Friday, February 13, 2009

A Consideration of Two Very Different Directions in "Contemporary" Church Architecture

Often we have a negative association as to what constitutes "modern" or "contemporary" church architecture -- and often, this is not unmerited. No doubt if it is mentioned, something of this sort springs to mind [for clarity, since some have been confused on this point, the next three images are examples of a problematic "modernity"; these are being critiqued]:

(The Jubilee Church in Rome)

The above examples are amongst what one might call the "higher end" of these sort of examples. This is to say, even less edifying examples can be easily -- and even more frequently -- found.

What we see in the above images to one or another degree, and with regard to much modern ecclesiastical architecture generally, is a fairly minimalist, functionalist, industrialist type of church, with harsh lines and often dominated by colder materials such as metal, concrete and glass. As well, a good number of modern churches are ordered in a way that does not spring from the traditional vocabulary of Western Catholic architecture. This may mean off-centered or less-than-prominent altars, the lack of a clearly defined sanctuary and nave, lack of colour and sacred imagery, general asymmetry and so on.

But if we are to be fair and objective, while these characteristics are what might be more often than not found with regard to contemporary church architecture, not all examples of contemporary forms of ecclesiastical art and architecture are so characterized. Here are some better examples:

(Image source)

(Here it is in colour though slightly revised)

(This is an Anglo-Catholic church, the church of St. Alban the Martyr, Holborn. The church looks to be Victorian, with modern, 20th century apse art, but it shows another way the two might be married.)

While I admit to preferring a church by Pugin, or other cases of "revival" architecture which borrow from the baroque, gothic or romanesque as it was traditionally expressed, there are various elements in each of these churches which, I believe, are quite successful, appealing and well suited to the ceremonial life of the Church.

For my own part, what makes these particularly successful is that while they are modern in style, there is a clear relationship with and development upon traditional sacred architecture and art; it is thus a recognizable architectural and artistic vocabulary. We see here churches that still teach insofar as they include understandable and recognizable sacred imagery, as well as strong elements of colour, verticality and symmetry; the sanctuary and nave are clearly defined, while the altar has been given a clear prominence and centrality -- which thereby emphasizes the primary purpose of the building: the worship of God through the sacrifice of the Son; the art which is found in the apse and sanctuary of these churches further brings this to the fore.

But I would like to turn this over to our readership for an open discussion. In your own estimation, what works and why? What principles might we derive from this as regards a proper and organic form of modern church architecture?

And a challenge: can you bring forward other examples of 20th century church architecture that you think works reasonably well in this same regard?

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