I met one of our local architects, a good Catholic, at the soccer game where our sons were playing. We got to talking about the problems of architecture for modern churches. In the old days, the materials and methods of architecture lent themselves naturally to the forms we feel in our bones to be beautiful. Buildings were made of brick and stone, so columns were necessary to hold up arches, which were necessary to hold up the walls. The resulting forms became the language of the Christian church, and over many centuries, we came to understand sacred buildings according to that language.
But then the modern age came along with its mania for utilitarianism. “Form follows function!” became the dogma from which the aspiring architect dare not deviate. Modern materials allowed the brutalist utilitarian dogma to prevail. Everything could be built cheaply and efficiently with a steel skeleton or a concrete-and-steel substructure. These mighty materials could then be clad on the inside and outside with a pleasing veneer. All the mechanicals could be hidden in these hollow walls. Furthermore, with a bit of ingenuity, the method could be used to create not just skyscrapers and office blocks of steel and concrete and glass, but also the illusion of most any form of architecture.
So, the same method of a steel frame clad in an attractive veneer creates a mock Gothic Witches Academy at Harry Potter World or an Italian restaurant that looks like a Tuscan villa or a Mexican eatery that looks like a hacienda. Take your pick. We can make your house look like a Tudor cottage, a Scottish castle, a Spanish monastery or a Pennsylvania farmhouse.
The same cheerful utilitarianism is now applied to church architecture. Happily, the days of steel framed, brick clad, cheaply built round auditoria are almost over. Catholics are turning back to tradition ... sort of. New church designs increasingly echo traditional forms, but do so in a superficial way. Along with the brick veneers and plasterboard interior walls is a veneer of tradition.
So, the same steel structure is used as in the rest of utilitarian modern architecture and with it, the same “cut and paste” mentality to design style is applied — but this time the context is ecclesiastical. So, a basic church box is created, and the design team says, “So, what do you want? Gothic? We can do Gothic. We just make some pointed arches out of two-by-fours and plasterboard and, hey, you got Gothic. You want a stone church? We build it out of steel, but we can put on this mass-produced limestone veneer. It’s only four-inches thick, but it looks like real limestone. You want stone arches on the inside? We got this fiberglass stuff that looks just like stone. Nobody will know the difference.” Thus, the wizardry of the Harry Potter World school of church architecture.
What is the option? Shall we build churches out of solid limestone, marble and brick, as they did in the Middle Ages? Perhaps, but even if we could afford it, this solution is artificial in its own way. We don’t live in the Middle Ages, and most of us don’t live near a limestone or marble quarry. To build churches in this way when we don’t need to is artificial in an elitist way rather than artificial in a cheap and cheerful way.
In building our new church at Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville, I was lucky to discover a young designer working in our own Diocese of Charleston, S.C. Andrew Gould of New World Byzantine has studied art history and architecture and traveled throughout Europe studying the churches of antiquity. He explains that the first principle of church architecture should be proportion. The classical proportions of the historic churches were derived from the classical rule of aesthetics in Greece and Rome. These classical proportions spring from what human beings naturally feel is harmonious, pleasing and beautiful. Gould says that what really makes a church beautiful is the pleasing proportions which lay beneath the actual design of the structure itself. Therefore, the decorations or historical style of Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque or Byzantine are secondary.
The second principle that Gould establishes is that there should be integrity of method and materials. In other words, what you see is what you get. A pillar should not be fake; it should hold up an arch. The arch is not cosmetic; it should hold up the wall above. The walls should not be given “the illusion of thickness”; they should be thick. Consequently, he builds churches out of solid masonry and without the usual, ubiquitous steel structure. The overall impression, therefore, is that the church is substantial, solid and built to last. While Gould has no problems with modern hollow-wall construction, he argues that a Catholic church should witness to the Catholic faith and that the Catholic faith is timeless; therefore, the church should be built to last 1,000 years.
The third principle is that the church should be built honestly. The materials and methods used should, as much as possible, be natural and ordinary. They should be authentic to the place and time in which the church is built. In Western England, they built out of beautiful golden limestone because they had a limestone quarry right there. In Italy, they used beautiful marble because the marble was local. To build a church in South Carolina in the 21st century, it would be artificial to load it with too much Italian marble or English limestone. We build here and now with concrete, cement blocks and brick. Therefore, our new church will be built out of cement blocks with a stucco finish and brick trim. This solution also has the effect of ensuring that the church building is not only authentic to its time and place, but also cost-effective and affordable.
Gould has produced a church design that is both traditional and contemporary. It echoes the Romanesque style, but is not a dull replica of a Romanesque church. With wide transepts, it seats nearly half the 600 capacity close to the altar, yet with a long nave, affirms the linear direction of traditional church buildings. The church will not be highly decorated at first; he believes that the first step is to create a building which, in itself, is beautiful.
The reason the new Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville will be beautiful is not because we will add mosaics, frescoes, marble and gold, but because it follows some basic principles of church architecture. In this way, Andrew Gould, and other young architects and designers, are renewing the tradition from within and creating a little renaissance and renewal of church design for the new millennium.
Father Dwight Longenecker
is the parish priest of
Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina.
To see the progress of
the new church building,