National Catholic Register


A Building To Communicate Beauty & Truth

More than mere functional structures, churches should elicit the glory of the cosmos itself

BY Gabriel Meyer

July 12, 1998 Issue | Posted 7/12/98 at 2:00 PM


Architecture, as its name implies—architectura, a Latin word derived from the Greek for “master builder”—is not merely a matter of efficient design, but of the deepest human values.

In the classical past, in the works of first-century Roman architect Vitruvius Pollio, for example, those values were beauty and harmony—a reflection of the universe of order and balance taught by the ancient Greeks. Modern architects have tended to convey the values of a different “universe”: a world deeply alienated from the past, fixated on an uncertain future, devoted to discontinuity.

(There is a reason why a contemporary architect, faced with a lot to fill in a street of Georgian-period houses, thinks that a steel-belted high-rise will fit the bill.)

Not surprisingly, houses of worship were, perhaps, the very first places to evince the architect's, as distinct from the builder's, hand. As Thomas Gordon Smith wrote 10 years ago in his Classical Architecture: Rule and Invention: “Synagogues, temples, mosques, and churches [do] not merely function for the service; they … inspire a sense of the life-giving qualities that religion conveys through revealing the relationship between God and humankind.”

This sense of religious architecture as a means by which essential truths are communicated—architecture as a paradigm or model of a type of divine-human interaction—is far more than an issue for professionals to puzzle over.

An Interior Conversion

In fact, church architecture played a vital role in this writer's conversion to Christianity.

Raised in a liberal Protestant home, I was a spiritual free-lancer by my late teens. One day, attracted by the flickering candles I could spy through an open door, I walked into an Eastern Catholic church in my hometown. Once inside, I looked around at the iconostasis, the icon-screen that divided the church nave from the largely hidden sanctuary, with its rows of saints' images; I scanned the side aisles and chapels with their numerous candle-illumined icons.

Before then I had dismissed Christianity as an individualistic religion, a “Jesus and me” sort of thing, a “security blanket” that had little relevance, so I supposed, to the larger issues of life.

Suddenly a modern version of an ancient architectural model, datable to the late Antique age, was telling me something very different—truly a “catechism” in lath and plaster. The architecture revealed in a matter of minutes:

• that Christians “situate” their lives in the court of heaven where Jesus reigns with the Father;

• that Christians are surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses” (that's the icons of the saints) with whom they pray, and who pray for them;

• that they are part of a vast project the Holy Spirit has been leading since Abraham, the father of faith, made a fateful decision to put his trust in God;

• that Christians stand, therefore, both in and “outside” history simultaneously: living real lives in this world but linked to all the faithful who have gone before and, most importantly, to the victory over death, sin, and history won by the victorious Christ.

Quite a lesson to learn from a church interior. One, I might add, which says little about my powers of perception, and a great deal about the powers of architecture. I had managed to pick up in my own muddled way what the architect, and the Byzantine model of church architecture, intended to impart.

In a similar way, pagan emissaries of the Kievan Rus were converted to Christianity in the 10th century when they visited Christendom's “Great Church,” Hagia Sophia, the “Church of Holy Wisdom” in Constantinople. On seeing the shrine's architectural splendors, they related, “we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.”

By the way, this is not to say that my parish church, of which 32 years later I am still happily a member, is a paragon of every architectural virtue. The icon screen, while giving the right general impression was crafted decades ago by pious parishioners who were scene painters at Paramount studios. The Myrna Loy look-alikes among the women saints are still an occasional distraction. Much of the art in our church is not in the best iconographical style. But, design-wise, it does succeed in underscoring the fundamental theme of Byzantine religious architecture: that the church is a representation of the court of heaven.

As a member of our parish once related, “Every time I walk into church I remember who and where I am.”

Mission of a Young Architect

The power of architecture to communicate such ideas has been brought home to me in recent days by Steven Schloeder's new book, Architecture in Communion, recently published by Ignatius Press.

Schloeder is a young, Phoenix, Ariz.-based church architect and founder of Liturgical Environs, a firm specializing in Catholic Church projects in the United States. He received a bachelor's degree in architecture from Arizona State University and his master's from the University of Bath, England, where his academic work attracted notice for its bold attempts at a theology of architecture. He is currently doing his doctoral work at Berkeley.

Schloeder's study is an attempt to articulate what he calls “an architectural response to Vatican II.” Far from yet another defense of the zeitgeist disguised as a “bold new vision,” complete with diatribes against altar rails and sanctuaries, Architecture in Communion is a work on the short shelf of recent books in various areas of Church life which, after decades of postconciliar confusion, tries to get the discussion back on track.

