An important new book, No Place for God: the Denial of the Transcendent in Modern Church Architecture by Moyra Doorly, will be published by Ignatius Press in the summer. Here the author gives us a foretaste of her challenging argument.
The liturgical revolution of the twentieth century has brought about a profound change in the idea of what a church is, how it functions and the message it proclaims. By emphasising God's presence in the worshipping community, the post-Vatican II liturgy has created the impetus for the complete dismantling of the traditional church form.
In existing churches re-ordering schemes have seen elaborate high altars removed and replaced with table altars pushed forward into the nave so that the people can 'gather round'. Statues have been removed, frescos and murals whitewashed over, altar rails discarded and pews taken out to be replaced with plastic stacking chairs. New church buildings are either designed to be indistinguishable from the local library or health centre or, for a prestige project, they might resemble a cube, a funnel or a space station; anything but a church.
Internally, traditional linear forms are considered too hierarchical and authoritarian and the preferred arrangement is circular, modelled on a theatre in the round or a seminar room to demonstrate the gathering of the community. And the entirely modern innovation of Mass facing the people proclaims that there is nothing to look to beyond the people who happen to be present, thus denying the transcendent in favour of the immanent.
The revolution in church design which took place in the twentieth century also owes much to the adoption of the Modernist style of architecture which is the architecture of relativist space. Relativist space is homogeneous, directionless and value-free, in other words, it is the same everywhere you look and no part of it has any more significance than any other. In the relativist universe there are no signposts and no obvious paths forward, because nowhere has any more or less meaning than anywhere else. In relativist space, boundaries and distinctions are dissolved and since the concept of a special place set apart is an alien one, sacred space, by definition, cannot exist.
The origins of the modern movement in architecture can be traced back to the last years of the nineteenth century. In 1897, in Vienna, a group of artists and architects separated themselves from the Austrian art establishment and formed the 'Vienna Secession', thereby creating the first of the art compounds which were to change the face of world architecture. Typically the members of an art compound – whether they were Constructivists, Neo-plasticists or Elementarists – would form an artistic community by meeting regularly, agreeing on certain aesthetic and moral principles and then publicising them, usually in the form of a manifesto. The Italian Futurists delivered their first manifesto in 1910. After that the manifestos hardly stopped coming, with the De Stijl Group producing theirs in 1918.
|Two churches in the south of England, one built before, and one after, the Council. Unfortunately, the first one has since been "updated".|
The enormously influential Bauhaus School of Design in Weimar, Germany was founded in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius and many of the prophets of Modernism taught there – Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Lázló Moholy-Nagy, Henry van de Velde, as well as the artists Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. Here it was agreed that the traditions were obsolete, the styles redundant and all forms of embellishment and decoration should be rejected. Instead what was required was a revolutionary and universal architectural aesthetic to be found through geometry, mass production and the use of honestly-expressed materials. This meant that colour was out, or at least any colour apart from beige and grey and, of course, black and white. Pitched roofs represented the crowns of the old nobility and so flat roofs became compulsory despite the climate and the consequent fact that so many of them leaked. Eaves and cornices also had to be eliminated so that the roof could make a clean right angle with the building façade and above all, nothing should be covered up, nothing should be hidden. From henceforth the structure of the building had to show.
New construction methods employing steel and reinforced concrete allowed greater spans to be achieved without so much solid masonry. Space could now 'flow' because there was no longer any need to restrict an activity to an area enclosed by heavy walls. Sliding doors and partitions would allow activity zones to be closed off and opened up again as the need arose. Buildings were no longer to be considered in terms of connected but individually defined spaces, but as an expression of unbounded, non-hierarchical space, space which could be multi-functional and flexible because nothing need be fixed or absolute. The old formalities were lifted, the boundaries were dissolved and open-plan was born. Lightweight curtain walling and extensive areas of glazing would help lighten the perimeters of buildings and visually connect their interiors with the landscape. Raising buildings off the ground on columns, or 'piloti', would allow the space around them to flow without restriction or limitation. Abandoning the traditional patterns of streets, squares, avenues and courtyards etc., would liberate the city and buildings would no longer need to fit into an imposed ground plan.
This new vision was intended for the benefit of the masses and if the masses were slow to catch on, they would have to be re-educated. It was only to be expected that most people would lag behind the visionaries and be slow to appreciate the wonders on offer but the patronage of mainly socialist town and city authorities would put money behind the new architecture and make the vision a reality. The fact that this meant demolishing large parts of existing cities was no matter for regret. The time had come to brush aside the dead hand of the past.
