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Healing ugly modern churches
The Republic ^ | August 04, 2010 | Terry Mattingly

Posted on 08/04/2010 2:31:29 PM PDT by Alex Murphy

The sanctuary walls are, as a rule, made of flat wood, concrete and glass wrapped in metals with an industrial look -- often matching the furnishings on the stark altar.

The windows are frosted or tinted in muted tones of sky blue, lavender, amber or pink. If there are stained-glass images, they are ultramodern in style, to match any art objects that make sense in this kind of space. The floors are covered with carpet, which explains why there are speakers hanging in the rafters.

The final product resembles a sunny gymnasium that just happens to contain an abstract crucifix, the Stations of the Cross and one or two images of the Virgin Mary.

"The whole look was both modern and very bland," said Matthew Alderman, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame's classical-design program who works as a consultant on sacred art and architecture.

"It was a kind of beige Catholicism that was ugly, but not aggressively ugly ... and these churches looked like they were in a chain that had franchises everywhere. It was that whole Our Lady of Pizza Hut look that started in the1950s and then took over in the '60s and '70s."

The problem is that many Catholics believe that this look that represented an urgent response to contemporary culture -- especially after Vatican II -- has now gone painfully out of date.

Few things age less gracefully than modernity. However, few parishes can afford to "take a wrecking ball" to their sanctuaries. This is also highly emotional territory, since any attempt to change how people worship, whether they are modernists or traditionalists, will collide with their most cherished beliefs.

Thus, after years of studying intense debates on these issues, Alderman recently drafted a manifesto offering easy, affordable ways for make these sanctuaries "less ugly and more Catholic." He posted it at "The Shrine of the Holy Whapping," an online forum created by several Notre Dame graduates to host lighthearted discussions of serious Catholic subjects.

While some of his proposals are specific -- such as removing carpeting to improve church acoustics -- the designer said the key is for parish leaders to find a way to "bring a sense of tradition and beauty to their chancels and naves without having to break the bank."

His basic principles included these:

-- Do everything possible to return the visual focus to the main altar and the tabernacle that contains the reserved sacraments, the bread and wine that has been consecrated during the Mass. This can be accomplished with a few contrasting coats of paint, stencil designs in strategic places, the rearranging of altar furniture, a touch of new stonework or even the hanging of colored drapes. In many cases, a platform can be added under the altar to make it more visible or a designer can darken the lights and colors around the pews, while increasing the light focused on the altar and tabernacle.

-- Reject any strategy that tries to hide decades of modernity behind a blitz of statues and flowers in an attempt to create "a traditional Catholic theme park," he said. Too often, the result is "strip-mall classicism" that assumes that anything that looks old is automatically good.

"You don't want something that looks like it's fake and plastic," said Alderman. "The worst-case scenario is that you have bad taste stacked on top of bad taste, with some of the worst excesses of the old layered on top of all those mistakes that were driven by modernity. ... This kind of schizophrenia is not a good thing in a church."

-- It's important to "work with what you have, and don't work against it" while focusing on a few logical changes that actually promote worship and prayer, he said. A chapel dedicated to Mary can appeal to those who are devoted to saying the rosary. Candles and flower arrangements can focus attention on a statue of the parish's patron saint.

In the end, argued Alderman, "You may not be able to turn your 1950s A-frame church into Chartres, but if you try to find art that harmonizes with its perhaps now rather quaint attempts at futurism, while at the same time seeking to reconnect it with tradition, the result may have a pleasing consistency. ...

"While it may lack the grandeur of Rome or Florence, it can still become a beautiful, unified expression of the faith."

TOPICS: Catholic; Ministry/Outreach; Religion & Culture; Worship
KEYWORDS: architecture
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To: GOP_Party_Animal
Why play the guitar when you've got a pipe organ gathering dust.

Because the guitar sounds far better...

41 posted on 08/04/2010 4:03:54 PM PDT by Iscool (I don't understand all that I know...)
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To: ansel12

“That is at least 54% of them.”

What are you talking about? 54% of liberal Catholics think caring about what a building looks like is funny?


42 posted on 08/04/2010 4:24:29 PM PDT by Ransomed (Son of Ransomed Says Keep the Faith!)
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To: Iscool

The pipe organ has long been called the “King of Instruments.” And it’s true. A guitar can’t begin to compare to the majesty and beauty of a pipe organ in full voice. How pathetic that many churches are discontinuing the use of that marvelous instrument.

