Starting Again from Zero?

Why Modernist Architecture is Not Suitable for the Liturgy

by Ciro Lomonte, appearing in Volume 27


When, in 1955, the veil was lifted from the church of Ronchamp after five years of construction, the first reaction of the international architecture establishment was one of entire bewilderment. The man who had become the symbol of rationalist architecture, he who had defined the house as a machine for dwelling and had projected enormous buildings for thousands of people—thus eradicating, so to say, the wisdom of the European city that had matured for centuries; he, Le Corbusier, now overturned his whole argument without previous alert, in a single “subversive” gesture that seemed to contradict all that he had theorized up to that point.1

Notre Dame du Haut Pilgrimage Chapel, Ronchamp, France.

The history of Ronchamp offers numerous points of departure for a reflection on the hostile—rather than indifferent—atmosphere in which works of sacred architecture were created in the twentieth century. The case of Notre Dame du Haut turns out to be emblematic, as Le Corbusier is the innovator who most profoundly marked the development of architecture in that century.
Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (his true name) was the son of a Swiss Calvinist pastor. He started his career as a painter and founded the Purist Movement together with the painter Amédée Ozenfant. When he started to design architecture, he decided to adopt a pseudonym in order to distinguish his architectural activity from his work as a painter. He chose the name of one of his remote ancestors, Le Corbesier, a Cathar who had escaped from France during the crusade against their sect.2

However, Ozenfant persuaded him to call himself Le Corbusier. In medieval times, this term designated those who cleaned the excrements of the ravens off the cathedral roofs. Ozenfant in fact considered his architect friend to have received the task of purifying the art of construction from the ornamental “excrements” of the Academy of Fine Arts.

Architect Le Corbusier meeting with the friars for the design of the priory of Saint Marie de La Tourette, near Lyons, France. Photo: Fondation Le Corbusier.

Le Corbusier wanted to create a new tradition by wiping away all precedents, specifically Catholic tradition. For this reason, the actions of Fr. Marie-Alain Couturier, O.P., seem hard to understand: it was he who involved Le Corbusier and other non-Christian artists in the realisation of works of sacred art, as he considered it better to commission a genius without faith than a believer without talent.3 But these were not geniuses without faith, they were artists with a precise, ideological anti-Catholic intent. Tracing the steps of the creation of the so-called Modern Movement allows for a more profound understanding of a precise iconoclastic will, in open contrast with Catholic doctrine. The universal influence of this tendency is striking and noteworthy.

The War on Ornament

In 1919, the architect Walter Gropius founded a revolutionary school of architecture, the Bauhaus, which opened its courses in Weimar with a program of prophetic and dark tenor.

The young architects and artists who came to the Bauhaus to live and study there, and to learn from the Silver Prince,4 spoke of “starting again from zero.” This phrase was heard all the time: “start again from zero.” Gropius gave his consent to any experiment they had in mind, as long as it was in the name of a pure and clean future. Even new religions, such as the Mazdanan. Even new, healthy diets.5

It must be doubted whether having made a clean sweep of all the knowledge of the past contributed to true progress. The flood that has overwhelmed traditional culture was a catastrophe of epochal nature. Today it is impossible to design without trying to cure the damages wrought by this disaster, even more so as we treat sacred buildings.

Cover of the “Bauhaus Manifesto” of Walter Gropius, 1919. Image: Bauhaus Archive, Museum of Design, Berlin.

Architectural decoration (or ornament) had been created to express the religious convictions of man. This intention was explicitly declared by the famous treatise of Vitruvius.6

In Greek and Roman art, decor served to express the contents of a religious mythology that transformed the perfection of creation into anthropomorphic idols, rather than recognising therein the mark of the one Creator. The beauty of that art resided in the idealisation of the aesthetic qualities of man and of nature.

The New Iconoclasm

The reaction of the Modern Movement to Eclecticism did not aim at destroying the previous works of art, as had been the case at the time of the Second Nicene Council, which in 787 had to forcefully reaffirm the non-idolatrous value of the images of Christian worship against those who doubted it. The artists of the Bauhaus had the intention of creating a new art, putting an end to the decorative caprices of the Academy of Fine Arts.

