Form & Meaning in Church Architecture

The Third Church of Christ, Scientist, in Washington, D.C., has been declared a historical landmark because it is such a good example of the architectural style known as “Brutalism.” The building is only 36 years old, it has no windows, it is ugly, it is utterly unfunctional, and the congregation itself hates it. But now it cannot be demolished, as the congregation wants to do, or even substantially remodeled.

“Brutalism” was a radical, in-your-face style of architectural “modernism,” brutally rejecting ornament, meaning, and obsolete pre-modern notions such as beauty. It is characterized by the use of extremely rough, hardly-finished concrete, emphasizing the nitty-gritty materiality that is all there is to existence.

Brutalism for a Church

So why would a church want a building in the “brutalist” style? I mean, Christian Scientists don’t even believe in the true existence of the material world, so that their theology is contradicted by every detail in the building! Well, back in 1971, some of you may recall, churches wanted to be relevant to the modern world, and “brutalism” must have seemed very cutting-edge and impressive, a sure way to draw in denizens of “the secular city.”

Well, the “brutalist” sanctuary was designed to hold 400 worshippers, apparently the size of the congregation in 1971, but now it has only 40 or so. And, despite its designation as a historical relic, the building is mocked and derided as a blight to the neighborhood by the people who live in the city. One lesson to be learned is that committing yourself to a fashion is the surest way to be old-fashioned, since, by definition, fashions are always changing. Notice, by contrast, that the classical architecture of Washington’s national buildings is STILL magnificent and that it never ages in its appeal.

Another lesson is for churches today. A basic principle of aesthetics is that the form must be in harmony with the content. And when they diverge, it is the FORM that is going to communicate more than the content that it is supposed to convey. Today we have church buildings designed like pre-fab industrial buildings (conveying the message that the faith is cheap and temporary), concert halls (conveying the message that faith has to do with entertainment) and shopping malls (conveying the message that faith has to do with consumerism). Pre-modern churches were built in the shape of crosses, conveying the message that in the church people come together in the Cross of Jesus Christ. You can certainly have contemporary church architecture. My first Lutheran church had a contemporary style that communicated powerful Christian messages: a massive concrete altar; a skylight pouring in light from above; steel and brick structures that communicated the solidity and strength of what was taught in that building.)

Of course, the Gospel can be preached in any style of building or in no building. But just remember, the laws of aesthetics and the relation of form and meaning operate whether anybody likes them or not. Beware of unintended messages. And of becoming irrelevant in one’s zeal to be relevant. Remember the “brutalist” church in D.C. Stop by and see for yourself. It’s going to be around for a long time.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • fwsonnek

    “A basic principle of aesthetics is that the form must be in harmony with the content. And when they diverge, it is the FORM that is going to communicate more than the content that it is supposed to convey.”

    sounds intuitive. can you point to more on this dr Vieth?

  • fwsonnek

    “A basic principle of aesthetics is that the form must be in harmony with the content. And when they diverge, it is the FORM that is going to communicate more than the content that it is supposed to convey.”

    sounds intuitive. can you point to more on this dr Vieth?

  • http://maplemountain.blogspot.com/ Samuel

    Thanks for this post. I agree with the comment above. Any more resources on-line about considerations for church building aesthetics?

  • http://maplemountain.blogspot.com/ Samuel

    Thanks for this post. I agree with the comment above. Any more resources on-line about considerations for church building aesthetics?

  • http://cyberbrethren.typepad.com/cyberbrethren/ Paul T. McCain

    Well, one could say a brutalist form follows a brutalist theology quite well.

    This is a hideously ugly building. It reminds me of several things:

    (1) A Nazi bunker.
    (2) A Soviet era “worker’s paradise” building.
    (3) A building from which to watch a spaceship launched.

    But a church? No way.

  • http://cyberbrethren.typepad.com/cyberbrethren/ Paul T. McCain

    Well, one could say a brutalist form follows a brutalist theology quite well.

    This is a hideously ugly building. It reminds me of several things:

    (1) A Nazi bunker.
    (2) A Soviet era “worker’s paradise” building.
    (3) A building from which to watch a spaceship launched.

    But a church? No way.

  • Don S

    Of course, there are cost constraints to consider as well. Here in Southern California, where real estate costs are very high, and land is scarce, many churches are forced into industrial parks and must occupy industrial buildings. It’s just the way it is. Many churches do not have the luxury of buildings at all, and must meet in schools, or even homes (which, of course, is true to the early church model). So, bravo to those churches that have the resources and opportunity to choose their architectural style.

