The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal by Duncan G. Stroik (Hillenbrand Books, 182 pp., $60)

In May 1941, German incendiary bombs turned the Commons Chamber of the U.K House of Commons in London to rubble. While there was no question of whether to rebuild, how to do it in a way that preserved the “form, convenience, and dignity” of the destroyed chamber, which dated to 1852, was very much an issue. In a speech before the Commons, who met for the remainder of the war in the Lords Chamber, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Perhaps no other sentence has more clearly defined the responsibility of architecture, and no other sentence more neatly summarizes the thesis of Duncan Stroik’s book, The Church Building as a Sacred Place.

The ceiling of the Stroik-designed Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. (Duncan Stroik/
The ceiling of the Stroik-designed Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. (Duncan Stroik/

A devout Catholic, Stroik is also a professor of classical architecture at the University of Notre Dame and principal at an architectural firm bearing his name in South Bend, Indiana. He is one of a select few architects that the Catholic Church calls when it seeks to build a church that “looks like a church.” His knowledge of sacred architecture informs his charge that the church buildings of the past 50 years have failed to serve the faithful well either as structures for spiritual nourishment or as houses of God. The Church’s alignment with the architectural movements of our age, he says, has “unwittingly undercut its own theological agenda.”

Stroik offers his own vision for church architecture (one steeped in tradition) and dispels the notion that the Second Vatican Council required a rejection of traditional church architecture and design. Rather, Vatican II stated: “The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own. . . . The art of our own days . . . shall also be given free scope in the Church, provided that it adorns the sacred buildings and holy rites with due reverence and honor.” The question is: Who decides whether this standard is met—the Church or the architect?

To Stroik, the villain isn’t Vatican II, but the Church’s dependence on a secular modernist architectural movement. Modernism, by nature, is dismissive of history—Tom Wolfe described this as “starting from zero.” It’s a philosophy at odds with a Church premised on continuity. The modernist emphasis on self-expression has led to a breakdown of building typology. Architects trained to see architecture as a medium for self-expression have difficulty embracing the “noble ministry” of church design. So we see churches that do not look like churches.

Stroik seeks an architecture that is inherently Catholic. For him, the “form follows function” concept is at odds with the purpose of a church building, which needs to do more than just serve the programmatic function of the liturgy. Catholicism is a religion of the senses, he explains. The architecture of its buildings should contribute to an atmosphere of transcendence. There should be a verticality of space—pointing heavenward—instead of the horizontality seen in many churches today, and natural light should be used to create a sense of the mystical. The sanctuary should enframe a stone altar placed at the center of the church; the sanctuary should be ornamented, elevated, and preferably covered with a dome or vault. He suggests altar rails, stating that they are “the most misunderstood parts of the church.”

Stroik’s preferred brand of sacred architecture is based on the classical concept of firmitas, utilitas, and venustas, or firmness, utility, and beauty. “Firmness” refers to buildings of quality that are meant to last and are of a timeless nature, which Stroik relates to the religious idea of the eternal. Whereas the modernist evaluates function alone when deeming a building beautiful or successful, the classicist also considers a building’s actual beauty, which, according to classical philosophy, is expressed through proportion, ornament, craft, and color. Even St. Francis of Assisi, who devoted his life to apostolic poverty, proclaimed on his deathbed, “Above everything else, I want this most holy Sacrament to be honored and venerated and reserved in places which are richly ornamented.” The modernist taboo against ornament has roots in the anti-bourgeois sentiments of the Bauhaus school and suggests European social movements more than Catholic doctrine.

Throughout history, man has used ornament to depict reverence. Out of a desire to curb ostentatious design, however, the Church has in recent decades redefined its association with ornament. The General Instruction on the Roman Missal uses the phrase “noble simplicity” as a design goal for new churches. Stroik notes that the term originally came from art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–68) and was used to describe the beauty he found in Classical Greek art. The term “noble simplicity,” Stroik declares, should not “be confused with mere functionalism, abstract minimalism, or crude banality.” Material beauty is necessary to connect us with something greater than ourselves. Stroik references Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists: “In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God . . . it must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is ineffable.”

Notably, Stroik ignores the argument that the Church used ornament or art to teach, to awe, or to control illiterate and non-Latin-speaking congregations. He does emphasize, however, that church architecture was traditionally seen as the equivalent of the “church documents in stone.” These days, the Church has clearly bet on the teaching power of the spoken word over the power of the sacred space. New changes in architectural form, such as the introduction of fan-shaped seating, have shifted emphasis away from the liturgy and toward the assembly. Although some see this as an embodiment of the “spirit” of Vatican II, Stroik notes that the fan shape did not originate in the writings of Vatican II but rather in the Greek and Roman theater forms. Some Christian denominations have gone to the extreme and created the mega-church, a building form Stroik calls altogether “un-churched.” To believe that the spoken message is all that matters, he writes, “is to deny the power of volume and image to form us.”