Happily, the author is neither a “traditionalist” who opposes the liturgical changes of Vatican II, nor a modernist eager to get the Church to adapt to yet another fading secular intellectual trend. A student of both architecture and liturgy, Schloeder seeks a renewal of a centuries-old “language of symbols,” rooted in Catholic thought, that is capable of expressing “Catholic values.”

One of the more refreshing aspects of Schloeder's work is that he doesn't mince words.

“I have undertaken this work,” he writes, “because I find many—or rather most—recent Catholic churches to be banal, uninspiring, and frequently even liturgically bizarre.” Compared to some previous periods in ecclesiastical architecture, he opines, “the 20th century is … architecturally impoverished.”

In this regard, I recall another “architectural experience” that has impressed itself on my memory.

A Truly Empty Place Some years ago, I had the opportunity to visit one of the leading centers of the American liturgical movement. In the wake of the Council, many church buildings in the United States had to “make do” as best they could, adapting older architectural styles with the new postconciliar liturgical requirements. But the particular church I was about to visit had long represented something of what experts there assured me was the contemporary liturgical ideal.

With its glossy white walls and vast, militant simplicity, it had all the charm of an airport waiting room. There was, quite simply, nothing to see. The only single element in the complex that had some kind of visual power was the hard-to-find chapel, out of the congregation's sight lines, where the tabernacle was located.

Now, one understands that there is a profound psychological difference between Eastern and Western Christian architecture, and that at least some forms of Western spirituality, in contrast to the “oriental” luxuriance of the East, express themselves in a love of clean, unornamented lines and clear-paned interiors. I also understand that there is a kind of “genius” in a monastic simplicity that, far from symbolizing the splendor of the court of heaven, tells the Christian worshiper in the stark purity of a kind of “architecture of longing” that “here [on earth] we have no lasting home.”

Some early Gothic churches—like the 12th century St. Anne's in Jerusalem—come to mind in this regard.

But this “ideal contemporary church,” frankly, had little of the “emptiness” of ascetical vision which, by its very nature, is “full” of something else. It was just empty—the so-called “universal space” of architectural modernism. As a facility for a public event, it had been cleverly arranged. But, as Schloeder points out, it's not enough that a building “works as a place for liturgy”; it must also “look like a church” … [daring to] “communicate the idea of ‘Church.’”

In this sense, Schloeder's determination to reconnect with the formal “languages” of the past is of a piece with other neo-traditional currents beginning to manifest themselves on the brink of the new millennium.

“New Formalist” poets are resurrecting traditional English metrics after nearly a century of vers libre experimentation. Representational schools of painting have resurfaced in recent decades. Younger architects are abandoning the worn-out pieties of Bauhaus for the rigors of Classicism. After decades of avant-garde dominance, traditional musical forms and “languages” are once more attracting the attention of serious composers.

Even more significantly, some younger Catholic theologians, after generations glued to American Process Theology and the speculations of Bernard Lonergan, evince renewed interest in Thomism and Patristics, and in early modern figures like neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain, French scholar Father Henri de Lubac, and the theologian Father Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Having said this, Schloeder is aware of the dangers of a facile anti-modernism. Neither, like some of his intellectual confreres, does he espouse a return to a chimerical “golden age” as if the 20th century (or the past half-millennium, for that matter) had never occurred.

Like the Fathers of the Council whose genuine reforms he seeks to foster, Schloeder wishes to “retain sound tradition” on the one hand, and “leave the way open to legitimate progress” on the other.

While the young architect is eager to learn from classic “historical precedents in Church building,” he's also aware that there are structural and biblical metaphors—the “holy mountain” of the Psalms, the womb of the Virgin, the cruciform body of the Lord, for example—that carry the potential for new developments in ecclesiastical design.

“The church architect,” writes Schloeder, “must simultaneously translate between two languages—one, the modern language of architecture, and, the other, a traditional language of historical forms that are often imbued with ancient symbolic meanings—to let them both profit from the architectural dialogue.”

As we said earlier, the reality of such a dialogue is hardly a matter of importance only for liturgists, priests, and architects. Issues of church architecture touch on the very mission of the Body of Christ itself, stretching, as it does, from earth to heaven.

“As the Old Testament speaks of the Temple, the Church is to be the place of ‘glory,’” writes Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in The Feast of Faith, a quotation with which Schloeder closes his study, “and as such, too, the place where mankind's cry of distress is brought to the ear of God. The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level; she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable, and beloved.”

Senior writer Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles.