Why is that church so ugly?

Why is that church so ugly? May 26, 2014

Though America’s religious history is lively and contains record of fidelity, courage, even sanctity, previous generations of Christians here—even recent ones—built some awful-looking churches.

Churches that look like gymnasiums or strip malls, churches made of corrugated steel or dun-colored brick, churches crusted with decoration or lurid with lives of the saints: they make us ask what it means to “look like a church.”

Bethe Dufresne’s article, “Sermon in Stone,” in the current issue of Commonweal magazine, follows liturgical designers Lawrence Hoy and his mentor Robert Rambusch through some churches and, through them, church design after Vatican II: buildings designed for more lay participation, inclusion, focus on scripture and vernacular speech.  Right away, Dufresne shows deftly deflected conflict between the designers and a layperson (here described as a praying woman with Russian accent), who wants to see the twelve apostles installed alongside the Risen Christ.  Stupid idea, Rambusch pronounces, though not to her face.

That confrontation lays bare some tensions in church design: the gap between what seems pretty and what conduces to worship; between high art and theology, on one side, and popular devotion on the other; between current tastes and deference to past aesthetic sensibilities; between conviction that the Holy Spirit needs no ecclesiastical bric-a-brac to sear through a gathered body of saints, and that things—art, sculpture, color, space—help us think and pray appropriately.

Though the article particularly addresses post-Vatican II Catholic churches, Protestants can and should enter this conversation.  God can be worshipped anywhere, but of course it matters what kinds of building we make for worship, and how we adapt or scrap buildings that believers before us have so dedicated.  Who has wisdom to know what a church should look like, and authority to make it that way?

In Dufresne’s article, Notre Dame architecture professor Duncan G. Stroik provides counterweight to Hoy’s views.  Stroik regrets cases of simplistic design that followed Vatican II.  He contends that in new church construction now, the “traditional” is winning, ironically because younger church members like it; they reject the more modern styles they grew up in because they “want something new,” and what looks new to them is the old.   He notes more churches are being built in the American south, and parishioners there say they “want a Church that looks like a church,” which means “traditional.”

While this puzzle is not uniquely American, it does have some particularly American elements.   Americans in the nineteenth century wrestled to make distinctive art and architecture of their own, rather than just imitations of what was admired in Europe.  It is not surprising, then, that Americans now trying to describe what “looks like a church” envision something vaguely European.  Rambusch and Hoy regret “nostalgia,” a hankering after European styles—either those remembered by immigrant ancestors or seen during recent vacations—that gets expressed in what Hoy calls “Disneyland churches,” mass-produced styles modeled after European cathedrals, “imitations of Old World grandeur wrapped in faux stonework.”

Plenty of American churches were built by ethnic communities intentionally to resemble the churches left behind across the Atlantic.   But our “traditional” is complicated.  For many American Protestants, the traditional style is the bare, low, unadorned space.  Unlike some flagship Protestant churches in Europe that were Catholic first and then stripped for post-1517 use, many Protestant churches in America started with some of the attributes Vatican II aimed to nurture: spatial emphasis lay participation, community gathering around Word and sacrament.  The tradition for some American churches, Catholic and Protestant, expresses itself in architecture more modern than antique.

I think there is something worthy in the impulse to mimic older styles of church design.   It can carry gratitude for Christians who lived before, can foster fellowship with those who worshipped that way.  There is even something worthy in the visually regrettable mish-mash of styles that sometimes clutters long-functioning churches, Gothic pasted on top of Romanesque with Baroque curlicues—a kind of democracy of the dead, in Chesterton’s formulation, linking believers now with those who have moved on.  Maybe that clash of styles is less repugnant to congregations than to artists or architects or historians, since Americans tend to lump them together in a category of bygones, the “traditional”—what my friend calls “ye-oldey” style.  To round it all out, there is  also an American style of church building, still quite popular, intentionally to make a church look as much unlike “a church” as possible.

And yet.  Young people raised in low-church, informal American worship spaces—functional ones, with lots of room for Sunday School and coffee hour and midweek basketball fellowship–can feel awe when they encounter those European cathedrals.   My husband and I have seen this reaction when accompanying students in Europe, many of them on first trips there, for me most recently with the Gordon College program in Orvieto, Italy.  The height, the vastness, the color, the symbolic richness are impressive.  After initial complaints about sore necks, and delayed wrestling with the contrast between the stuff in these Catholic churches versus its lack in theirs (mostly Protestant) at home, good questions arise:

How does this church recognize the presence of God?

How does it move believers together around sacramental food, the hearing of the Word?

How does it physically connect us with people here, and here before–our parents, their neighbors, ancestors, dwellers on the lands, missionaries, the early church?

How does it invite others in?

Is it beautiful? Should it be?

For students, this might be the first time these questions have obtruded.  Since an initial part of the exercise is simply trying to figure out what these old churches might be saying, some books can help.  Richard Kieckhefer’s Theology in Stone and Richard Taylor’s How to Read a Church  are two I have used fruitfully.   Not that it is best to get bogged down in this kind of translation.   The plain awe has value in itself.

It just depends what kind of awful you’re looking for in a church.



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  • Antiphon411

    “How does this church recognize the presence of God?”

    Well, for a Catholic in a Catholic church that’s easy: God the Son is present Himself in the reserved Host within the tabernacle. A church isn’t primarily a place where one goes to think about God, or hear about Him, or sing about Him; but rather to be with Him. The church building, like temples of old, is a building built to house the divinity. It is a shrine, that is why it must be beautiful.