Typical of the Modernist approach is the dismissal of two millennia of accumulated knowledge and practice at a stroke, coupled with the desire to recapture a long-gone age of elemental purity – modern artists have always been in love with Primitivism and modern architects with the mastery of geometry displayed by the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Incas. It is part of being modern, to emulate the most ancient of building forms. Also integral to Modernism, and characteristic of revolutionary movements throughout the Modern Age, is the announcing of a new future that only the enlightened can appreciate and understand, coupled with calls for the re-education of the ignorant and the reluctant. Every point of view is valid in the new world being planned, except that of the reactionaries who reject the vision.
Primacy of the people
A member of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales once said, "A church is not a sacred building as such. Instead it is rendered sacred by the liturgical action of the people." Such a view could have come straight out of Architecture for Worship by E.A. Sovik, the darling of the post-Conciliar liturgical establishment. The ideas of this Lutheran architect have influenced the design and re-ordering of countless Catholic churches across the world and were incorporated wholeheartedly into Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, a document released in 1978 by the US Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy.
Both works put forward the case for dismantling the traditional church form and replacing it with the Relativist church building. In line with the Modernist principle of looking back to the earliest and most ancient age possible, Sovik maintains that the first Christians had no need for churches and as a result experienced a joyous and unsullied sense of community until Church bureaucracy took over and began to build the edifices we are still stuck with today. He also wonders if it is possible for the congregations of America to give up their ecclesiastical prejudices and be persuaded that two millenia of church building tradition were in error.
Congregations obviously have to be educated out of their prejudices, like the masses anywhere who are so often unimpressed by the new ideas of the revolutionaries. In order to explain his vision he writes, "The reflections on sacramental theology have brought us back to liturgical patterns which are nearer to those of the early church…A house of worship is not a shelter for an altar; it is a shelter for people. It is not the table that makes the sacrament; it is the people and what they do. The things are adjuncts, conveniences, symbols, utensils. The presence of God is not assured by things or by symbols or by buildings, but by Christian people…"
One of Sovik's big new ideas is the 'Non-Church', which he calls a "centrum". Although primarily concerned with the design of new 'non-church' buildings, Sovik also gives examples of the kind of renewal of existing churches he would like to encourage in order to turn them into 'non-church' buildings too. One example he cites is Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky where the monks decided to 'renew' the abbey church, a century-old structure with a lofty and elaborately decorated plaster-vaulted interior. By "courageously and doubtless painfully" stripping out the "contrived" gothic lining which was only "stage-scenery" after all, the monks revealed "a noble space as elegant as it is simple" into which they moved some "well-designed new chairs" and new liturgical furnishings. According to Sovik, the result is a "sparse but beautiful room", where "people are seen as important", and where "the texture and scale of surfaces and furnishings make it hospitable and full of hope".
These ideas also found their expression in The Parish Church: Principles of Liturgical Design and Re-ordering, produced by the Bishop's Conference of England and Wales. Again the dismantling of the traditional church form is proposed. According to paragraph 53, "The purpose of a church is to gather together the community, both priest and people, so that the Mass may be offered with the full and active participation of all who are present and, in fulfilling that role, it becomes a sign of the whole Church."
To this end the sanctuary should be clearly distinguished from the "place of assembly" but not so as to seem remote; it need only be one step above 'the nave' (as I shall call it). Altar rails, arches and screens can be removed so that the people are able to see the celebrant clearly and the simple and uncluttered altar should be free-standing since the practice of Mass facing the people is taken for granted. Seating should be arranged so that the people can gather round, preferably on chairs which both emphasise individuality and allow for greater flexibility. Furnishings should be plain and simple and statues should be tasteful.
Return to transcendence
In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Cardinal Ratzinger writes, "As I see it, the problem with a large part of modern liturgiology is that it tends to recognise only antiquity as a source, and therefore normative, and to regard everything developed later, in the Middle Ages and through the Council of Trent, as decadent. And so one ends up with the dubious reconstructions of the most ancient practice, fluctuating criteria, and never-ending suggestions for reform, which lead ultimately to the disintegration of the liturgy that has evolved in a living way."
It is often said that churches represent "theology in stone" and can be "read" as such. If this is true for the Gothic cathedral with its towering internal spaces and abundance of imagery, then it is equally true for the emptied out church buildings of today. If the motto of the Modern Age is 'No particular place to go', the sign over the church door might as well be 'Nothing special here.' Throughout the centuries, whatever the aesthetics and form of a particular style, and whether a plain and simple chapel or grand and ornate cathedral, the church building was able to embody a vision that was both immanent and transcendent. In other words, 'God is with us' and at the same time God is entirely 'other'.
Thankfully there are growing calls for at least the re-adoption of the traditional priestly orientation so that priest and people may together turn towards God during the Novus Ordo Mass. This crucial step in reclaiming the transcendent vision cannot be taken too soon and to this end why not ask your parish priest to, 'Turn Again Father'?
[Taken from "Mass of Ages" May 2007, The Latin Mass Society's quarterly magazine]