Beauty and Truth

I hope you found the recent cathedral quiz amusing. The mixture was supposed to show that the brutalist school of architecture produces church buildings that are not dis-similar to parking garages, concrete bunkers and shopping malls.

The problem with many modern churches is a problem with the underlying philosophy of architecture, and underlying that is a problem with the philosophy of life, and underlying that is a problem with theology, remember Chesterton’s quip that ‘every argument is a theological argument’
The modern architect (like the modern liturgist) is a utilitarian. The main thing is “does it work”? Welcome to the Henry Ford school of Theology. A liturgy and a church is considered good if it works. So when you visit the notorious Clifton Cathedral and have a tour and venture to be unimpressed and say, “Well it’s not a beautiful building is it?” the impatient cleric (who actually likes the ecclesiastical parking lot) says in his politely condescending way, “Perhaps you are looking at it the wrong way? You see the building is very good liturgically.” What he means is that it is very good for his kind of liturgy where there is lots of hugging and singing songs with tunes from Broadway and lyrics from Hallmark.
“Form follows function” was modern architectural grandpappy Frank Lloyd Wright’s dictum. But what if the form of a modern church doesn’t follow function enough? What if the function of a church is to do more than provide a place for people to sit to hear religious talks? What if is more than to provide a meeting place for people to think about being nice to one another for the next week? 
What if the function of a church were to provide a dwelling place for Christ himself? If the architect and fund raisers believed that perhaps the form would follow the function rather differently. What if the function were to be an escalator to heaven, a threshold of eternity, an entrance to the presence of the marriage feast of the lamb, the communion of the saints and a veritable glimpse of glory? Perhaps then the form would follow the function rather differently.
The anonymous architect of the great abbey of Glastonbury in England said, “I want to build a church so beautiful that it will lift even the hardest heart to prayer.”
Now there’s a church architect who understood ‘form follows function.’
UPDATE: Read Curt Jester’s Chestertonian quotes about Gothic architecture here.
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  • Fr Longenecker, I did appreciate your series of photos. I’ve been reflecting on church architecture here, inspired by a quote from Chesterton about Gothic as “fighting architecture.”Your observations on form-follows-function are spot on. The obvious problem is that much confusion reigned about the functions of the Church and her edifices when most of these monstrosities were designed and erected. According to Chesterton, churches function as battleships or as fortresses in the church’s struggle against and for the world. According to more modern theology, churches function as gathering places for a vague people with vague and tepid beliefs.

  • Hello, Father. I just found your blog through “The Curt Jester.” Ah, Notre Dame. I had the privilege of visiting it myself and I can honestly say my breath was taken away when I first saw it. I posted a similar comment on TCJ blog but will repeat it here. Grand architecture is an incubator for grand thought. Whenever I am within an old cathedral, with it’s ancient stone and towering, arched ceiling, I am transported from the world into a realm that calls for my utmost focus on God. My spirit feels as though it can fly in such a place. Within the more modern structures – eh, not so much. I feel as though I’m attending the latest exhibit of post-modern art. It makes me feel sad as though knowing we’ve missed something precious and sacred by thinking such a structure could bring us closer to God. As an artist myself, I know the power (or lack thereof) of form.As a Catholic who has been away for many years, I am yearning for what a good old Cathedral can bring about. We have one parish downtown that is the Mother Church of our city. I think I’ll be visiting soon.God bless you.

  • Adam

    Fr. L – So what then, do you think, about Houston’s new cathedral? Would I be jumping to conclusions to assume that is what you are reacting to?I think Houston’s latest is a decent attempt to strive towards the traditional given modern budgets and craftsmen. I’m not sure we have the craftsmen or artists these days that we had 500 yrs ago, or even 100 yrs ago.Adam

  • Anonymous

    “What if the function of a church were to provide a dwelling place for Christ himself? If the architect and fund raisers believed that perhaps the form would follow the function rather differently. “Wow. Profound!I often think, when my schedule requires me to attend a church more influenced by Pizza Hut than Chartres, of the story of the visiting dignitaries from around the then Pagan Central amd Eastern Europe to the church of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and how much they were “blown away” by it.That church was designed in line with your comments. As a result, converts were made just by the buildiing itself. Not so much at the Pizza Hut parishes.

  • Nice summary Father,I thought Cathedrals (historically) were intended to mimic the form of Christ on the cross explicitly. So you have the tabernacle (Christ) at the head, the congregation where His body would be and the confessional placed on the side where the spear wound would be, all in a cruciform floor plan.

  • Anonymous

    For some beautiful Cathedrals and the music they inspired I have been watching this series form and acoustics of the large Gothic cathedrals made possible some of the most fantastic sacred music.Angela

  • Anonymous

    Terrific, Father!Of course, the most numerous and depressing have to be like my little parish, which looks like an aging 70s dental office in the middle of farmland (yes, you’ve been there, it’s in your backyard)… or like spaceships (another older parish building in our area) or converted gymnasiums (yet another older parish in our town)… *sigh* – what’s wrong with churches looking like CHURCHES?