43 posted on 08/04/2010 4:31:03 PM PDT by WestSylvanian
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To: jwalburg
At least the Catholics are moving toward less franchise-driven gospel presentation. The protestants, meanwhile, are embracing the pastor-conference ponzi-scheme model, where leadership seminars are all the rage, and Hollywood provides sermon suggestions with the video clips it sells churches for use in their sanctua— I mean worship centers.

Sermon "suggestions"? How about full canned sermons complete with powerpoint graphics, available from a vast array of online vendors?

I've been preached a few. One, a whole series on marriage from the Fireproof movie. Others, I had suspicions about that a quick googleing confirmed. Pretty blandly generic in content, as I recall, which you might expect given that the sellers would want to sell to as wide a variety of end users as possible. About as tasty and nutritious as a TeeVee dinner

Some people, some places, have lost jobs over this. Other places, it's S.O.P., unfortunatly.

44 posted on 08/04/2010 4:34:08 PM PDT by Lee N. Field ("What is your only comfort, in life and death?" "That I an not my own, but belong, body and soul...")
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To: ladyvet
No more felt church banners!!!!!

"Lemme hear an Amen! to that. Anybody got an 'Amen!'?"

45 posted on 08/04/2010 4:36:12 PM PDT by Lee N. Field ("What is your only comfort, in life and death?" "That I an not my own, but belong, body and soul...")
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To: Alex Murphy
A cheaper solution would be to wait for the last Episcopalian in town to be carted off to the old folks home, and then buy their old church. Fine old, empty buildings, just waiting for recycling.
46 posted on 08/04/2010 4:41:24 PM PDT by sphinx
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To: ConservativeMind

You wrote:

“I find it funny that Catholics seem to place so much importance on how esthetically pleasing things should look in their churches, while some of these same Catholics, when asked why their songbooks lack the beautiful sorts of songs Protestants have (i.e.-Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art, etc.) claim, “Well, we don’t believe people should enjoy their music, but instead enjoy God.””

Sorry, but what you’re saying is complete bunk. Some parishes have beautiful music - much better than 98% of Protestant parishes. especially if they have this as their songbook:

And honestly, although Amazing Grace is loved by many people, I don’t want any Protestant songs no matter how well lovedin my parish. We never sing any Protestants songs - EVER. Everything is strictly Catholic. We have a Latin schola for men and a girls’ choir. Both are excellent. We sing/chant most of the Mass. Most Protestants who come to our parish love our music and many stay and become Catholic!

“I’ve actually had a couple Catholics say that to me. That the Catholic church specifically keeps songs that sound unpleasing to the ear on purpose.”

And that’s untrue. And Church that INVENTED Gregorian Chant would obviously love beautiful music. The problem is - as so often - Catholics acting like Protestants. Thank goodness we never have that at my parish. I can’t thank God enough for the parish I have.

47 posted on 08/04/2010 4:49:54 PM PDT by vladimir998 (Part of the Vast Catholic Conspiracy (hat tip to Kells))
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To: Ransomed

NO, that at least 54% of Catholics are liberal.

48 posted on 08/04/2010 4:55:22 PM PDT by ansel12 (Mitt: "I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush. I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush")
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To: Alex Murphy
"It was a kind of beige Catholicism that was ugly, but not aggressively ugly ... and these churches looked like they were in a chain that had franchises everywhere. It was that whole Our Lady of Pizza Hut look that started in the1950s and then took over in the '60s and '70s."

< snicker!>

The problem is that many Catholics believe that this look that represented an urgent response to contemporary culture -- especially after Vatican II -- has now gone painfully out of date.

Few things age less gracefully than modernity.

How very like my own neck of the ecclesiastical woods.

There's more than one way to avoid that.

Decades back, in another city we lived in, the small local Orthodox community spent what for the time was a lot of money on a building that was said to be quite beautiful. I think this is it.

Meanwhile, more to my dour Calvinist taste, our church (then and there) worshiped in a classically plain white wooden structure. Kind of like, come to think of it, what the local Orthodox church here and now uses.

Into the present day, our congregation just moved out of a rectangular brick barn that is soooo '60s (the youth group, lucky them, is getting that), into a brand shiney new "worship center" that is pure 2010 entertainment venue, all beige, padded seats and careful acoustics and lighting and biig biig stage.