    One must also consider stewardship issues when choosing the architecture of their church building. The extra costs of building and maintaining the type of building you are advocating reduces resources available for ministry outside of one’s immediate church body. So there are definitely tradeoffs to consider.

  • Don S

    Of course, there are cost constraints to consider as well. Here in Southern California, where real estate costs are very high, and land is scarce, many churches are forced into industrial parks and must occupy industrial buildings. It’s just the way it is. Many churches do not have the luxury of buildings at all, and must meet in schools, or even homes (which, of course, is true to the early church model). So, bravo to those churches that have the resources and opportunity to choose their architectural style.

    One must also consider stewardship issues when choosing the architecture of their church building. The extra costs of building and maintaining the type of building you are advocating reduces resources available for ministry outside of one’s immediate church body. So there are definitely tradeoffs to consider.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Here is a good primer on aesthetics, a whole book reprinted online: Dewitt Parker’s “Principles of Aesthetics”: http://www.authorama.com/principles-of-aesthetics-1.html

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Here is a good primer on aesthetics, a whole book reprinted online: Dewitt Parker’s “Principles of Aesthetics”: http://www.authorama.com/principles-of-aesthetics-1.html

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Don, I’d agree that sometimes churches simply cannot afford to build, but as someone who’s done a fair amount of building type work (my first date with my now-wife was with Habitat for Humanity, putting up framing & sheetrock), I’m also aware that it isn’t necessarily that expensive to make things attractive.

    For example, you’d be amazed what some builders do with a basic steel frame building–the kind that you ordinarily see as “just a warehouse or barn.” A few windows, a touch of brick in certain places, and suddenly it looks quite presentable.

    So I don’t know that churches, even in southern Cal, need to be ugly. I’m no “high church” person, but even I can admit that sometimes the building preaches a sermon.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Don, I’d agree that sometimes churches simply cannot afford to build, but as someone who’s done a fair amount of building type work (my first date with my now-wife was with Habitat for Humanity, putting up framing & sheetrock), I’m also aware that it isn’t necessarily that expensive to make things attractive.

    For example, you’d be amazed what some builders do with a basic steel frame building–the kind that you ordinarily see as “just a warehouse or barn.” A few windows, a touch of brick in certain places, and suddenly it looks quite presentable.

    So I don’t know that churches, even in southern Cal, need to be ugly. I’m no “high church” person, but even I can admit that sometimes the building preaches a sermon.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Amen, Bike Bubba. I know what you mean, Don S, about resources and stewardship issues, though the worst offenders, in my view, are the multi-million dollar “campuses” that spend lots of resources but end up with that shopping mall look.

    But there could easily be a simple, inexpensive design for a church that would communicate its churchliness and what it stands for, made out of inexpensive, even pre-fab materials. In fact, I hereby challenge Christian architects and church builders to come up with some.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Amen, Bike Bubba. I know what you mean, Don S, about resources and stewardship issues, though the worst offenders, in my view, are the multi-million dollar “campuses” that spend lots of resources but end up with that shopping mall look.

    But there could easily be a simple, inexpensive design for a church that would communicate its churchliness and what it stands for, made out of inexpensive, even pre-fab materials. In fact, I hereby challenge Christian architects and church builders to come up with some.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    One historic example of an inexpensive church that preaches a sermon is the little white country church, found in virtually all denominations. Some of the prefab steel ones aren’t too bad, either–they’re more or less a ferrous version of…guess what….those little white country churches.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    One historic example of an inexpensive church that preaches a sermon is the little white country church, found in virtually all denominations. Some of the prefab steel ones aren’t too bad, either–they’re more or less a ferrous version of…guess what….those little white country churches.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    I have some experience with brutalism myself, as it is pretty universally agreed that said term describes the architecture of my college dorm (trivia point: living in that dorm is one of the few things I have in common with Alberto Gonzalez, though he was not my contemporary by a longshot).

    And while I suppose by now I don’t need to burnish my contrarian credentials here, I really don’t think it’s as “ugly” as Veith claims — though I agree it doesn’t look like a church. For some reason, it strikes me as a library or university building. (Having traveled through former Warsaw Pact countries, I can say this has nothing on the drab, depressing Communist architecture.)

    Nor do I think that the perceptions of a particular aesthetic will be universal. Of course I like traditional old church styles, but I have had people tell me that such styles send the message of the congregation being irrelevant, old fashioned, or even more concerned about impressing people than following God. Those aren’t necessarily fair thoughts, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out there.