  • Hmm.. the cathedral at Brentwood, Essex, England (completed 1991) is an interesting one…and an exemplar of how even when the building is designed reasonably well, the way that is is arranged internally can detract from the atmosphere that a place of worship ought to create.The structure (by Terry Quinlan, one of Prince Charles’s favourite architects) is traditional, if understated, and elegant, with references to both Italian baroque and Christopher Wren.It is certainly recognizably a church, even if one could reasonably describe it of possessing a pastiche of styles. Maybe it is too brightly lit by its plain glass windows, and there are insufficient candle-lighting opportunities, but we can probably let this pass.The problem rather is the very post-Vatican II “ordering”, which places the altar in the cross, very near to the main entrance (at the South-east corner of the church), with seating in three banks ahead, to the left and to the right of the altar – which is barely identfied as such, and the appearance of which lacks any sense of being a place at which sacred mysteries are celebrated.The arrangement also means that side chapels have a very awkward arrangement. The overall “ordering” – which might, perhaps, make sense in a ultramodern, circular-form structure (the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool, or the French Cathedral in London spring to mind)…really seems incongruous with a traditionally shaped church.There is no good sense of order or form. The arrangement seems profoundly disrespectful to the “flow” of the building – it is confusing and illogical.

  • Anonymous

    Amen amen dico tibi!

  • So, then, are to have a beautiful gothic structure only t find that the cost of air conditioning the structure to everyone’s comfort is extraordinarily expensive? Do we shave the cost of padding the pews to put more money into the steeple? Do we install less pews so that we can add more money into the beauty of the alter? I understand that the physical church should be a structure fitting for the house of God, but even storefront churches, when occupied with Spirit filled people can be a house of blessing to the annointed.

  • I have to disagree on one points. First, too many architects, at least some of the well-known ones aren’t even remotely utilitarian. Form, for them doesn’t follow function, it follows the ego of the architect. Just look at the structural problems with some of Gehry’s off the wall designs. I’d also say we have the craftsmen, artists, and architects, but we don’t do nearly enough to encourage them.

  • radio45- You are grasping at straws. Incidentally, those high ceilinged gothic structures stay wonderfully cool in the summer. What you might spend in winter is made up later in the year. And of course no church would be dedicated until all the pews were installed! But even then, there’s always folding chairs.There’s also the fact that the altar can be a work undertaken over years. The local basilica has finally finished their altar after about ten years.

  • Iconography has inverted perspective. The form is of utmost. The very concept of “a painting” itself is radically changed in iconography. Its very form becomes its function. I am skeptical of what Frank Lloyd Wright says about form following function – even with regards to secular architecture, which is what he was addressing I assume. Sounds like someone floating a stoical buoy of relevancy out onto a vague ocean of mass obssession with needing to be original, in a desperate, albeit somewhat heroic, measure to gain significance. Form follows function. Lets apply it to an old country inn. What does that country inn look like under this dictum of “form follows function”? In my mind it sure doesn’t look like an old country inn. Symbolism is key. Even with inns.

  • I too am dubious of Frank Lloyd Wright’s modern dogma, but even accepting it as given, it doesn’t work unless you first understand the true function.My argument would apply to country pubs. If it is simply a place to buy a drink, then a chrome, hygenic counter to purchase and drink the fluid would be sufficient, but if part of the function of a country pub is to promote fellowship, relaxation, a sense of history, warmth and nostalgia, then the chrome bar will not do.

  • Oh yes, of course, I agree; and I forgot to mention I did agree with your original post. This part especially:”What if the function of a church were to provide a dwelling place for Christ himself? If the architect and fund raisers believed that perhaps the form would follow the function rather differently. What if the function were to be an escalator to heaven, a threshold of eternity, an entrance to the presence of the marriage feast of the lamb, the communion of the saints and a veritable glimpse of glory? Perhaps then the form would follow the function rather differently.”And with the inn also…I see. It really does go back to it being a theological argument. What is the true function? But that statement “form follows function”…brrr! There’s something about it that determines, not what the “form” is going to be, as it seems to state, while the “function” remains like some sort of raw material to work with, but determines what the “function” is going to be. One would initially think it a fairly applicable rule, from the most basic slaughtering house to places of worship, but it’s not. “Form follows function” in practise, that is in practise divorced from the objective standards of “true function”, would simply be a downgrading, or degrading of the meaning of the practised function therein.

  • A better statement would be “form follows purpose” with the addendum that discerning the purpose can be trying and requires reflection.

  • It’s the Bauhaus, International Style, “Living Machines” crap that is essentially atheist at its core and has no business building churches.The Bauhausers were upset when people moved into the living machine apartments and started decorating–flowered wallpaper, Victorian gingerbread froufrou, etc.The Bauhausers do NOT understand human nature!Neither do the iconoclasts. The Incarnation changed everything. The iconoclast heresy was defeated definitively in the first millennium. God gave me an aesthetic sense as a GIFT and I intend to use it.