Friday, November 4, 2011

The Architect Has No Clothes

Readers of this blog will note that I have long complained about modern church architecture, being something of a sacred version of all that is wrong with secular architecture.  The Mahoney monstrosity that is the newer LA Roman Catholic Cathedral is but one of many examples in which the intention of the building and its context seem far removed from the architect's mind or the minds of those who must have reviewed and approved the original concept.

We in the Church often find that the purpose of the structure has trouble finding a place or home within the space that was designed for it, that the people who participate in the Divine Service feel out of place or peripheral to the space meant for their encounter of the Divine Word, and that God is an afterthought to those buildings meant to be His home. 

To be sure, there are a few firms that seem to get it.  There are some building committees that seem to be guided with a sense of something more important than either what is cool or cost effective.  But they are far too few and the many buildings that are modern and appropriate pale in comparison those which are just modern and mostly inappropriate to their purpose as places of gathering in which people come to meet God in His Word and Sacraments.

An interesting article speaks to this problem and does more than just complain (as I do) but offers some corrective paths to reconnect architecture with the purpose of the space, the people who are to inhabit it, and the neighborhood in which it is built.  We can only hope that architects are listening....


OldSouth said...

Excellent post, thanks for that linked article which I'll enjoy at leisure this evening.

Another good (and very funny!) read is Tom Wolfe's 'From Our House To Bauhaus', now some decades in publication but always relevant.

Blessings and thanks. Great work, as always.

Janis Williams said...

Truly interesting article.

Here we see the difference between architects and artists. Architects like to think of themselves as artists of environment. The problem is laypeople have to live, work, worship INSIDE their art. Not a problem the painter or sculptor has.

We can walk away from disturbing paintings; we can't walk away from environmental space which we must occupy.

Anonymous said...

Okay, maybe it is just the angle of the photo, but the first thing I thought was, Ziggurat!

The thing is, these really complicated designs are very expensive per square foot. A plain old basic box with a few attractive details tacked on is much less expensive than these, uh, creations. Remember all those beautiful prairie churches Pr. Peters featured? They were so lovely, yet those kind of buildings are actually less costly.

Once during a children's sermon, our pastor was teaching the kids about the church and pointed to the roof of the church and asked the kids about the construction. He then went on, "Now kids, this is why you never want a flat roof on the church, because it always leaks." The kids just kind of looked at him quizzically but the rest of us were groaning in agreement.

Terry Maher said...

I wonder what St Peter would think of St Peter's. Probably wonder what sort of religion built that.

Our first Divine Services weren't even held in the same space -- synagogue for Word, home for Sacrament. Not to mention having to hold them secretly in catacombs. Or, after becoming the state religion, appropriating commercial buildings for worship -- basilica, which is not originally a religious building at all. Or that a cathedral is a cathedral not by what it looks like but because it has a cathedra, a bishop's official chair, in it.

Point is, the building is secondary and we can do without buildings altogether, and have.

The pattern of the cross, which is the "pattern" of this religion, suggests itself for a building pattern too, and while it is certainly not commanded in Scripture, we are not about "if it ain't in Scripture we ain't doing it" but rather if it contradicts Scripture we ain't doing it, and thus that usage is one of those things we retain.

Chris said...


Your rants against anything which even remotely smacks of "Roman" is really taxing. You don't approve of anything (and I do mean anything) that pertains to the elevation of the senses.

Christ Himself that we should worship the Lord with the whole of our very selves and that includes our bodies. Our bodies have senses, all of which must be elevated. Why do you continue to persist in making a schism between body and soul/mind? Could it be abused? Of course, anything can, but that's why we have catechesis.

Buildings and architecture are not secondary. The adornment of our churches is not secondary. "The Whole (of the architecture and decoration) represents the very Kingdom of God Whose 'realm' the Church is in microcosm, with teh communion of saints as the subjects of Christ Pantocrator." Granted this is from a Byzantine commentator and I don't expect the Western churches to erect iconostases and the whole. But if the church is to be the meeting of heaven and earth, shouldn't there be some expectation that this space somehow be "different?"

Your frequent attacks on matters such as this betray you as a Calvinist. I bet you would also prefer to get Bach out of the church, heck, just dump the hymnal. You also strike me as an iconoclast. And yet you set yourself up as the defender of orthodoxy (notice small "o" orthodoxy).

You are the innovator; you have to ignore 1500 years of history to get to the kind of worship space you deem necessary. But, in your eyes, the people of the last 1500 years were probably really stupid.

Terry Maher said...

I suppose if you can find a "worship space" that I "deem necessary" in what I posted, you can find a command from Christ to go out a build big fancy churches too. Maybe another era when emperors can do that at state expense will come around!

James said...

Terry: For centuries, many of those old Catholic churches in Europe were built like palaces for clergy who lived like royalty. The poor were forced to fund such extravagance. That was from a bygone era. Do Lutheran clergy anywhere live like royalty today?

(Sarcasm on)
You don't need a tastefully constructed building in order to have an LCMS Lutheran service. Just ask Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Bill Hybels, or even the Willow Creek Lutherans of the Mnnesota South district. Do you mean to say that a movie theater with a giant performance stage for the praise band ain't good enough for you? (Sarcasm off).

Either you want to worship in a traditional church building or you don't. Let the Evangelical and non-denominational big-haired preachers and their followers have a movie theater or a strip mall for worship. I would be very happy to see LCMS Lutheran churches have a tasteful, yet toned-down version of ornate Catholic church buildings.

Chris said...

Thank you, James and Terry for confirming for me that most Lutherans are iconoclasts and are semi-Manichaean in their approach to the human being.

Anonymous said...

