Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Quick Guide to Good Church Architecture

I propose that good church architecture is doable today, is easy to do, and ought to be done for the sake of the faithful.

The argument that we can't do good church architecture anymore is bunk. If we don't have enough skilled artisans to build a beautiful church, than we can train them. If we don't have enough money to build a decent church, then we will raise it, or even better, get donations in kind.

Good church architecture is easy to do. Old, beautiful churches are in great supply, and old or ancient architecture manuals describe needed techniques in great detail. We just need to actually do it right, by first changing our way of thinking.

Modern churches do little extra for the faithful besides being comfortable meeting-houses for performance of the liturgy. Instead, a Church needs to be a sacred Temple of God, an Ark of the Covenant, elevating the mind to Heavenly things. A good church can inspire the faithful to greater things, and could cause conversion of heathens, and the world.

Here are some general rules for good church architecture:

  • Your local Ordinary is always right. Be obedient, without regard to the rest of these rules.

  • Form Follows Function. Not in the modern sense, but in this way: you are building a Catholic church. It needs to promote Catholicism. It needs to be suitable for Catholic worship. It must be iconic, and has to scream "Catholicism" to any passerby, and it can't be mistaken for any other structure or worship facility of any denomination. It can't look like a gymnasium, office, warehouse, residence, or hanger. Your Catholic church, under the best circumstances, may be confused for a High Anglican church, but the plain stone floors and hard wooden pews of a Catholic church should eventually dispel any confusion.

  • Put the church on a good site. Traditionally, it goes on a hill, or surrounded by enough open space so as to be visible from long distances. Pilgrims, seeking your church, should be able to scan the horizon and be able to identify it as a Catholic church, without a doubt.

  • Put in obvious Catholic symbols, not just vague symbols. A round simplified greek cross window may be a Catholic symbol, but it is also a Gnostic symbol. Put in a good, Gothic rose window instead. Images of Saints should always include standard attributes that make identification possible; don't put in a statue of Mary that may also be a pagan goddess, like the Mary in the new Los Angeles Cathedral.

  • It's not about you. It is about the worship of God and the salvation of souls. "Creativity" is an overused term. Don't be afraid to copy the best of the past, and by the best I'm not referring to Corbusier's Ronchamp church or Philip Johnson's Crystal Cathedral; instead, I refer to the great Gothic, Romanesque, and Baroque churches predating the 20th century, back when folks had the Catholic Faith. Look at the great pilgrimage churches, places where the faithful actually worship, and not the structures that have won major architectural awards. Lose yourself in the work, and be inspired.

  • The church needs to be vertical. "A city set on a hill cannot be hid." Yes, I know that contemporary theological cosmology no longer places Heaven in the upper stratosphere, but vertically has great appeal. We need to "lift" spirits upward. We won't see Christ in each other until we can contemplate the Father in Heaven. A spire is a finger pointed up to Heaven and is not another part of the anatomy.

  • A church needs to be permanent. It needs to last for centuries, for the Faith will last longer, until the end of the world. Infidels with sledgehammers and torches should find it difficult to do anything but superficial damage to your church. They should only be able to just smash the statuary, tear down the crucifix, and plaster over the mosaics and then move on. Eventually, a few centuries down the road, Catholics will be able to move back in and restore it to its former glory with little difficulty. If you think that future heretics will use bulldozers or rockets to destroy your church, then use thick reinforced concrete at its core (as did the Romans) to make their enterprise very difficult. A good blast-hardened crypt deep under your church could even survive a nuke attack. Plan accordingly.

  • Your church will eventually decay into dust. It is not a monument to your artistic greatness. Seek your reward in Heaven instead.

  • The landscape and area surrounding your church must conform to the church, and not the other way around. The site must be subordinate to the church itself. A church in a suburban area is not to be confused for a suburban strip mall or office park. Its site must be bold and visible from all neighboring roads.

  • Make your church beautiful. Think like an ancient, not a modern, when determining beauty. Beauty is objective, and is based on proportion, scale, and harmony.

  • Use simple geometric elements in your design. Make generous use of right angles, circles, and triangles. Make your church simple, but not plain. These aren't plain circles, angles, and triangles. The geometry should not be severe, either, but have a feminine softness to it. Ecclesia is a feminine word, and a masculine church ends up being merely a secular social-service or political action organization and not the Bride of Christ. Avoid odd angles and surfaces like the Bilbao Guggenheim museum: it's not about creativity, remember.

  • Have no concern for resale value thirty years from now. It is to be a Catholic church, always, and forever.

  • Make your church design interesting everywhere on all scales, from one eighth of an inch to the entire building. Even the raw materials need to be beautiful, so emphasize the veins in marble or grain in wood. Especially emphasize detail on a human scale, unlike the Moderns who concern themselves only with large masses of humanity. A church needs to speak to each worshipper on a personal scale.

  • Attractive ratios between elements like the length, width, and spacing of columns have been determined a long time ago. Avoid elongated or stubby elements for the purpose of creativity or ironical effect.

  • Make your church smaller than what you think is actually needed. A crowded church does far more for the Faith and community than does a large, beautiful, but largely empty space. But have plenty of space around the periphery for standing room; standing up for long periods and kneeling on hard stone contributes greatly to the faith of the overflow crowd. Aren't pews a Protestant invention anyway?

  • The entire church needs to be an icon, and needs to be filled with icons. The church needs to be a sermon and a catechism. It should have so much detail that an art student could spend days or weeks there in study. It must teach the faith.

  • Do not assume that electricity, natural gas, and other modern conveniences will be available for the lifetime of the church. History tells us that our comfortable life will always be subject to change. Allow for natural lighting, and make the building massive enough to moderate the temperature inside of it. High ceilings will reduce the need for artificial cooling. While I approve of the use of advanced modern materials, be sure that routine maintenance can be done with natural materials and simple hand tools.

  • A church is not an auditorium or a theater. Don't make it look like one. The classic basilica design has better acoustics for church music, anyway. All worshipers, facing the same way towards the crucifix, has great sign value, and is less distracting.

  • A church is not designed for feeding egos. Don't feed the egos of the worshipers, like Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple, that makes men the equal to God. Don't feed the ego of the presider, with a great Presider's Chair in the center of the action; even a Bishop's Cathedra should be off to the side. The priest or decon needs to be heard clearly during the readings and homily, and that's it. Don't feed the egos of the musicians; they should be heard and not seen. Don't feed the egos of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist either; put in an altar rail, instead. Communion in the hand is a passing fad, anyway. And most of all, don't feed the egos of Liturgical Dancers; make no room for them whatsoever (unless you happen to be making an Ethiopian Coptic church). It's not about us, but about Christ.

  • For the spiritual safety and education of the faithful, a church should be designed by a member of the faith, committed to remain in a state of grace and faithful to Christ, His Church, and His Magisterium.

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