Before them, Adolf Loos had already started that battle. In 1908, in his famous article ‘Ornament and Crime’, Loos held that architecture and applied arts were to make do without any kind of ornament, which he considered “a phenomenon either of backwardness or degeneration.”7

This principle was expressed in a more radical way by the genial representative of the Modern Movement, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was first a teacher and then, from 1930 to 1933, director of the Bauhaus.

Mies had the intention of cancelling all reference to the past: he searched for a radical innovation that would exalt the Modern construction methods by solely attributing to the structural skeleton all the formal value of the architectural organism in its integrity.

Rationalism was not the only current of Modernist architecture, but it can be said to have prevailed over all the others because of a greater internal coherence concerning the premises of the avant-garde. Rationalism was the architectural equivalent of Gnosticism at the beginning of the twentieth century.8

“Gnosis is a knowledge that knows, and the message of which can thus be summed up: he who is enlightened no longer listens […] because he now has seen.”9 Considering the major theses of gnosticising thought, we encounter more than one aspect of kinship with the architectural avant-garde. Gnosticism is Manichaean: the positive principle was to be found in the spirit, while the negative one resided in matter— and was thus to be fought.

But what was considered to be the source of the authority of the group? Well, the same as that of all other religious movements: direct access to the numinous which was, in this case, Creativity. Hence the rise of a new form of document: the art manifesto. There were no manifestos in the art world before the twentieth century and the development of the artists’ communities. The Italian futurists promulgated their first manifesto in 1910. This was followed by a flood of movements and isms. One manifesto was published after the other, day and night. The manifesto was nothing other than the Decalogue of the confraternity: “We have gone to the top of the mountain, and thence have brought the Word with us, so that now we declare that...”10

The Gnostic actually considers himself the “chosen one” who knows the negative value of matter and knows how to turn towards the entirely spiritual and impersonal One (different from the God of Christianity) from which the world would have descended by emanation.

The premises of Mies van der Rohe have similar roots. One of his mottos was “less is more.” Reducing all construction to the essential is a way of aping the simplicity of the Subsistent Being. The confusion of the essence of a work of architecture only with its structure (without function and beauty) means to imitate the Essential Being while falsely considering that the Pure Act was absolute passivity instead of fullness and richness of life. Indeed simplicity in God is absence of composition, not minimalism. This is a spiritualism similar to that of the Gnostics.

Affirming that in order to obtain “sincerity” in the architectural project, “one must reject any form that is not upheld by the structure”, he sought a functional beauty of architecture which explicitly confused the Thomistic concept of truth (adaequatio rei et intellectus) with that of beauty (omnia quae visa placent).

Vitruvius, on the other hand, had stressed the importance of reconciling structure, function, and form when trying to realise a work of architecture.

All of these must be built so that account is taken of strength, function, and beauty (firmitas, utilitas, venustas). Account will have been taken of strength when foundations are carried down to the solid ground and materials are wisely and liberally selected; of function when the disposition of rooms of each kind is flawless and presents no hindrance to use and when each element is assigned to its suitable and appropriate exposure; and of beauty when the symmetriae have been calculated correctly so the relative measurements of the members will give the work a pleasing and elegant appearance.11

In order to understand profoundly what Vitruvius meant by symmetry, we have to remember that he referred to the proportions of the human body. The perfect human body, by the canon of Greek art, can be inscribed into a circle (with the arms and legs stretched out) and into a square (with the arms open and the legs closed).

Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man, 1490. Image:

Theosophical Architects

The process that led to the birth of the avant-garde and the successive affirmation of the Modern Movement has many aspects. There are, however, two constants: on the one hand, Gnostic rationalism which sometimes shows forms of anarchism or communist egalitarianism, and, on the other hand, alchemic esotericism.

The first modern group, the Arts and Crafts Movement, was founded by William Morris in the very period when he intensively frequented the house of the English parapsychologist Annie Besant, then president of the Theosophical Society. Morris himself sometimes presided over the sessions of the Society.

The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 by Henry S. Olcott and Helena Petrovna Hahn Blavatsky for the study of spiritual phenomena. Theosophy claims to be a super-religion and to teach the core of absolute truth contained in all religions, considering pantheism constitutive of all religion and interpreting creation itself as a pantheistic phenomenon.

