The Church in the City of the Third Millennium

by Cristiano Rosponi, appearing in Volume 5

In recent years in Italy, all debate on the design of new churches has been focused almost exclusively on technical aspects. While the liturgical implications of church design were at times discussed, the field of sacred art was never brought into the mix. This, with the aid of a Vatican Council that assigned to architecture the task of creating new spaces required by a new liturgy, was all that was needed in an era of functionalist architecture to build churches conceived as mere containers, better to host the liturgical “functions” celebrated within. Today, the failure of such a functionalist approach to church design is patent. We can scarcely find a connection between the materials employed (such as exposed reinforced concrete and anodized aluminum) and the functional and typological experiments intrinsic to the floor plans of the new buildings, which are otherwise faithful to the legitimate intent of the Council.

But all objection to this fashioning of new churches, however honest, has been reductively criticized as ideological grandstanding or mere obtuseness, and thus the argument between tradition and modernity has degenerated into a glib secular diatribe between “liberals” and “conservatives.” Fortunately, the wall separating the two irreconcilable enemies has fallen and dragged down in its rubble the ideologies that have characterized the “brief century” that has just ended. Traditional architecture is no longer considered a cultural version of a cheap ideology, but rather is an acknowledged to be the work of contemporary architects and their role in rescuing the language of the great traditions of Europe and the West. In fact, the debate on new church design is far more complex and articulate than much criticism would allow, and requires the contribution of believers and laymen as well as that of architects and artists. The debate takes on a profound dignity by forcing Christians to question the design of churches and to consider the need that these, in the words of the Archbishop of Poitiers, once again act as “remembrance and sign,” and proclaim to the world their presence and history. If we are once again to endow churches with the historical and symbolic meaning of a sign, we must first consider the church’s direct relationship to—and interconnection with—the built environment, with the city, and especially with the urban entity it defines by itself: the parish or the neighborhood.

In the new Italian towns founded in the Thirties (Sabaudia, Littoria, Pontinia, Carbonia, and Guidonia) we see how the town plan hinges on two main buildings, the Town Hall and the Church. These indeed function autonomously as “foundational” elements of the whole urban fabric, but also define the adjacent spaces and create, by virtue of their mere presence, the Piazza. Both Town Hall and Church typologies annex the nearby fabric and utilize the elements of a thousand-year-old urban tradition: the tower, the campanile, and the baptistery. In the outlying hamlets of the Italian new towns, which were really agrarian villages, the churches were designed in different styles, recalling the original architecture of the colonial settlers. It is around these churches, along with a few workers' clubs, that the hamlets rise up, and it is these churches, with their differing styles, that are entrusted with the remembrance of the settlers “motherland.”

The Armenian churches of the Diaspora work to remind the Armenian people spread out across the globe, in the West as in the East, of their land of origin by evoking, and at times directly copying, medieval Armenian churches. Similarly, in post-war Rome, thanks to an enlightened pastor or religious order, church design was deeply and consciously rooted in the concept of “remembrance,” a concept that the churches themselves, once built, would embody during the period of Reconstruction. One example is Gaetano Rapisardi’s church of San Giovanni Bosco. With a dome second only to Saint Peter’s, it rises tall in perfect symmetry, rational in design, clad in traditional materials such as travertine. Built in the fifties, it was placed at one end of a large piazza located in the Ina Casa district of the proletarian Tuscolano quarter of Rome—in the middle of the urban fabric, yet visible from the outlying Roman countryside. Richard Meier’s church in the quarter of Tor Tre Teste, on the other hand, symbolizes the current inability to establish a relationship with the adjacent urban environment, and with the neighborhood.

The fall of the Berlin wall has opened to view the physical signs of destruction we have inherited from an antithetical understanding of the world. These signs indelibly mark the face of the city: the decay of the historic city in the East, and the outright destruction of it in the West (where it has been replaced by steel-and-glass towers); the immense empty squares in East Berlin, and the great commercial and financial centers in West Berlin; the housing projects in the East, and the fancy housing projects in the West. Let us consider instead the historic role played by the Jubilee in the great urban transformations that have bequeathed Rome with bridges and streets, along with entirely new neighborhoods. While Ignazio Breccia is right in stating that a traditional church today runs the risk of seeming ridiculous—incapable of being a sign, with even the tallest campanile buried from view in a contemporary residential neighborhood composed of thirty-meter tall concrete buildings, it is in this very context, in the city of the third millennium, that the church can work to oppose the decay of the new housing projects and the new suburbs. In this context the church can show its regenerating effect, its power to set in motion an urban rescue that will eventually re-establish the hierarchy of the elements of the neighborhood and create good urban spaces. To focus on the city and the traditional mechanisms of urban creation, we must believe that traditional churches, today merely brave attempts at defying the only line of thought, will some day, not too long from now, act as true urban regenerators, perhaps in the now likely event of replacement of incongruous buildings, even of entire quarters. We must look with favor upon the new urban and architectural trends in all parts of the world that propose traditional neighborhoods made of homes, of squares, of streets, of shops. These will combine to create a city made to man’s measure, and to reestablish the communal nature that has always been the basis for the establishment of cities throughout history. But first we must recreate those spaces required by a church to become a “place” for communities within the larger community, the traditional spaces that physically anchor it in the neighborhood and keep it from becoming an alien object: the courtyard, the piazza, and the campanile.

The Church itself can today choose which “modernity” it will bequeath to future generations. In putting that choice to work, architects must be willing to renounce those tasks that do not properly belong to them and to embrace the one that they have always fulfilled: laying the foundations of our cities.