Nothing ages prematurely quite like modernity.

49 posted on 08/04/2010 5:03:59 PM PDT by Lee N. Field ("What is your only comfort, in life and death?" "That I an not my own, but belong, body and soul...")
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To: sphinx
A cheaper solution would be to wait for the last Episcopalian in town to be carted off to the old folks home, and then buy their old church. Fine old, empty buildings, just waiting for recycling.

No, ECUSA would rather sell to Muslim groups.

Not kidding. Poke through back postings rants at Midwest Conservative Journal for details on that.

50 posted on 08/04/2010 5:09:08 PM PDT by Lee N. Field ("What is your only comfort, in life and death?" "That I an not my own, but belong, body and soul...")
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To: don-o

How about the priest turns around to face God instead of the congregation, as well?

You seem to assume that God is in only one direction.

51 posted on 08/04/2010 5:19:23 PM PDT by Atlas Sneezed (Anything worth doing, is worth doing badly at first.)
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To: Beelzebubba
You seem to assume that God is in only one direction.

It's not that at all. The traditional orientation of the celebrant of the Mass was as if he were leading the procession of the faithful "into the heavenlies." The Orthodox still do it that way.

52 posted on 08/04/2010 5:29:35 PM PDT by don-o (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.)
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To: Alex Murphy

Church Ugly

Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces—and How We Can Change Them Back Again
by Michael S. Rose
Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 2001
(241 pages; $24.95, hardcover)

Reconquering Sacred Space 2000: The Church in the City of the Third Millennium
Cristiano Rosponi, Giampaolo Rossi, and Duncan G. Stroik, editors
Rome: Il Bosco e La Nave, 2000
(271 pages; $29.95, paper)

reviewed by Catesby Leigh

The idea of the city as a repository of meaning is much on the minds of a growing community of traditional urban planners, architects, and artists in the United States and Britain. And yet it is not always clear to the layman exactly what “meaning” means in this context.

Perhaps there is no tidy definition. But surely the idea’s basic underpinnings lie in man’s observation of hierarchy in nature. Historically, man has imitated nature, in an Aristotelian sense, by translating the natural principle of hierarchy into the design of cities and their buildings. At the same time, he has used architecture and its conventions to idealize the various dimensions of human endeavor.

Religious, civic, and domestic buildings have assumed distinct (even typological) identities, so that the city might be architecturally legible, so to speak. The principle of hierarchy, in turn, has found expression in the distinct degrees of physical prominence and artistic articulation imparted to temples, churches, palaces, legislative chambers, and less exalted structures.

The historic city of meaning that has resulted is profoundly human in its characteristics. Its districts and neighborhoods are built on the pedestrian scale, and we instinctively read its buildings—their horizontal repose or vertical thrust—in terms of our own embodied state. Their details are calibrated to human modes of perception. But above all, the city of meaning employs ancient conventions to symbolize the existence of a higher reality underlying the merely phenomenal reality we encounter in our daily lives. In that sense, the historic city provides the otherworldly background to our earthly sojourns. And no architectural type has served that purpose more assiduously or effectively than the church building.

Unfortunately, the machine’s transformation of the means of production also transformed ideas about architecture and the city. In his celebrated 1903 lecture, “The Art and Craft of the Machine” (note the deliberately oxymoronic title), Frank Lloyd Wright prophesied the triumph of an “organic” modernist architecture—and of the romantic naturalism he espoused—by way of an industrialized culture of building. Wright’s rhetorical smoke-and-mirrors clouded the disenchanted city of stark office towers that, alas, figures all too prominently in the contemporary world.

Unlike Wright, the Italian futurist Antonio Sant’Elia forthrightly concluded that nature was no longer prescriptive where architecture and urbanism were concerned. “Just as the ancients drew inspiration for their art from the elements of nature, so we, being materially and spiritually artificial, must find this inspiration in our very new mechanical world,” Sant’Elia wrote in 1914. Hence came the idea of a building designed as a machine, a machine designed to be merely functional, with its members satisfying strictly structural or practical necessities.

So much for the city of meaning.

