Sacramental Sensibility

Sacramental Sensibility

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The Struggle To Bring Beauty Back To Catholic Churches

Duncan G. Stroik is an American architect, Professor of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture and founding editor of the Sacred Architecture Journal. He has dedicated his life and practice to bringing classical beauty back to Catholic places of worship, and has executed ground-breaking projects around America.

In this exclusive Regina Magazine interview, this far-seeing architect and editor discusses what’s happening today, at the cultural nexus where Catholic culture and architecture meet.  

REGINA: Do you think that Catholic Church architecture is at a turning point today?

DUNCAN STROIK: The laity under 60 (and some over 60) are interested in an architecture rich in meaning, symbolism and history.  They would like to reconnect with the great Catholic tradition and want churches to look like churches.   The younger clergy even more so, and they tend to be somewhat knowledgeable about art and architecture, so their tastes are often more refined.

REGINA: Where do you find the greatest support for this?

DUNCAN STROIK:  Two places: first, faithful Catholics who recognize that art and architecture, like theology and morals, are not created in a vacuum but are part of a long tradition.  Secondly, most people with a visual sense, unless they have been brainwashed by studies in art history, prefer beauty and durability over ugliness and ephemerality.  Unfortunately, we are all bombarded with transient images on our phones, computers and TVs, and many people don’t have the patience to notice architecture.

REGINA: From whence does the impetus for this movement arise?

DUNCAN STROIK:  The pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI offered a positive appraisal of traditional piety, devotion and liturgy.  As people embraced those things, including Eucharistic adoration, they saw the congruence with the arts.  John Paul II’s Letter to Artists and Benedict XVI’s Spirit of the Liturgy (among others) are great examples of Papal documents which inspire new art and architecture which respects the tradition.

Another factor is a natural tiredness for a dated architecture by the younger generations, and a desire for something with more depth, solemnity or mystery (which was generally missing).

REGINA: Is this extending outside the US, to your knowledge?

DUNCAN STROIK:  The laity in other countries have a sacramental sensibility just like Catholics in the U.S. However, they do not see their role as having any say in art and architecture.  That is left up to the elites, as it has been for centuries. 

REGINA: What is the roadblock, exactly?

DUNCAN STROIK:  The biggest roadblock in the U.S., as in other countries, is financial.  Modernism taught us to focus on the lowest cost and the lowest common denominator.  We are not used to giving sacrificially or paying for quality design, materials, and construction in the church.  So, we would rather have an inexpensive bad copy than a new work of art that takes time and a lot of money.  We will never produce a new Michelangelo, Bernini, or Fra Angelico for the Church if we only care about the bottom line.

In a sense, it is the same in architecture, where people try to save 1 or 2 % on an architect’s fee. This doesn’t make sense when they are spending millions of dollars on a building which will be there for 50 to 100 years – it is better to spend a little more on a better architect than to sacrifice the quality of the building.  We have become penny wise, and so have the bishops. 

REGINA: You founded a journal on church architecture, which you have been editing for 15 years. What do you think have been your primary accomplishments with Sacred Architecture?

DUNCAN STROIK:  I would like to think that the journal has shown that it is possible to build beautifully once again.  Through essays on history and theology and critiques we have sought to offer a venue for the important discussion about what makes church art and architecture.  Whether one agrees with the journal or not, and there are many views published there, I think it is hard to ignore it. 

I think of a letter I received many years ago from a prelate asking me to cancel his subscription because he did not agree with the Journal.  The following week, his head of diocesan public relations sent in a subscription for two years.

“THE CHALLENGE IS THAT ARCHITECTURAL EDUCATION AND PRACTICE HAS NOT EDUCATED MOST ARCHITECTS in the tradition and in timeless principles, so even where well-meaning, the results are not in keeping with past quality.  Architects have to become self-educated, and to do that they have to believe in what they are doing.  If not, we are left with half-baked traditionalism which in the long run is not much better than mediocre modernism.” Duncan Stroik, here pictured with Bishop Paul Swain and the committee for the restoration of the Cathedral of Saint Joseph. PHOTO CREDIT: Duncan G. Stroik Architect, LLC

“THERE’S A REDISCOVERY OF THE GREAT TRADITION due to travel and museum visits – as people explore the world through the internet, books, and travel, they become aware of amazing buildings and cities that seemed distant and unattainable in the past.  There are few modernist churches which are seen as tourist draws, while the great cathedrals of Europe receive thousands of visitors each year.” – Duncan Stroik (Photo of Basilica at Pompei, Italy 2015 by Beverly De Soto)

“THE CULTURAL ELITES IN MOST COUNTRIES ARE THOROUGHLY COMMITTED TO ICONOCLASM and what Robert Hughes calls “The Shock of the New.”  They continue to build industrial-looking sheds or contorted abstract sculptures while the people vote with their feet.” – Duncan Stroik (Photo: University of Paris by Harry Stevens, 2014)

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Dioceses make it difficult for normal parishes to afford a nice church, in part because they require that it be paid off in five years.  Imagine what kind of house you could afford if that is what the banks required.” – Duncan Stroik (PHOTO of New organ case at the Cathedral of Saint Paul, Minnesota – completed 2013) PHOTO CREDIT: Cathedral of Saint Paul, Tim Schindler

I am most happy that Sacred Architecture has spearheaded the discussion of many topics that were considered verboten in the 1980’s.” – Duncan Stroik (Photo: St. Mary Church in Norwalk, CT – interior restoration and new retablo, 2014) PHOTO CREDIT: Winton Studios

“THE CENTRALITY OF THE TABERNACLE, the generous use of iconography, the design in classical and medieval styles, the nave church, transcendence, beauty, durability, and of course our title “sacred architecture” have become popularized and are even employed by those who twenty years ago would have been embarrassed to use these terms.  Much success has been accomplished and it is my view that we have been fortunate to participate in some of it, and promote it to a broad readership.” – Duncan Stroik (Photo: Saint Joseph Cathedral, Sioux Falls, SD – interior restoration under Bishop Swain, completed 2011) PHOTO CREDIT: Duncan G. Stroik Architect, LLC

Duncan G. Stroik captivated an audience at Sacred Heart University's Schine Auditorium with a lecture that addressed the question, “Is There a Sacred Architecture?”

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