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Yet in promoting this International Style, did the Church unknowingly adopt the philosophy of Modernism and unwittingly undercut her own theology?




The Roots of Modernist Church Architecture

By Duncan Stroik

To many observers, it would seem that the reductionist buildings commissioned for Roman Catholic worship today are the direct corollary of Church teaching, modern liturgical studies and contemporary theology. Indeed, in the 1960s there was a great surge of construction of austere churches that often resembled commercial or factory buildings, bearing out the belief that they were mandated by the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. But these concrete boxes, barn-like shelters and sculptural masses all had precedent in the pre-Conciliar era. In fact, radical new church configurations had been experimented with since the dawn of Modernism in the late-19th century.

While the idea to model churches on auditoria, Greek theaters, large houses or theaters in-the-round grew out of Protestant worship, the reductionism of post-Conciliar churches grew out of the Modernist architectural movement in Europe. Current church architecture is not merely the child of modern theology, it is also a child of the "masters" of Modernist architecture: Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and others. The Church willingly accepted and even adopted the architecture of the secular realm for its sacred buildings, yet in promoting this International Style, did the Church unknowingly adopt the philosophy of Modernism and unwittingly undercut her own theology?

Modernism was particularly attracted to the auditorium and theater types because of their scientific claims to acoustical and visual correctness, as well as the belief that the form of a building should be determined by its function. An essential tenet of Modernism at the turn of the century was the need to break with the past, in order to find an "architecture of our time."

It was made clear by the early promoters of Modernism, such as Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Otto Wagner, that any semblance of historical elements or styles was not of our time and must be rejected. At first, this rejection of tradition took the form of subtracting or abstracting traditional motifs in buildings. Later, inspired by abstract painting and sculpture, Modernist architecture sought to end the distinctions between floor and ceiling, interior and exterior, window and wall, and sacred and profane, which architecture has historically gloried in.

Aesthetically, Modernist architecture was inspired by works of engineering, including bridges, industrial buildings and temporary exposition halls that were large, economical and built fast. It was also argued that a modern style grew out of the use of modern materials and that these materials lent themselves inherently to a reductionist aesthetic. This was partially a critique of the ongoing construction of masonry buildings such as St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington, DC, as well as many chapels and churches built by architects in Classical or Medieval modes.

In fact, at the same time Auguste Perret was building a Modernist concrete hall-church in Paris, American architects were building Gothic and Renaissance churches of reinforced concrete (particularly in California) complete with ornament, moldings and sculpture. Not unlike the ancient Romans, who used concrete hidden within the walls and domes of Classical buildings, early-20th-century traditionalist architects brilliantly used the most current technology of construction, heating and plumbing, all within a humanistic aesthetic.

While the majority of Catholic churches built in the U.S. before 1940 were traditional in style, many Protestant, Unitarian and Christian Scientist congregations experimented with industrial building forms. Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple of 1904, for example, is a cubic auditorium with geometric and floral ornament, while his master, Louis Sullivan, designed St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Chicago in 1914 as an abstracted Roman theater.

After World War II, the Modernist movement was embraced worldwide as an expression of the technological triumph of the war. Many pastors followed the lead of government and big business by building abstract, asymmetrical and futuristic churches in modern materials. In France, for the rustic church of Notre Dame at Assy, Dominican Father Pierre Marie-Alan Couturier commissioned 15 of the best known Modernist artists to make murals, tapestries, mosaics and stained glass.

Also under the patronage of Father Couturier, the French architect Le Corbusier designed perhaps the two best-known churches of this century: the pilgrimage church, Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, and the Dominican Monastery, Ste. Marie de la Tourette.

The Benedictines in the U.S. were the equivalent of the Dominicans in France, being great patrons of Modernist art and architecture, as well as being liturgically progressive. In Collegeville, MN, they hired Marcel Breuer, originally of the Bauhaus, and in St. Louis they commissioned Gyo Obata, designer of the St. Louis Airport, for new abbeys. These buildings were sleek, non-traditional, and critically acclaimed by the architectural establishment.

Contemporary with these buildings, the documents of the Second Vatican Council were being developed. The council's acceptance of the styles of the time and rejection of limitation to any particular style can be seen as a careful opening of the window to Modernism. The architectural establishment, by this time thoroughly cut off from its historical tradition, came in like a flood.

A few architects and designers, such as Anders Sovik, Frank Kaczmarcik and Robert Hovda, made an effort, following Schwarz and Couturier, to argue for a modern architecture imbued with a Christian theology. Basing their views in part on the studies of theologians such as Rudolf Otto, they promoted a "non-church" building emphasizing the assembly, without hierarchical orientation, fixed elements, or traditional architectural language. These architects' rejection of most of Christianity's architectural and liturgical development, coupled with their promotion of an abstract aesthetic, seemed to baptize, confirm and marry Modernism to the Church.

These principles of modern liturgical "spaces," later embodied in the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy document of 1978, "Environ- ment and Art in Catholic Worship," are essentially the iconoclastic tenets of 1920s Modernism.

Ironically, at the same time that the Catholic Church was reconciling herself with Modernism in the early 1960s, the architectural profession witnessed the beginning of a serious critique of Modernism. Architects Robert Venturi, Louis Kahn and Charles Moore, in their buildings and writings, proposed a new/old architecture of memory, symbol and meaning, spawning what became known as the Post-modern movement. They also inspired the work of numerous other architects, including John Burgee, Michael Graves, Allan Greenberg, Philip Johnson, Thomas Gordon Smith and Robert Stern, who willingly embraced humanistic urban planning and a variety of architectural styles.

While allegiance to the Modernist style continues, many of its philosophical beliefs have been questioned and criticized during the past 30 years. The preservation movement, repentant Modernist architects, along with architectural historians and structural disasters, have exposed the limitations and failures of Modernism. The liturgical design establishment, on the other hand, has barely acknowledged the critique of Modernism and continues to promote Modernist revival or even "deconstructionist" church buildings.

Of great inspiration to architects, pastors and laity alike are the chapters in the Catechism of the Catholic Church devoted to the Universal Church's teaching on sign, image and the church as a visible symbol of the Father's house. In recent decades we have seen a number of new or renovated Catholic churches that express these aims and those of Vatican II through the restoration of sign, symbol and typology. These include the Monastery of Le Barroux in France, the parish of San Juan Capistrano in California, the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament in Alabama, Our Lady of Walsingham in Texas, a number of churches in New England, St. Jose Maria church in Rome and Brentwood Cathedral in England.

These and other buildings indicate that the future of Catholic architecture will go beyond the narrow confines of the Modernist aesthetic to the broad and vital tradition of sacred architecture.  

Duncan Stroik is an Associate Professor at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture and principal of Duncan G. Stroik Architect, LLC, of South Bend, IN. He is also the editor of Sacred Architecture Journal.

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