    That changed after Vatican II, of course. As the Church was reoriented to worship man rather than God, beauty was rejected in favor of functionality.

    “…church design after Vatican II: buildings designed for more lay participation, inclusion, focus on scripture and vernacular speech.”

    Yes, this is the problem. A church becomes little better than a rec center. It is no longer a temple to the Most High. Just as the Temple in Jerusalem, a place to meet God and worship Him with offerings and prayers, gave way to the synagogue, a place to meet men and talk about God; so too have churches. Of course this precedent was set by the Protestants, but now that error has infected even Catholic churches.

    “…in new church construction now, the “traditional” is winning, ironically because younger church members like it…”

    Not so ironic. The young have become disenchanted with the emptiness and novelty of Modernism. They feel that they have had their birthright stolen. The same young people who abhor modern church architecture are also turning back to older forms and piety. They are the same group who fills the pews at Traditional Latin Masses. They are rejecting the contraceptive mentality. They love the Rosary.

    “…ironically because younger church members like it; they reject the more modern styles they grew up in because they “want something new,” and what looks new to them is the old…”

    No. They are drawn to what is authentic. They are starving for it. They don’t want happy-clappy, guitar Masses. That’s what the over-60 crowd wants and they think we want it too. We cannot wait for 1968 to be over. We cannot wait for this Catholic Woodstock to end. Unfortunately, Francis wants to continue it. Benedict, to his credit, saw the error of his generation and tried to reverse course.

  • Catoii

    Those first architects cited, Hoy and Rambusch, just oozed contempt for people. They remind me of modernist architects who create Brutalist buildings that virtually everyone (except their fellow architects) hates. Architects nowadays don’t design for people, they design for each other, seeking kudos for “originality” or mention in trendy magazines. We regular folk just want someplace beautiful and classical (usually the same thing) to worship. Of course, designing these sorts of buildings doesn’t win architects the praise of their peers or critics, so that’s why they disdain it.

    Where I live, there are several modern-looking Catholic churches and one traditional-looking one. The modern ones are largely empty and the traditional one is regularly packed. Of course, there are other factors (the clergy, etc.) but I bet anything that the traditional appearance has a great deal to do with it.

  • Jon_Amendall

    Excellent points about an often overlooked value of the worship “experience”, architectural design. Traditional church design had a specific function, to put Christ front and center.

    A sanctuary was just that: a sanctuary from the external world and a place to be with Christ.

    An alter was separate from the sanctuary, physically elevated and most assuredly not a stage. It was someplace a person went to and up on to receive the body and blood of Christ, not something they passed by like a drive-thru window.

    The pulpit was also raised, so the priest/pastor could deliver the Word to the congregation (not audience), who looked up in reverence at the Word.

    It’s good to hear that young people are wanting a more traditional feel of a church. I hope this also affects their desire for orthodoxy in doctrine.

  • Antiphon411

    A nice comment. I would only suggest vis-a-vis the sanctuary, that it was/is not a place “a person went to and up on to receive the body and blood of Christ”, but rather a place down from which the priest comes to bring the Body of Christ to the communicant. In Catholic churches the communion rail (used to/sometimes still) separates the congregation from the sacrifice upon the altar. I cannot stand seeing laypeople (apart from altar boys) in the sanctuary. My children would step on hot coals before they would set foot in the sanctuary–and I’d rather see them do so!

  • Antiphon411

    “…modernist architects who create Brutalist building that virtually everyone (except their fellow architects) hates.”

    A few thoughts:

    1) I would highly recommend for your reading pleasure and edification Evelyn Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall, part of which features the architect Otto Silenus (a parody of Le Corbusier) and his views on architecture and humanity.

    2) The School of Architecture at Berkeley was housed in a Brutalist building: Wurster Hall (http://ced.berkeley.edu/about-ced/college-history/). It was even worse inside, since the interior was left exposed so that students could see the bones of the building. The rumor (I had it on good authority from an architecture student) was that the building was infested with poisonous spiders that would often bite students while working at drafting tables in the building. Supposedly they were brown recluse spiders but a quick search on the internet just now says that there are no such spiders in California.

    3) The Catholic Church associated with the Newman Center at Berkeley was a horrible concrete structure (http://calnewman.org/about/art-and-architecture/) (https://www.google.com/search?q=newman+hall+berkeley&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=82eFU_TJOOnQsQS_1YD4CQ&sqi=2&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAw&biw=1366&bih=631). A Catholic friend of mine said it looked as though the sanctuary were rising up from the depths of hell itself.

  • Jon_Amendall

    Thank you. I will check out your links also.

    I agree that Christ comes to us in body and blood, but architecturally we walk up to the front receive Him. We may have another difference in terminology. In my Lutheran experience, by “sanctuary” I’m referring to the chapel area where the congregation sits, I gather you’re referring to a portion of what I call the altar. Different designs may be called something different, and for sure Lutheran and Roman terms are different!
    God bless.

  • Jon82

    FYI, in a church the structure is an altar. To change something is to alter.

  • Jon82

    The church was not reoriented to worship man rather than God–that is a falsehood. It was reoriented to include those of the church who are not the priest and servers. The church is the community with Christ as the center.

  • Jon_Amendall

    Right. Posting from iPhone, missed it in editing. Shutting off autocorrect, in 3, 2, 1…