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Book Review

No Place for God: The denial of the transcendent in modern church architecture

by Moyra Doorly, pb, Ignatius Press

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   In her new book, Moyra Doorly propounds a thesis that will be sympathetically received by most readers of the Mass of Ages: that the dominant trends in modern church architecture are inimical to Catholic faith and the sacred liturgy. Our church buildings ought of themselves to lift our hearts and minds towards the transcendent God, but as this book forthrightly states in its opening sentence, ‘the modern age has witnessed the construction of the most banal and uninspiring churches in history’ (p. 1).

   How did this happen? The first chapter distinguishes two causes. One was the rise of ‘modernist architecture’ in the early 20th Century. This insisted that the space contained by any structure ought, as far as possible, to be ‘homogenous, directionless and value-free’ (p. 4). This is obviously incompatible with the age-old Catholic principle that a church forms a hierarchy of spaces, from the narthex through the nave, then the choir and finally, as the most sacred place, the sanctuary. The second cause was the dominance of ‘new ideas’ about the Mass in the post-conciliar period. The nature of the Mass as a sacrifice offered to God was obscured in favour of the rhetoric of ‘Christian celebration’. These two factors together caused a revolution in ecclesiastical architecture, both in the designing of new churches and in the drastic ‘re-ordering’ of existing ones..

   Chapter three contains a helpful account of the origins of modern architecture. After the First World War, men such as Walter Gropius and ‘Le Corbusier’ (a pseudonym) made a conscious break with tradition in designing buildings that would be supposedly suitable for a new, democratic age. According to these principles, space must be ‘egalitarian’ and must ‘flow’; mass-produced materials must be used as far as possible, but little if any colour; and since the structure of a building must be immediately visible, all embellishment was discouraged. ‘The styles are a lie’, Le Corbusier was to write (p. 37).

    While Church authorities were about thirty years later than city planners (p. 63) in adopting this strange ideology, the results when they did so were disastrous. The abolition of altar-rails and choirs, altars hardly if at all raised above the level of the nave, the downgrading of tabernacles, churches in the round, altars designed to exclude celebration ad orientem; all these things, the author notes, follow logically from the principle of ‘egalitarian space’.

   Moyra Doorly, who is herself an architect, keeps throughout a theological perspective on her subject. She wishes to warn us against not only ugliness but also the false theological presuppositions that cause ugliness. One such error, associated with the Lutheran architect E. A. Sovik, is that a church is not itself a sacred building but simply a meeting place for ‘God’s holy people’. She argues that Sovik’s ideas influenced Catholic bishops’ conferences from the 1970’s onwards (pp. 54-62).

   In the key chapter of the book (‘The Relativist Church Building’), we find that such ideas are still influential. Among the major new structures considered are the Jubilee Church in Rome, Los Angeles Cathedral, completed in 2002, and the Padre Pio pilgrimage church, finished in 2004. The photographs accompanying the text show, quite simply, that none of these important buildings looks from the outside like a Catholic church. The Padre Pio church, for example, presents an ‘overwhelming horizontality’ (p. 81), while the Jubilee Church ‘is reminiscent of Sydney opera house’ (p. 84). Of Los Angeles Cathedral, we read that it could be ‘an office building, a shopping mall or a multiscreen cinema complex’. While the ‘brutalist’ school of church architecture may have passed away, a commitment to constructing manifestly sacred edifices has not yet been restored. Closer to home, we read of the ‘Chapel of Reconciliation’ at Walsingham, ‘there is carpet on the floor to make people feel at home, although no one has a home that looks like this’ (p. 82).

   While these extracts suggest the severity of Miss Doorly’s critique, the conclusion of the book is more hopeful. In the chapter ‘Reclaiming Sacred Space’, she explains that among secular architects, the principle of a ‘hierarchy of spaces’ has returned to favour. What’s more, ‘many of the worst examples of Modernist design have already been demolished, and more demolitions are scheduled’ (p. 120). In other words, the general state of architecture would seem to be more favourable now to a return to traditional principles of church building.

   The author insists that sacred architecture demands an appreciation of ‘cosmic sacred space’ (p. 118). We need, that is, to recover the mediaeval awareness that the universe itself is as it were one great cathedral built to the glory of God. Finally, she writes that ‘the transcendent vision cannot be achieved without a reorientation towards the transcendent’. She therefore desires an end to the ‘disastrous and entirely novel practice of Mass facing the people and …a re-turning of priest and people to God’ (p. 126).

   This book, then, is a useful continuation of the work of men such as Michael Rose and E. Michael Jones. It shows us what has gone wrong, aesthetically and theologically with church architecture, and in so doing gives us pointers towards setting thing right.

Copyright ©; thomas crean O.P. February 2009

The above review first appeared in the Mass of Ages published by The Latin Mass Society and appears with the publisher's kind permission.

Version: 5th February 2009

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