Stroik fears that the Catholic Church today has followed a trail blazed by Protestant reformers of the second half of the nineteenth century. When European reformers replaced “the visual and sensual ritual of the Mass with the verbal and textural sermon,” their churches became circular in form, with balconies, and a pulpit at the center, replacing the altar. In Europe the trend was transitory, but in America, the Second Great Awakening gained ground in rented theaters converted into chapels; the Chatham Street Theater became the Chatham Street Chapel, and subsequently new churches were built in the same form. Only when churches began to hire prominent architects who studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris did we see the reversal back to the traditional cruciform-shape churches.

In Catholic architecture today, fan-shaped and semicircular churches, with sloped seating for sightlines, are all-too-common. High altars have been replaced with priest’s chairs. The tabernacle has been displaced from the central axis of the church and moved to a distinguished but separate location. Stroik despairs over this faltering relationship of the tabernacle to the altar. In a fan-shaped building, the sanctuary loses its ability to enframe the altar, and therefore its prominence. This is a tipping point in the breakdown of the hierarchy of the building. As Stroik states, “the greatest loss of the sense of the sacred in our churches in recent decades is the disregard or demotion of the sanctuary within the house of God.”

Stroik clearly favors the traditional basilica and cruciform churches, in part because they are instantly identifiable as churches, which many modernist church buildings are not. Many modernist architects today show little interest in designing churches; the ones who do largely employ self-expressive design. Le Corbusier likened his chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, widely known as a masterpiece of twentieth century architecture, to a “temple to the sun.” He never claimed to be a religious man. Of the 336 illustrations in Kenneth Frampton’s textbook, Modern Architecture, only four are of churches.

The Catholic Church may have been the greatest patron of architecture in history, but it became so by shaping architecture, not by letting architecture shape it. Today, the reverse is largely true. As Stroik puts it, “The Church looks like it is merely riding the wave of contemporary culture.” And like prestigious secular organizations, the Church looks to so-called starchitects for prominent commissions, such as the Church of the Millennium in Rome, where modernist Richard Meier was hired after the close consideration of six other famous modernist names. The result, not surprisingly, is a church unlike any other; originally, it did not have so much as a cross on the exterior. The interior is all white, a tribute to Meier’s own signature style, and the sanctuary wall contains a series of mismatched geometric forms that are more distracting than spiritual. Stroik concludes that it will ultimately be of more interest to architects than to religious pilgrims, who will prefer the more glorious churches of Rome. During construction of the Church of the Millennium, John Paul II remarked, “There is little sense of the sacred in the new churches.” Even worse, many traditional-style churches in Italy now require entrance fees, something Stroik calls the “museumification” of the church building and “a new way to charge for indulgences.”

This is not just a debate about architectural philosophy, but a shift in priorities. Because church communities no longer expect beautiful new architecture, parish building committees focus on occupancy potential, flexibility, and nonessential amenities such as bridegroom rooms. Programs have been elevated over transcendence. The former is the priority; the latter is negotiable.

Some are likely to trace the lack of beautiful new churches to a lack of funds, but not Stroik. Churchgoers in America, he notes, are wealthier than ever before. In addition, we have built more churches over the past half-century than at any previous time. But we are building cheaper churches. The way the Church organizes the financing of new construction doesn’t help. A parish must now have 50 percent of the necessary funds before breaking ground and then must pay off its mortgage over the next five years. Stroik observes that if banks placed the same restrictions on mortgage loans, few borrowers could hope to own their own homes. As an alternative, Stroik suggests that constructing a church is a “long-term spiritual investment, and a worthy building should take 15-20 years to pay off.” This would also allow multiple generations to build and pay for the church, which Stroik views as a benefit to the community. Ultimately, Stroik seeks a renewed understanding of the church building as a “sacred place,” a principle which should guide subsequent decisions of church design.

Architecture is the responsible art. It forms us by reflecting our politics, our religious doctrines, and our cultural values. In following secular trends, church architecture of the past 50 years has lost its way. Stroik makes a powerful case for a classical revival. “As in the past, spiritual renewal will be accompanied by architectural renewal,” he writes. We shape our buildings, and afterward our buildings shape us.


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