The painter Piet Mondrian became a member of the Theosophical Society in 1909. Probably Theo van Doesburg had a Theosophical formation as well. The main person linking Theosophy and the architectural avant-garde was the Dutch architect J.L. Mathieu Lauweriks, secretary of the Theosophical Society from 1913 onwards.12 Having received an invitation to teach at the Academy of Arts at Düsseldorf in 1904 directly from Peter Behrens, who in contemporary Germany was one of the most respected architects, he unfolded a remarkable influence there. Behrens himself was under the influence of Lauweriks, at least in the design of the crematory of Hagen, in which the front of San Miniato was taken up as a model of mysteriosophic harmony, geometry, and numerics.13 The Expressionist Hans Poelzig was the head of a lodge connected to the University of Cologne. Many of the disciples of the Bauhaus were Theosophists. For Gropius himself, the Bauhaus was to be an esoteric lodge.

“Broadway Boogie-Woogie,” by Piet Mondrian, 1942-43. Image:

In 1917, Theo van Doesburg founded the journal De Stijl in Leyden, Netherlands. This name also designates, by extension, the group of artists and architects that had gathered around it and gave life to the movement of Neo-Plasticism. The architects J.J.P. Oud, G. Rietveld, and C. van Eesteren, the painters P. Mondrian and B. van der Leck, and the sculptor G. Vantongerloo were a part of it. De Stijl undertook the elaboration of “a new sense of beauty,” founded on the search for the universal against the individual, the rational against feeling, and cosmopolitanism against nationalism. Following the poetics of Neo-Plasticism, the new world would no longer have curved lines, as those were too personal. The compromises the early Bauhaus had made with ornament were unacceptable for De Stijl, as they reduced the forms to the rectangle and the colours to the three primary ones— red, yellow, and blue—and black and white.

The aim of Neo-Plasticism was to reach the equilibrium of the opposites, overcoming any tragic vision of the world that would stem from a non-equivalence between the opposites themselves. This art represents the beginning of a new life, the sign that anticipates the rational-universal world forged by technology and by the progress of the spirit. Art should no longer occupy itself with the exterior aspect of nature, but with the universal harmony that would make up its essence.

This is why Neo-Plasticism was abstract. For the members of De Stijl, that which was spiritual, and entirely abstract, could express the human essence precisely, while that which was sensitive would not reach the level of intellectual qualities, belonging to an inferior degree of human culture. Art should not touch the heart. Any emotion, be it pain or joy, would imply a rupture of harmony, of equilibrium, between man and the cosmos.

Art thus rose as a privileged manifestation of the transformation of man, who from being natural had to become spiritual, and claimed to have a clearly messianic role to play. As Mondrian writes, “Art has assumed the guiding function that religion once held.”14

Van Doesburg observed that “it is as false to identify the essence of thought with contemplation as it is wrong to identify contemplation with the sensitive representation of nature. This last concept is of classical and Roman-Catholic origin, and Protestantism has always fought it.”15

So De Stijl was in the strain of Protestant iconoclasm. These artists came to hold that for the twentieth-century man, the image symbolising the Godhead meant nothing short of this: profanation of the divine and of the absolute.

Steiner and Anthroposophy

Many of the teachers and students at the Bauhaus were linked to a person that should be treated more keenly. I refer to Rudolf Steiner, born in Kralyevica, Croatia, in 1861, and who died at Dornach (Basel) in 1925.

Though having pursued technical studies in his youth, Steiner, who showed an astonishing predisposition for drawing, changed to philosophy and seriously studied Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, also collaborating in an edition of his works. Having then joined the Theosophical movement, he became secretary of the German section. However, he left Theosophy in 1913 in order to found his own movement, Anthroposophy, based at the Goetheanum that he designed and built in Dornach.

Goetheanum II, located in Dornach, Switzerland. Designed by Rudolf Steiner, completed in 1928. Photo:

The building in Dornach was destined to serve the representations of the mysteriendrama that Steiner wrote, and was first called “Johannesbau” after the protagonist of these mysteries. The construction of the wooden building started in 1913. In 1917, Steiner baptised it “Goetheanum” during a conference in Basel. In 1922 it was burnt down, possibly by a para-Nazi group.