The spiritual poverty of architectural doctrine conceived in mechanistic rather than humanist terms, evident enough in principle, quickly became evident in fact. Having taken control of “enlightened” architectural discourse during the thirties, a modernist elite of academics, designers, and critics monopolized corporate and institutional commissions after World War II. This elite managed to decimate the arts and crafts without which the city of meaning—and its magnificent cathedrals and churches above all—could never have been built. In so doing, they all but destroyed a traditional culture of building and decoration, leaving room for little more than postwar suburbia’s naïve, cartoonish, mass-produced renditions of historic residential styles. The functionalist city that modernism created is, in short, a visual catastrophe.

With postmodernism came more “sophisticated” allusions to historic architecture—as well as to literary theories of dubious architectural utility. The familiar modernist rejection of cultural continuity in design persisted. Even so, journalists detect evocations of Spanish mission churches or even the splendor of ancient Rome in the new $195 million Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. To which a traditional architect has quite reasonably responded in an Internet posting that anybody could be subject to such epiphanies—with the assistance of psychotropic substances. In truth, the “meanings” contained in the bizarre forms concocted by José Rafael Moneo, the cathedral’s architect, have nothing whatsoever to do with the city of meaning, but are rather grounded in obscure postmodern notions of “reference” that have addled his creative imagination.

It is simply astonishing that the Roman Catholic Church—of all institutions—should have embraced the modernist project of putting an end to the creation of architecture that symbolizes God’s presence in our lives and replacing it with generic buildings conceived in merely functional terms. In so doing, it allowed its churches to be stripped not merely of beauty, but of meaning, as Michael S. Rose emphasizes in Ugly As Sin. Even with Moneo’s cathedral, where artistic pretense is admittedly at a premium, there is no underlying intuition of the infinite, transcendent God of Christianity or the magnificence of his creation. Moneo’s building might pass for an expressionistically overblown convention center were it not for the Latin cross displayed in a protruding glazed volume.

Rose’s book is a welcome antidote to this cathedral’s depressing inauguration. Particularly impressive is the straightforward manner in which the author, editor of St. Joseph Messenger and St. Catherine Review, establishes the three cardinal principles, or “natural laws,” of traditional church design—verticality, permanence (in terms of both mass and formal vocabulary), and iconographic richness—without getting mired in art-historical minutiae.

Rose’s prose is not elegant and seems rushed in places. But his explanation of the relationship between the traditional church and the worshiper’s experience of the sacramental essence of the Catholic faith is clear, jargon-free, extremely informative, and generously illustrated with photographs. He throws in just the right amount of historical detail regarding the advent of church fixtures such as pulpits, pews, and kneelers. And he emphasizes the ramifications of church design for Catholic orthodoxy. “Church architecture affects the way man worships; the way he worships affects what he believes; and what he believes affects not only his personal relationship with God but how he conducts himself in his daily life,” he writes.

Modernist church design, Rose argues, undermines Catholic orthodoxy. It caters to an insidious downplaying of Christ’s sacrifice in the celebration of the Eucharist, as suggested by the frequent replacement of the traditional altar stone with a wooden “Eucharistic table.” Moreover, the idea of the Mass as a multimedia “celebration,” to which modernist “liturgical church designers” subscribe, is incompatible with the acknowledgement of man’s radical incompleteness, which the act of kneeling implies, and with the traditional Liturgy’s related emphasis on adoration and atonement.

So out go the kneelers and the pews, along with the high altar, reredos, baldacchino, and altar rail—and not just in the name of liturgical reform, but also in order that the “worship space” can more easily be rearranged to serve secular functions. Chairs replace the pews. Less portable, perhaps, are the hot-tub-style fonts that have facilitated full-immersion baptism in numerous Catholic churches since the eighties. The tabernacle, for its part, is exiled to a side chapel in order to encourage the “faith community” to focus on the “liturgical action” during Mass. And the richly figurative character of traditional sacred art—the source of yet another dimension of meaning that renders a traditional cathedral or church a “gospel in stone,” in Rose’s words—gives way to sterile abstractions whose religious character is sometimes obscure. (For example, the crucifix has been replaced in some instances by a “plus sign” derived from the Greek cross.)

The upshot of these environmental innovations is that the admittedly paradoxical but nevertheless very real idea of the finite church building as the dwelling place of the infinite God is lost. Rose reports that the behavior of congregations during Mass is less reverent and more noisy as a result. Fortunately, more of the faithful are becoming aware of this unnecessary impoverishment of their religious and cultural heritage, protesting modernist “renovations” and restoring older churches that were badly redesigned in recent years to their original state or something like it.

