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A Heavenly View

By: Anthony Paletta
March 20, 2019

t’s ironic that architectural modernism, the seemingly logical vernacular for 20th century civic or commercial structures, is often most daringly represented in a far more unexpected place—churches.  It’s a rare suburb or small town whose most aggressively modern building isn’t a church and, if cities offer somewhat more competition, it remains true that actual cathedrals are frequently more protypically modern than cathedrals of commerce.

This situation is loathed by some, enjoyed by fewer, and simply a fact of life for many churchgoers for over half a century now. It’s increasingly the focus of scholarly attention across a range of faiths. Catherine R. Osborne’s Catholic-focused American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow: Building Churches for the Future, 1925-1975, is an extremely informative entry into this body of work.

If you have strong feelings about this trend you’ll find encouragement for them here. The topic is ubiquitous in debates concerning the Church’s future and past, and liturgical traditionalism versus modernism. The ambitions of many architectural modernist supporters were far larger than steel and plate glass. As Osborne writes, enthusiasts “sought to convince a wide variety of audiences that church buildings would look different in the future because they would, fundamentally, be different: the building would both represent and bring into being a new kind of worshipping community.”

Advocates for modern church construction often overlapped with those arguing for, say, a submarine chapel of repentance travelling to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the sacramental merits of LSD, or disestablishing churches altogether. But the accord between architectural and liturgical modernism was far from total. A church’s architecture doesn’t generate guitar masses—congregations do.

Not all modern church construction followed the larger ideological shifts of Vatican II (1962-65). Many churches were transformed earlier, and had simpler origins in architectural practice. Much of the questioning of dogmatic assumptions about the proper style and material palate of church construction are difficult to fault. Barry Byrne, a Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice who designed many excellent churches (including one in Cork, Ireland) was no theological revolutionary. Osborne quotes his condemnation of rote resort to traditional forms: “a method unnatural and laborious, such as that of numerous and unnecessary pillars, and of cumbrous vaultings of brick or stone for the purpose of producing an effect to a degree that is unnatural and without sense.” Byrne preferred steel and concrete “which enable us to build churches free of pillars in a structural way that is natural and, in our time, unaffected.”

Byrne and other Catholic modernists, frequently leagued in the Liturgical Arts Society, argued that church architecture should take advantage of contemporary methods—just as church architecture had for centuries. Leopold Arnaud, dean of the Columbia School of Architecture, thought “Church architecture was the zealous guardian of tradition at the same time it was experimenting.” Flying buttresses—which liberate walls from the requirements of load-bearing, structurally enabling the wonders of stained glass—was an architectural innovation at some point, after all. These architects rightly argued against the idea that church architecture had reached some stage of theological perfection.

Part of their argument was material: masonry walls were ubiquitous in church architecture because they were for centuries the most viable building solution, not merely because they looked venerable. Columns are common not because they direct a view heavenward but because they keep a building standing. The age of steel and reinforced concrete provided the possibility of doing away with these, and it seemed reasonable to ask what improvements in construction this might enable?

Modernist architects wanted to know how new materials and methods might alter the actual form of churches. This in turn prompted active questions about whether the traditional basilica form was necessary.  As Osborne writes, “The unity of walls and roof eventually made possible by thin-shell concrete promised to further accentuate the unifying action of the mass.” The improvement of sightlines and access in church was a concern well before Vatican II sought to bring churchgoers into closer proximity to the mass.    

But the rhetoric surrounding these architectural disputes exposed the difficulty of restricting change to mere physical spaces. Catholic architect Robert Lawton Jones argued that architects could “no longer speak the language of Chaucer nor wear the powdered wig of Washington, for our age demands different expressions to be meaningful.” Otto Spaeth, president of the Liturgical Arts Society, noted that the average person “drives a streamlined car to work in an office or factory where everything has been designed for maximum comfort” and yet “every Sunday he is asked to hurl himself back centuries to say his priors in the pious gloom of a Gothic or Romanesque past.” This is fair—though it’s likely both then and now that the average churchgoer would regard this as an attraction, not a flaw.

Modernists often possessed a genuine and devout zeal to make use of new means for the Church’s purposes. Laments for the 20th century supplanting of spires by skyscrapers are ubiquitous; modernists actually sought to do something about this. Why not skyscraper churches? As a Berkeley professor asks, “Has the church anything to say or contribute, in the most exciting period of man’s development, that will help him chart the technopolitan future?”

But even Osborne’s sympathetic account acknowledges the ways in which the modern zeal resulted not in the Church changing the world but the world changing the Church. Efforts to alter churches’ site plans frequently lead to sanctuaries stripped of ornament—auditoriums in all but name. Byrne once wrote that his own test was to “temporarily eliminate obvious and identifiable symbols like the cross, and then to judge whether the design is religious in character.” Numerous modern churches seem to fail even this most elementary test.  Multi-use spaces rarely emanate an aura of the sacred into other functions, but rather marginalize the spiritual when mass isn’t occurring. Reasonable efforts to admit greater light often render distraction permanent.

Many ridiculous excesses of joyous cosmology, liturgical dance, and the disestablishment of physical churches or the purposeful shunning of adornment began to flourish in this period. Tellingly, gadfly modernist Philip Johnson now sounds actively reactionary in remarks to the First International Congress on Religion, Architecture, and the Visual Arts in 1967, commenting (“angrily,” Osborne notes), “If you don’t want to build great and lasting buildings, you don’t need me and I don’t need you…. For whom is it worth building a great and holy place if not for God?”

Many have experienced these modern spaces that don’t feel like churches, that prioritize experiment over function, or that resemble the throwaway architecture of the strip malls that often surround them. And yet some are excellent. As Osborne convincingly argues, Byrne, Le Corusier, Marcel Breuer, Gyo Obata, and Louis Kahn all have designed excellent churches. Pietro Belluschi and Luigi Luigi Nervi’s St Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco is a marvelous space. If a sense of the sacred is subjective, the outright dismissal of this varied body of work is untenable.

Whatever your opinions on modern architecture, Osborne’s book is an invaluable look into the roots of this period of sweeping architectural change, both carefully connected and distinguished from broader ideological currents within the church and without. If I’ve one (minor) criticism it’s that the local practicalities of design and construction in countless dioceses are given only passing attention. I hope another scholar picks up this thread.