In worship God gives us His gifts in Word and Sacrament. I doubt if He is concerned about the shape or size of the building.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

This is why I always come back to this blog. I got to see Terry Maher be accused of being a Calvinist, and an iconoclastic semi-Manichean all on the same thread. I had to stifle a chuckle at the semi-manichean shot; as I recall Garry Willis in his book "Why I Am a Catholic" called then Cardinal Ratzinger a 'narrow' semi-manichean.

Terry Maher said...

I'm telling ya that picture of me replacing Concordia with Institutio Christianae religionis was Photoshopped!

Lutheran Pastor said...

Terry, how is it that a God so jealous about how he is worshiped that He went to great detail about the building, adornments, vestments, etc. in the OT and now suddenly does not give a whip what we do or where we do it as long as we are sincere? What about the Jesus who accepts the expensive oil and turns away the idea that it would have been better spent upon the poor? There is an inconsistency here among Lutherans who insist that anyplace can do and therefore anyplace should do for worship. Pastor Peters was simply detailing how the place where we worship either mirrors what worship is or conflicts with it. Ugly buildings that conflict with our values or buildings that focus upon people rather than pointing us toward God are not an artistic problem but an issue of confession as well.

Terry Maher said...

Gott hilf mir seitlich, where did I say sincerity was the only criteria? Where did I say any place should do? Great Judas at a disputatio, the "you said This which is the same as That and That is wrong" style is more a Catholic style of argumentation. Lutherans more commonly remain sane.

What is ugly? What's the beef with the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels? I don't like it much myself. Ugly -- in the eye of the beholder.

You can find an extensive theological explanation of the design on the cathedral's website. The building expresses the theology it was meant to express rather well, regardless of what I think of the style.

I've been in some of the great cathedrals of Europe -- apart from tourists, they largely are empty.

The false notion of priesthood, the mass, and the Gospel itself that is proclaimed in and by the building is a matter of concern, not the building.

BTW, it's Mahony, not Mahoney. He was appointed by old "subito santo" himself, JPII.

James said...


Most Lutherans are iconoclasts? Where did you get that strange notion? Now I am confused.

Anonymous said...

“A church is a place where God’s people gather together to worship Him, and how they worship, as well as what they believe, is either reinforced or undermined by the architecture. Church architecture is therefore first and foremost a matter of theology rather than a matter of style.”-Lutheran Worship: History and Practice, Concordia Publishing House, 1993

Terry Maher said...

If that is so, then why is there no discussion of the theology expressed in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels and explicitly stated on its website, just not liking its overall look from the outside, a reaction that is entirely a matter of style and not theology?

Smells, bells, and spires.

BrotherBoris said...

Most modern church architecture has all the warmth of ice and looks like it was designed by an atheist. How sad.

William Gleason said...

I am not exactly sure what Mr. Maher’s contention is. Frankly, delving into the full depth of his argument seems not worth the while, even though I am confident that a gentleman as leaned as he can speak more clearly. However, and this is where I am confused: he suggests that Christian worship without a building is more than a possible scenario, it is a norm.

Granted the place where the church gathers, including its architecture and furnishings, is secondary to the proclamation of the Word. Yet, is it not secondary in a parallel sense that the bread and wine is secondary to the Verba in the Sacrament? I think that St. John Damascene might argue along those lines. If the Word of God prescribes anything for the true worship of the Holy Trinity, then all things pertaining to true worship must be taken into consideration (or non-consideration) to some degree. I think that is what he is saying; so, what is his argument?

Everyone seems to assume some kind of standard for a Christian worship space, even Mr. Maher. (I think; I’m not sure what “Ugly -- in the eye of the beholder” actually means.) If there are any standards for worship practices (including the space wherein it takes place), then let us agree on that, and then go on to what that standard may mean. I believe that is the point Fr. Peters is raising. Otherwise, let’s just gather at the river and forget about the rest. I hope liturgical umbrellas may be allowed.

Chris said...

Mr. Gleason,

The architecture/ornamentation of the church is NEVER secondary. It proclaims the Word just as reading from the Holy Scriptures. As Basil the Great said, "icons are theology for the illiterate."

This whole discussion really illustrates (no pun intended) just how far Lutherans have come from their heritage. I guess Terry and a few others here would want to tear down the great Lutheran Cathedrals in Magedburg and other places. It really confirms just how much Calvinistic thought has really infiltrated the ranks of modern Lutheranism. It's sickening, frankly.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

Brother Boris, from many of protestant barns I've seen that pass for churches these days its most likely the case that the church was designed by an athiest, or at any rate a Christian who ought to stick to building milking parlors and Wal-marts.

Your comment reminds me of a church I attended while in college, my classmates had given it the rather insolent nick-name of 'shepherd of sleep.' The interior was white on white (no not talking about the members) with the exception of a brushed aluminum cross in the chancel. After months of worshipping there I realized that it bore a strong resemblence to the inside of an empty refrigerator.

Terry Maher said...

I don't have a contention except all this is sound and fury signifying nothing.

"Ugly" just means you don't like it, but in a veneer of objectivity. COLA is here dismissed as theologically unconnected to its purpose, with not a word from anyone on why this is so. Let alone that the building was not just something someone designed apart from theology, has a theology behind its design that is discussed at length on its site -- yet whether that is correct theology or not, whether the design fulfills it or not, well not a word. Just an hysterical reaction of not liking it because it's different therefore it's bad. Smells, bells and spires. And icons for one. Just arguing about on which mountain the Lord shall be worshiped. That is what's sickening.

And speaking of hysterical reactions, who said a frigging thing about tearing down Magdeburger Dom? Judas H Priest.