Friday, February 08, 2008

Ideas and their Import for Liturgy and Architecture

An interesting article has been published online by Catholic Culture: Don't Blame Vatican II: Modernism and Modern Catholic Church Architecture (by Randall Smith, an Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas).

The piece is fairly lengthy but worth a read and also worth discussion. Smith is evaluating the roots of a modern, functionalist church architecture. In his own way he is pursuing a similar conversation as those who would point out that the original "Liturgical Movement" was a very mixed bag of ideas and that from which many of the very liturgical problems we face today sprang. These issues did not arise ex nihilo in the 1960's and 1970's, even if that is when they had their greatest impetus. Smith points us similarly in the case of a modernist, minimalist and functionalist forms of church architecture, showing the expressions of this earlier in the 20th century.

I haven't spent as much time with the article as I would like, so perhaps I have missed some nuance, but I did have one caveat I wished to propose. Smith contests the suggestion that "the problem [of modern church architecture] is one of [liturgical/theological] ideas. Correct the ideas — enforce a proper theology of the liturgy (the job of, guess who, theologians and liturgists) — and voila, we will get better-looking churches."

He instead proposes that "Bad church architecture is not primarily the result of bad ideas about the liturgy — however much those abound. No, bad church architecture in America is the result, quite simply, of America having bad ideas about architecture."

I think there is something to be said in re-focusing this issue so that one doesn't forget that the matter is not solely related to liturgy and theology, but is also architectural.

That said, I am not convinced that the importance of liturgical ideas in this matter should be pushed to the margins. After all, faulty liturgical principles can and do drive issues like the lack of ornamentation in our churches; the arrangement of the seating; the placement and design of the altars, baptismal fonts and so on. One's view of the liturgy as primarily a meal, one's understanding of active participation as fundamentally externalist and activist, or one's view of the liturgy and architecture through a rationalist lens, these all have their effect on the interior architectural vocabulary of the church building.

It seems to me that addressing the issue of lack-lustre modern church architecture is a two-sided coin. It is an exercise in addressing both ideas about architecture as well as ideas about liturgy. In that sense, we are addressing both the architect and the patrons and stewards of our churches.

That said, I also understand that Smith is trying to redress an imbalance which has perhaps failed to give enough attention to the architectural nature of the problem. I think he has presented us with some fascinating insights and analysis on this front, while also giving yet another view into the muddied waters than can be the 20th century Liturgical Movement.

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