    For what it’s worth, I say this as a member of a church that, pretty much by necessity, meets in a slightly altered series of warehouse spaces in an industrial park (much like Don S describes @4, though one state to the north). The issue out here is not so much the building as just trying to get the land.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    I have some experience with brutalism myself, as it is pretty universally agreed that said term describes the architecture of my college dorm (trivia point: living in that dorm is one of the few things I have in common with Alberto Gonzalez, though he was not my contemporary by a longshot).

    And while I suppose by now I don’t need to burnish my contrarian credentials here, I really don’t think it’s as “ugly” as Veith claims — though I agree it doesn’t look like a church. For some reason, it strikes me as a library or university building. (Having traveled through former Warsaw Pact countries, I can say this has nothing on the drab, depressing Communist architecture.)

    Nor do I think that the perceptions of a particular aesthetic will be universal. Of course I like traditional old church styles, but I have had people tell me that such styles send the message of the congregation being irrelevant, old fashioned, or even more concerned about impressing people than following God. Those aren’t necessarily fair thoughts, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out there.

    For what it’s worth, I say this as a member of a church that, pretty much by necessity, meets in a slightly altered series of warehouse spaces in an industrial park (much like Don S describes @4, though one state to the north). The issue out here is not so much the building as just trying to get the land.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    The little white country church! I love that style. Thanks for reminding me, Bike Bubba. There could be many stylistic and even contemporary variations on that style, while still keeping it simple and affordable.

    I realize, of course, the different issues with congregations that don’t have buildings, can’t afford them, and have to settle with less than ideal surroundings. We used to go to a mission church that met in a funeral home. It creeped me out at first, but then I realized that the early Christians sometimes met in the cemetery that was the catacombs, and that proclaiming life in the place of death recalls the cross and the empty tomb.

    My beloved current church, St. Athanasius, meets in a little Seventh Day Adventist church building–hey, they don’t use it on Sunday–though we take the trouble to Lutheranize it every week with crosses and paraments. Much can be done that way to turn even a blah commercial room into a kind of “sacred space.”

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    The little white country church! I love that style. Thanks for reminding me, Bike Bubba. There could be many stylistic and even contemporary variations on that style, while still keeping it simple and affordable.

    I realize, of course, the different issues with congregations that don’t have buildings, can’t afford them, and have to settle with less than ideal surroundings. We used to go to a mission church that met in a funeral home. It creeped me out at first, but then I realized that the early Christians sometimes met in the cemetery that was the catacombs, and that proclaiming life in the place of death recalls the cross and the empty tomb.

    My beloved current church, St. Athanasius, meets in a little Seventh Day Adventist church building–hey, they don’t use it on Sunday–though we take the trouble to Lutheranize it every week with crosses and paraments. Much can be done that way to turn even a blah commercial room into a kind of “sacred space.”

  • fwsonnek

    Yikes. it looks like my toaster! only without the light…dark knob.. wait that think hanging off the side…..

  • fwsonnek

    Yikes. it looks like my toaster! only without the light…dark knob.. wait that think hanging off the side…..

  • http://viz.tumblr.com tickletext

    George Herbert understood the relationship between doctrine and aesthetics:

    LORD, how can man preach thy eternall word?
    He is a brittle crazie glasse:
    Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
    This glorious and transcendent place,
    To be a window, through thy grace.

    But when thou dost anneal in glasse thy storie,
    Making thy life to shine within
    The holy Preachers, then the light and glorie
    More rev’rend grows, and more doth win ;
    Which else shows watrish, bleak, and thin.

    Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one
    When they combine and mingle, bring
    A strong regard and aw: but speech alone
    Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
    And in the eare, not conscience ring.

    –George Herbert, “The Windows”

  • http://viz.tumblr.com tickletext

    George Herbert understood the relationship between doctrine and aesthetics:

    LORD, how can man preach thy eternall word?
    He is a brittle crazie glasse:
    Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
    This glorious and transcendent place,
    To be a window, through thy grace.

    But when thou dost anneal in glasse thy storie,
    Making thy life to shine within
    The holy Preachers, then the light and glorie
    More rev’rend grows, and more doth win ;
    Which else shows watrish, bleak, and thin.

    Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one
    When they combine and mingle, bring
    A strong regard and aw: but speech alone
    Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
    And in the eare, not conscience ring.

    –George Herbert, “The Windows”

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Yes! My man George Herbert! Thanks, Tickletext!

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Yes! My man George Herbert! Thanks, Tickletext!

  • http://faithandgender.wordpress.com Fr. Bill

    Church architecture is just one way in which all Christians are shaped by lex orandi, lex credendi. The interior decor (or lack thereof) makes a similar contribution, as does the arrangement of furniture, the order of worship, the presence or absence or elements of liturgy (or absence of liturgy).

