Surmounting the ‘Faceless, Ominous Ramparts’ of Modernism

Surmounting the ‘Faceless, Ominous Ramparts’ of Modernism

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A Field Guide to the New Catholic Architecture

Duncan Stroik: The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence and the Eternal

by Enzo G. Selvaggi

You've felt it — the coldness of cement-washed walls; the barrenness of faceless paintings; the vertigo of bizarrely-angled ceilings. Whether you put it in words, or whether, like me, you have simply been mired in a mélange of confusion, anger, sadness, and shock – you, dear reader, have felt it.

The Modernist takeover of our visual and architectural patrimony and its legacy is fully metastasized.  Its appropriation of Sacred Art and Architecture in the Church is monolithic.  Its faceless, ominous ramparts are insurmountable.

Or are they?

 

A Catechism in Paint, Mosaic and Stone

Duncan Stroik’s The Church Building As A Sacred Place makes a persuasive case for, and offers a way to reclaim, the traditions that have defined sacred architecture for centuries. Eminently accessible in the clarity and ease of his language, Stroik successfully argues that Sacred Architecture is not merely a preference for an aesthetic, but a means whereby the timeless truths of Catholic theology are communicated to the faithful.

To the architect, designer, and layman alike, Stroik shows how a church building is a “catechism in paint, mosaic and stone,” supporting all the Sacraments, the tenets of the Faith, public liturgy, and private devotion. He then demonstrates how Modernism has dulled or in fact eviscerated the sense of the sacred in church buildings.  Nevertheless, Stroik maintains that a return to the principles which made the constructions of centuries “sacred” to the senses is both possible and necessary in our time.

A return to the principles which made the constructions of centuries “sacred” to the senses is both possible and necessary in our time.

Sacred Place takes a polemical tone almost by default, given the predominance of Modernist architecture in the Church today.  This is inevitable, as Stroik must reiterate what had been understood for centuries — à voir, millennia — in a way that is palatable to the contemporary reader.  

Perhaps not since Rose’s Ugly as Sin, or Bess’s Til We Have Built Jerusalem, has writing on this topic been so clear: “[T]o compare even the most critically-acclaimed modern churches with typical early Christian or Renaissance examples”, writes Stroik, “is to call into question any notion of progress in the arts.”

INTERIOR CHAPEL of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, California.

Marginalizing the Sacred

If Sacred Architecture is to be recovered, the causes of its marginalization must be exposed. Stroik critiques the fruits of the “open door policy” of Vatican II. He also calls into question the guiding principles of architectural Modernism in Environment and Art as Catholic Worship, and Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture and Worship – both published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

What is the problem with these documents? Stroik observes that their primary failing is their overly “liturgical” focus. He convincingly argues that liturgy is only one of the concerns that a church architect must consider. It is critical that architects also understand that churches are sacramental, devotional, symbolic, and, above all, sacred.  

Stroik smartly avoids entanglement in the knots of all-too-familiar liturgical debates, deftly avoiding the false antagonisms created by Modernist liturgists.  Throughout, he elegantly and consistently orients the discussion to the fullness of Sacred Architecture.   He reminds us all that a church space should support all seven Sacraments, respect their hierarchy, understand their inter-relation, and explicate their spiritual worth.

Stroik smartly avoids entanglement in the knots of all-too-familiar liturgical debates, deftly avoiding the false antagonisms created by Modernist liturgists.

Stroik ringingly affirms the necessity of a sacral architectural perspective in creating a truly sacred space — even more, a space that is truly reflective of the fullness of the Catholic faith.  In peeling away the layers of complexity, Stroik gives poignant voice to our long-suffering intuition:   

 “The worshiper is left with fragments and disharmony.  The focus of the church is always in question. [..] the iconoclasm of the [Modernist church] offers us complicated abstract parts rather than richness of iconography, materials, colour, and meaning.”  

A Practical Guide for Rebuilding the Catholic World

The church is not just a space of utility for our human, liturgical needs.  The “ultimate patron” of the architect, writes Stroik, “is the Father above, to whom he must eventually answer.”  

CATHOLIC CHURCH or corporate office building? Sacred Heart Church, Munich, Germany

This perspective serves as a guide for what is, in my opinion, the most valuable aspect of Stroik’s work.  Sacred Place is also a practical guide for Catholic architects, clerics, and laymen interested in the revival at the local level.  The experienced Stroik is sensitive to the economic concerns of any major construction or renovation project. Hence, he examines every aspect — from finding the right architect to planning a reasonable budget — of a successful project.

Thomas Aquinas College, Santa Paula, Ca

Overall, Stroik’s book is full of mature optimism as well as a lively hope smoldering, despite the bleak reality we must all live in. Sacred Place points to the ebbing tide of reaction to Modernism as well as new trends of appreciation for all that Sacred Architecture signifies and can accomplish.

Construction of St. John the Apostle in Leesburg, VA

Stroik closes with a series of predictions for the future of Catholic architecture that I hope will come to fruition. Stroik predicts the long-awaited demise of Modernism,  the return of lost sheep to the fold and the building of new towns, schools, colleges, and convents in the Catholic world. I think this is a worthy goal all Catholics of good will can commit to.

Sacred Places closes with a series of predictions for the future of Catholic architecture that I hope will come to fruition.

Works Cited:

  • Bess, Philip. ‘Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred. Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006. ISBN-10: 1932236961
  • Rose, Michael. Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces and How We Can Change Them Back Again. Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 2001. Print. ISBN-10: 1928832369
  • Stroik, Duncan. The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2012. Print. ISBN-10:1595250379

Images: wiki

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