3

This is a book for those who ask why the art of building modern churches has vanished. Whatever the reason, many buildings that have very few numinous qualities. The buildings are often bland, functional halls that, were it not for the cross on top, could easily be mistaken for a school hall or fire station. They seem, as if deliberately to glorify the ordinariness of life or the whim of the designer. Why, in an age of unprecedented wealth, of sumptuous grocery stores and marble banking halls, do we have churches that are so utilitarian and aesthetically poor?

This publication consists of a series of essays followed by a catalogue of 40 new traditional Catholic churches from all over the world. The essays were presented at a symposium held in Rome on October 9, 1999, and coincided with the opening of the exhibition, featuring the catalogued work, which ran until October 22. The essays were written by distinguished historians, artists, and architects from Europe and the States.

It is the immense value of collecting the works in one publication that in reading the whole, a consensus of common opinion begins to emerge. Carlo Fabrizio Carli states that, despite its rich artistic past, church design in our age constitutes and immense and embarrassing problem. The architecture of sacred space finds itself in the midst of two unconnected but overlapping crises: that of the loss of certitude in traditional form and language created by the modernist movement, and that of the general secularization of the world.

All the authors suggest that contemporary Christians no longer living in an age continuous with the Christian heritage. The twentieth century represents a fundamental and challenging break from the past. A chain of events, started during the Enlightenment, declared that man should escape from traditional values based on a belief in God and live by reason alone. Spirituality was rejected and "reasoned" ideologies could flourish. Giampaolo Rossi, in his essay, explores this further. He states that the twentieth century is, indeed, a century of utopian ideologies that have repeatedly unleashed the disasters of evil until only nihilism is left. This nihilism is based on only fragmentary, disjointed facts and the immediate material needs. It is within this caustic cultural environment that the published works and the questions relating to the building of sacred space are discussed.

The fundamental issue of whether the Church needs or indeed should have church buildings is discussed. Christianity has and will continue to have a physical component. Christ himself took our physical form. It is completely understandable for Christians to request the material reality of community space not only for their own needs but also as a marker of faith within the wider multi-faith and multi-cultural world. This world, dedicated to large-scale production and economic progress, tolerates Christian communities as long as they are discreet, inoffensive, with buildings stripped of every symbolic or testimonial element. Contemporary churches are usually what he modernist world, desperate to promote and exaggerate its own message, wants them to be: ersatz theaters or assembly halls.

Communities need churches for their own benefit. The church building is, by definition, a sacred place where God is manifestly present. Whilst this might in a technical sense be true, we have all had the experience of entering a special place...a place set aside for something distinct. Even ruins, devoid of use, have such a quality. New buildings can achieve the status of sacred space as a result of artistic involvement. We still understand that art and architecture are expressive of our need to rise above the ordinary, and in a Christian context, be intimate with God. As an artist, man reveals himself more than ever as the image of God. But, as Cristiano Risponi argues, the artist must accept the gifts of the pastas having value and a means of comparison. Modernism, in elevating revolutionary progress to the highest virtue, has abandoned that strand of creativity that, as Andrea Baciarlini puts it, "created new liturgical forms but always having roots in the furrow of the long and profitable lived tradition."

Tradition--and with it the vast palette of form, symbol, and meaning--is the key to a new liturgical style appropriate to the "post-nihilistic" era. In his thrilling essay, Camilan Demetrescu describes some of the many ways that church architecture is imbued with meaning through the use of unchangeable Christian symbolism, orientation, geometry and significance. He says that to regard churches as mere buildings is to effectively de-consecrate them. However, this knowledge has been banished from schools of architecture and left untouched theological seminaries. Church design is left to the ignorant vagaries of taste and style. It is a small wonder that we often get the church buildings the world wants us to have!

The designs in this book are a much needed alternative to the stripped assembly halls which have been masquerading as churches during the last decades of the twentieth century. Offering these new projects as inspiration for pastors, parishes, and architects who are involved in planning new churches, Reconquering Sacred Space makes it clear that it is possible again to build buildings which are truly sacred.