We all the know the story.
In the heyday of the industrial revolution and the climax of the liberal enlightenment utilitarianism at the start of the nineteenth-century, a romantic movement across all the arts (and its was principally the arts, as well as theology) sought a rediscovery of old ideals. Man had been de-humanised by mechanisation and the quest for personal prosperity, summarised in Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’. There must be more to life than this? they asked (If one were designing an Olympic opening ceremony two centuries later, however, the answer is a resounding ‘no’).
Pugin, of course, had his own axe to grind, and not only against the dark satanic mills. Pugin was a little more pragmatic than some of his contemporaries. He had a problem with excess, with pointlessness, with Georgian cornicing which doesn’t do anything, and with Greek decorative statues, limestone pineapples and walls which neither hold up nor divide. We can look at his principles, namely, that the structural elements of a building should not be hidden, but used to an aesthetic end, in order to dispense with the need for unnecessary architectural appendages. That, coupled with a desire to return to the style of middle ages, both in art and epistemological method, produced the neo-gothic architectural movement: a re-invention of gothic, in the highly decorated style, with the use of modern machinery, not to degrade man, but to enhance his living experience. We can just think of the colossal Victorian ecclesiastical and civic edifices throughout the country to see how they were designed to provide, in a sense, a degree of both entertainment, and satisfaction to man, who worked hard, and had little time for rest in his small and poor home. The neo-gothic movement was wrecked by the pre-raphaelites and the later arts and crafts movement, which inspired so much of the scariness of the twentieth-century.
Gothic is a truly Christian architecture. It emerged out of classical Roman design: the transition from Norman to Gothic in French and English churches, for example, is obvious. Gothic was the first architecture which freely developed in a Christian culture, in a new millennium. It was a science, informed by piety, stories from sacred scripture, and grew out of the day to day life of the Church, in an age when the body and soul were not divided dualistically as they are now. All for the glory of God (and part of that means raising man’s mind to God).
Then we see the baroque movement as a return to an earlier ideal, when gothic was corrupted by the division suffered by Christendom from the end of the Black Death. Baroque was replaced, in time, by neo-classical, with its clean lines and brilliant vibrancy., itself a stage for the colourful velvet-clad theatre of the pre-revolutionary world. Neo-classical was replaced by neo-gothic, and so on. But something happened at the end of the nineteenth-century. We see the nascent murmurings of art deco styles, an early version of IKEA’s 1970s ad campaign, ‘chuck out your chintz’.
In la belle epoch, we find the development of a scary new movement: modernist architecture, summed up, for me, by the Bauhaus, and the maxim, ‘form follows function.’ Frills should be swept away. The modern era is symbolised by clean lines, stark surfaces, bare, unadorned raw building materials, and the triumph of the machine-made over the man-made. In the inter-war period, it was coupled with the repetitive super-human, anti-Christ like fascist stylistic figure, which is even found in many a church building. This style of architecture is anti-Christian, specifically anti-Catholic, because it denies man’s ability to beautify nature. Who’d have thought that Luther’s problematic anthropology would have given birth to the Bauhaus.
Even many modern church buildings suffer from this erroneous movement. Wanting to appear ‘with it’, when a new church is built, a modern hip architect is picked - not usually a Catholic architect - who builds, basically, a warehouse with a tabernacle in it (to the side, as like an afterthought). Often, they don’t even function as a ‘worship space’. A church should not be machine made. It should be man made; or does man not care about giving his effort to God any more? Isn’t that the point of being a Christian? By adopting modernist architectural styles in new church buildings, we are effectively saying ‘up yours’ not just to our cultural heritage, but more importantly, to what it means to be a Christian. We say, what I do (or what I can get a machine to do) is more important than what I am. Form follows function. We pride ourselves on what we do, rather than what we are. What we do is sin. What we are is the image of God. That is Catholicism.
Subconsciously, modernist architecture is making us forget about God, and forget about our dignity. That is Protestantism.
So next time you’re planning building a Catholic Church, think: I am a Catholic, or am I a Protestant?
When we are a closed community, we can forget we are supposed to be oriented outwards. That means in our lives, not in our liturgical functions. That doesn’t mean that our buildings shouldn’t look like churches, and look like community centres instead of churches - non-Christians expect churches to look like churches; they will see anything else for what it really is! The people who we are supposed to be converting want and need something solid.
In the Byzantine divine liturgy, before what we would call the liturgy of the eucharist, the deacon dismisses the non-baptised. We attract persons to Christ not by what we do when we are already living in him, but by living as him in the world. It doesn’t mean flooding the sanctuary with everybody. It doesn’t mean conforming our styles to the latest school hall architectural fashion. The Church asks parents to name their children after the saints and Christian virtues. That doesn’t restrict us to the conventions of the nineteenth century, but it does encourage us to see our time as part of a larger whole. We don’t need to copy exactly what has gone before, but we should conform to it.
Modern design styles does not mean the Bauhaus. It is good that we use what we know now, and our modern abilities and sensibilities in the construction of our churches. Building a church should be a work of art, dedicated to God, not a work of industry, dedicated to pastoral counseling and social functions.