Bereft of Imagery

Rudolf Schwarz and the Monumental Order of Things

by ed. Adam Caruso and Helen Thomas
2018 gta Verlag, 334 pages, $89
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Annakirche, Düren, Germany.

Rudolf Schwarz is principally known as a church architect and mystic-poet-philosopher of sacred architecture. Significantly, he was a student of Romano Guardini’s, and served as the architect for his Catholic German Youth Movement Quickborn.

Schwarz has a small but important body of church projects, notably the iconic 1928 Fronleichnamskirche in Aachen. There he considered the church as stripped down to its essentials devoid of any reference to former architectural styles, executed in the elegant minimalism of the Bauhaus aesthetic, and bereft of any sacred imagery that might distract. His goal was that the central altar should be the proper focus of the community at prayer in accordance with the tenets of the early Liturgical Movement.

Schwarz’s “revolutionary” work was first introduced to America by Father H.A. Reinhold in the years preceding the Second World War through strategically placed articles in both Jesuit Father LaFarge’s The Liturgical Arts (Fall 1938) and The Architectural Forum (Jan 1939).

After the War and until his early death in 1960, Schwarz was regularly featured in Architectural Record, Architectural Review, and Architectural Forum. His exposure moved beyond the trade journals and into the American spotlight with a large, glossy spread showcasing his church projects in the Christmas 1955 issue of Life Magazine.

His reputation and importance were confirmed with Henry Regnery’s 1958 publication of Schwarz’s The Church Incarnate: The Sacred Function of Architecture, which included an enthusiastic foreword by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. For Mies, “the great German church builder is one of the most profound thinkers of our time.” This book “is one of the truly great books—one of those which have the power to transform our thinking.”

From this exposure he was invited to submit his qualifications for the campus architect commission at Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, which was the center for the Liturgical Movement in the United States.

In the years immediately following his death, Schwarz’s projects were regularly included in numerous popular books on contemporary church architecture. In the years following the Second Vatican Council, however, he fell into virtual oblivion. Pevsner’s An Outline of European Architecture did not even mention him. He was virtually unmentioned until the late 1990s with Heathcote and Spens’s Church Builders and my own Architecture in Communion. Since then others have continued to investigate the importance of his work, notably Kathleen James-Chakraborty in German Architecture for a Mass Audience, Richard Kieckhefer’s Theology in Stone, Mark Torgerson’s An Architecture of Immanence, and Robert Proctor’s Building the Modern Church.

Rudolf Schwarz and the Monumental Order of Things is the first monograph on the work of Rudolf Schwarz in English and a solid introduction to his work.

It is unfortunate that the editors deliberately avoided the theological and liturgical aspects of Schwarz’s theory and iconography. They wanted “to encourage the viewing of Schwarz’s buildings as physical objects in a historical context, rather than as expressions of his biography, personal philosophy, or often forceful, idiosyncratic and dogmatic way of writing that at times, as is discussed in this book, offend his readers.”

This seems to be a significant omission. On the other hand, given the density and complexity of Schwarz’s thought, as well as the problematic nature of The Church Incarnate one can understand a certain aversion to tackling such a daunting task, and a willingness to leave open the interpretation of his work.

The Church Incarnate is quirky and subject to varied readings. Richard Kieckhefer and I disagree on theological orthodoxy of the text, though Aidan Nichols supports my concerns. The great scholar of religion Martin Marty was puzzled by the book, writing, “What is designedly a ‘primer for church building’ will prove to be a dissertation beyond the depth of most of us.” If anyone asks him what the book is about, “I shall not be sure that I can answer.”

Nevertheless the editors do make up for this gap in a number of important ways. Extensive translations of Schwarz’s own explanations of his projects, taken from his Kirchenbau, published just before he died, offer the English reader a great service. These texts give context to the accompanying beautiful photographs and architectural drawings. Likewise, the paper given toward the end of his life, “Architecture of Our Times” (Die Baukunst der Gegenwart), grants a glimpse into Schwarz’s architectonic mind and poetic soul.

The authors also include extensive translation of key texts by Wolfgang Pehnt, which give a wealth of insight into mid-century German architecture. The chapter on the Bauhaus controversy is particularly instructive: Schwarz, though a modernist and working in that functionalist style, was no fan of the Bauhaus.

The final interview with Maria Schwarz, who passed away in 2018, is a wonderful component, and provides a significant historical record of the works she and her husband produced.

The book is to be highly recommended as a first introduction to Schwarz. It will be of great assistance for those who want to grapple with, ​The Church Incarnate, which should be required reading for any student of sacred architecture.