Following a model that Steiner constructed in the last months of his life, it was reconstructed as Goetheanum II. The project was developed on the basis of detailed verification with small clay models. In its monumental mass, the building conserves the sculptural qualities of concrete, shaped into irregular, continuous surfaces with frequent allusions to human shapes, such as the podium that resembles a larynx, the pillars in the form of shinbones, etc.

The contents of Anthroposophy must, however, be further specified: it is a doctrine that differs from the former Theosophical one in no other way than in the development of the teaching about nature and the destiny of man. Man is conceived as a composite of seven principles or contiguous parts that are in ascending spiritual order (we must not forget that for the Theosophists, everything is spiritual).

The application of the doctrines of Steiner to the fields of painting and architecture determined the theoretical and formal choices of many artists who spent some time at the Goetheanum. Among the members of the Bauhaus who were disciples of Anthroposophy, we may recall those who went to Dornach: Paul Klee in the years 1920, 1937, and 1940; Walter Gropius and the Hungarian painter Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in 1927; Herbert Bayer and Marcel Breuer also in 1927; Max Bill in 1934. The theoretical works of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, two painters who taught at the Bauhaus, were largely influenced by the color theory of Steiner, which in turn derived from the writings of Goethe.

We must keep in mind that for Steiner, architecture was something more than amateur practices following the forms of Expressionism. It was to have thaumaturgical virtues. Steiner intended it to be the place where all the arts are reconciled. Thus it would become a vehicle to assemble the harmony of the universe by interior perception; and architecture would thus become a kind of enormous resonator.

Abdij Sint Benedictusberg, Vaals, by Dom Hans van der Laan, 1968. Photo:

Which Architecture for Liturgy?

These pages are mostly extracted from a research project of mine.16 I considered it useful to go back to basics, underlining why Modernist architecture is unsuited to Catholic churches. In accordance with their own ideology, the masters of the Modern Movement have elaborated paradigms that openly contradict Catholic doctrine. The attempts of Rudolf Schwarz, Dominikus Böhm, Emil Steffann, Hans van der Laan, and other Catholic architects show the impossibility of reaching a satisfying result with these kinds of formal languages.17 The same might be said for rock and pop music when they are used in liturgies. These are musical genres that cannot express and further the dialogue between man and God in the context of Christian revelation. Though the texts may be taken from Holy Scripture, the rhythm itself activates tribal instincts or trivializes the contents of the prayer.

Sankt Laurentius, Munich, designed by Emil Steffann, 1955. Photo:

So we must ask why bishops and priests entrust modernist architects with the design of new churches or the adaptation of old ones. I am referring to so many well-meaning ecclesiastical and religious authorities who wish to place art at the service of worship.

There are two possible motivations: first, an ingenuous enthusiasm for any kind of “progress” in the cultural field; or second, a resignation in the face of the miserable state in which modern art finds itself, as if we might have to wait for who knows how many centuries before figurative art may flourish again.

In both cases, there is a basic misunderstanding: the assumption that the Church is obliged to stay in dialogue with contemporary culture as it has done throughout its history. The proposed “dialogue” is self-destructive, as it is based on an unreasonable inferiority complex vis-à-vis present-day intellectuals. This timidity may be justified by the poor grounding of some ecclesiastical representatives in the field of art. But the Church as an institution has no reason to be intimidated: until the nineteenth century, it had always held a pedagogic and not a submissive position as regards men of culture, whom it educated in a formidable way.

The entire world needs the Church to regain its role of mother and leader. Progress has not been positive in all its aspects. Art and architecture, especially, suffer profoundly from immanentism and should hasten to recover their connection to reality. By examining the history of the formulation of ideas as far back as Descartes (at least), a correct diagnosis might suggest proposals for suitable therapy.

Avant-garde artists have chosen to start again from zero. There is a strong temptation here to imitate their example and reciprocate by erasing their formal language. This does not appear to me to be the most suitable solution. I believe it would be useful to recommence by designing with proportions and ornaments; the latter should evolve by using symbols that are intelligible for modern man. Although this might seem a difficult task, it would give rise to modern churches of great artistic beauty, perfectly suited to the celebration of Catholic rites.

A new sanctuary for Maria SS. Immacolata, Sancipirello, Sicily, by architects Ciro Lomonte and Guido Santoro, 2007. Photo: Guido Santoro.