    I used to think that my cradle faith (very low-church, evangelistic baptist) was spartan to the point of blankness, and that’s an reasonable misunderstanding if one moves from that into any communion that follows basic Western catholic worship forms. But, from a distance of 20 years, I now see that my cradle faith was a faithful expression of its worship, that its worship continually reinforced the complete gestalt of its faith.

    Those who scoff, dismiss, or ignore lex orandi, lex credendi do not thereby escape it. Instead, they poke out their own eyes with a sharpened stick.

  • http://faithandgender.wordpress.com Fr. Bill

    Church architecture is just one way in which all Christians are shaped by lex orandi, lex credendi. The interior decor (or lack thereof) makes a similar contribution, as does the arrangement of furniture, the order of worship, the presence or absence or elements of liturgy (or absence of liturgy).

    I used to think that my cradle faith (very low-church, evangelistic baptist) was spartan to the point of blankness, and that’s an reasonable misunderstanding if one moves from that into any communion that follows basic Western catholic worship forms. But, from a distance of 20 years, I now see that my cradle faith was a faithful expression of its worship, that its worship continually reinforced the complete gestalt of its faith.

    Those who scoff, dismiss, or ignore lex orandi, lex credendi do not thereby escape it. Instead, they poke out their own eyes with a sharpened stick.

  • http://www.HempelStudios.com Sarah in Maryland

    I don’t think that Dr. Veith is saying that all churches have to look like 18th century Lutheran churches. The sparsely decorated Quaker churches around here are stunning in their austerity. The austerity reflects the theology of the church perfectly. The churches do however reflect quality craftsmanship and care.

    Even the church we go to isn’t a piece of splendid architecture, but you’ll never mistake it for a government office. It looks like a church and we do the best we can with meager means.

    Veith has a very good point that churches should look like sacred spaces. This can be achieved not only with vestaments, but the materials that we choose to make things from. For example, our church uses a handmade ceramic cup and plate for the Lord’s Supper. This shows and honor for the vocation of the ceramicist. We also have a cross and an altar made by one of the members. The banners are all made by the women of the church. It’s amazing how a very bland architecturally church can honor the vocations of the people who truly make up the church.

    Wow, I love our church even more now thinking about all of this. :-)

  • http://www.HempelStudios.com Sarah in Maryland

    I don’t think that Dr. Veith is saying that all churches have to look like 18th century Lutheran churches. The sparsely decorated Quaker churches around here are stunning in their austerity. The austerity reflects the theology of the church perfectly. The churches do however reflect quality craftsmanship and care.

    Even the church we go to isn’t a piece of splendid architecture, but you’ll never mistake it for a government office. It looks like a church and we do the best we can with meager means.

    Veith has a very good point that churches should look like sacred spaces. This can be achieved not only with vestaments, but the materials that we choose to make things from. For example, our church uses a handmade ceramic cup and plate for the Lord’s Supper. This shows and honor for the vocation of the ceramicist. We also have a cross and an altar made by one of the members. The banners are all made by the women of the church. It’s amazing how a very bland architecturally church can honor the vocations of the people who truly make up the church.

    Wow, I love our church even more now thinking about all of this. :-)

  • http://planetaugsburg.wordpress.com Andy Adams

    I heartily agree. We built a new sanctuary in 2000 and and modeled it after the first Lutheran churches built shortly after the Reformation. It is eight-sided on the out side and the congregation surrounds the altar on the inside. The Baptismal font, Altar, and Pulpit all line up in architectural alignment signifying the Means of Grace (Water, Communion, and the Word). To see pictures, visit http://www.osl.cc.

  • http://planetaugsburg.wordpress.com Andy Adams

    I heartily agree. We built a new sanctuary in 2000 and and modeled it after the first Lutheran churches built shortly after the Reformation. It is eight-sided on the out side and the congregation surrounds the altar on the inside. The Baptismal font, Altar, and Pulpit all line up in architectural alignment signifying the Means of Grace (Water, Communion, and the Word). To see pictures, visit http://www.osl.cc.

  • Brian

    tickletext,

    I Believe that you misunderstood Herbert. There he is referring to the Preacher not the physical building. Is that not in fact what matters? The subject of which he preaches is Christ and the saving work of the cross? Nice thought though to quote Herbert! I like that.

  • Brian

    tickletext,

    I Believe that you misunderstood Herbert. There he is referring to the Preacher not the physical building. Is that not in fact what matters? The subject of which he preaches is Christ and the saving work of the cross? Nice thought though to quote Herbert! I like that.


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