Thursday, February 28, 2013

Which world should a church building reflect?

Recent church structures often seem “of this world” rather than “otherworldly,” “down to earth” rather than “heavenly,” more secular than sacred. In this increasingly secular age our houses of worship, by blending in with contemporary architecture, are in danger of becoming mere theaters and assembly halls rather than sacred and prophetic places.. . . written by Duncan G. Stroik, a professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame

Churches that once sought to stand out, now seem intent to blend in with the bland, commercial identity of shopping mall and nondescript office building.  With plenty of creature features (from a broad expanse of easy access parking to well equipped restrooms to the familiar textures of styrofoam stucco), churches no longer reflect the ambiance of other worldly life.  They are firmly and intentionally planted in this life.  The most conspicuous adornments of modern church structures are technological (screens, speaker arrays, and stage lights) and not the usual art of crucifix, icon, or statue.

I will admit to being taken in by this movement.  I was all about gathering space and scale that focused on the occupants more than the purpose (or, should I say, where the occupants became the central purpose of the structure).  Not all modern architecture is this way.  When Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) designed the campus of Concordia Senior College (now Concordia Theological Seminary) in the mid-1950s, it was a starkly modern design (especially when contrasted with the architectural gem of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, pictured above).  Yet it did not defer to the central focus upon the occupant that was the prevailing movement in architecture.  Instead, the Chapel rises out of the campus as the central focus of grounds and buildings.  It stands to this day as a focal point of what goes on at the campus and how worship is the heavenward thrust of a earthly people made possible in Christ.  While the Chapel is remarkably devoid of the ornamentation found elsewhere, the buildings are large scaled and they point the eye toward the heavens.

Stroik is absolutely correct in his critique of much of what passes as modern church architecture.  It is no wonder that the Church is increasingly seen as merely another community organization.  Without space to point beyond itself, the Church is left with buildings that simply point to people and to their social needs and wants.  Such buildings are not empty of theological statements but make the wrong statement and state the wrong theology.

Beauty may not be a sacrament, art may not be essential, and space may, at times, be utilitarian.  No one disputes this.  But beauty has a sacramental character as it points and communicates the Word of the Lord to us and art is one of the building blocks of learning and identity whose power cannot be ignored.  Finally, if utilitarianism were the rule for the Church, our Lord would not have welcomed the expensive oil lavished upon Him by a woman of uncertain character.  Devotion and worship are always defined by the dollars we are willing to expend and their value is clearly tied to the value and esteem of the One whom we worship.


Janis Williams said...

God made sure the arts of His Tabernacle and Temple conformed to His design. They included music as well as visual art. He gifted the craftsmen and musicians who built and decorated them specially for the purpose.

He does not have specific designs for our places of worship today (seeing Christ is the True Temple, John chapter 4, etc.). He does not have a specific Liturgy He has handed us. Just as we depend on the traditions (I know, I know, BAD word-not) of the past to define our Liturgy, so we should with art and architecture.

Perhaps the biggest culprit is our throw-away society. Also, our rush to "get 'er done" colors all we do.

Massive cathedrals often took hundreds of years to complete. Masterpiece altars and frescoes took the major portion and focus of an artist's career. Production was pointed on excellence, not quantity.

This is not a problem to be solved among the artists and architects alone. It will not work to simply have administrators and donors realize they might not see the end result. The 'average' believer needs catechesis (I'm 'preaching' to myself, here) in order to sharpen our sight. Our center is ourselves, our comfort, and our accomplishments. I don't need to prompt upon whom and whence the locus should be.

Anonymous said...

As I recall our Lord accepted the anointing as a sign pointing forward to His pending suffering and death - not as some sort of offhand approval of church architecture.