Rose describes the typical modernist Catholic suburban church as not only unimposing but remote. This brings us to the problem of modernist urbanism, which is a separate issue. Many new churches are squirreled away in cul-de-sacs as a result of the postwar transformation of public urban space into privatized precincts defined by the rigorous separation of uses (zoning problems, anyone?) and the automotive scale. In the new, spatially disintegrated city that modernist urbanism has wrought, it would be very difficult for even a vertically imposing, traditionally designed church to be situated so as to have a commanding presence.

For an analysis of the dumbed-down modernist church in its degraded new-city context, there is no better place to start than Duncan G. Stroik’s fine essay, “Can We Afford Not to Build Beautiful Churches?” in Recovering Sacred Space 2000. This volume covers quite a lot of ground, presenting philosophical essays about the historic relationship between church and city; a host of contemporary designs of a more or less traditional nature (and of widely varying quality) for churches in the United States, Latin America, and Europe; an interesting section devoted to twentieth-century Italian churches in old cities as well as in the new towns founded under the Mussolini regime; and even a section on the Armenian tradition in sacred architecture. The text is in Italian and English, but unfortunately some of the translations, notably of Giampaolo Rossi’s insightful essay, “The City Without God,” are uneven at best.

Nevertheless, Recovering Sacred Space 2000 bears impressive testimony to the process of cultural recovery that is getting underway in Western architecture and urbanism. Sacred architecture will play a fundamental role in this process, and Stroik, a practicing architect as well as a professor at Notre Dame’s classical architecture school, has the good sense to emphasize the crucial role of enlightened patronage at a time when design grounded in the historic ideal of the meaningful city remains a counter-cultural trend.

All Christians concerned with the artistic patrimony of the faith and with the restoration of design firmly grounded in human nature will find these two books of interest.  

53 posted on 08/04/2010 5:49:08 PM PDT by markomalley (Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus)
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To: ansel12

“NO, that at least 54% of Catholics are liberal.”

The Catholics who don’t like the traditional style churches are ALL liberal.


54 posted on 08/04/2010 6:50:33 PM PDT by Ransomed (Son of Ransomed Says Keep the Faith!)
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To: B-Chan

Have you ever been to Mother Angelica’s shrine in Hanceville, Alabama? It’s worth the trip.

55 posted on 08/04/2010 7:33:42 PM PDT by PatriotGirl827 (Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner)
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To: Jedidah

So we worship, so we believe. Catholic and Orthodox Churches are places built for the celebration of the Eucharist. Therefore they is a place where God is present in a special way and so should remind the worshipers of this.

56 posted on 08/04/2010 8:15:15 PM PDT by RobbyS (Pray with the suffering souls.)
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To: mware

Many of these photos look like a funeral service....I serve a Risen Christ...He is no longer on the Cross...nor in the tomb... Rather sitting at the right hand Of my God in Glory. And I see His face represented by every believer who comes together to worship and lift the name of Jesus High.

57 posted on 08/04/2010 8:22:46 PM PDT by caww
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To: WestSylvanian
How pathetic that many churches are discontinuing the use of that marvelous instrument.

The problem is finding people who can actually play the pipe organ. A pipe organ in the hands of a unskilled organist is just so much racket.

Also finding the money to maintain the organ can be a issue.

58 posted on 08/04/2010 8:30:41 PM PDT by Harmless Teddy Bear (there are huge chunks of night...where I'm just asleep...for's ridiculous....)
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To: caww
AMEN, caww!

+ (-)|***

59 posted on 08/04/2010 8:32:32 PM PDT by smvoice (smvoice- formally known as small voice in the wilderness. Easier on the typing!)
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To: smvoice

So lets load down the alter area with funeral flowers....and adorn it with various statues and goblets....hang drapery floor to ceiling...and in the heart of it Christ on the Cross....that is just too close to a funneral service imo.

I prefer it simple and clean....He’s there in each believer and the fellowship shared via His Spirit. So much of that other stuff distracts from the presence of Himself...but most of all as the Pastor/Preacher/ Teacher gives the message we are to hear...and that same Spirit brings it home to our hearts. Doesn’t get much better than that!

60 posted on 08/04/2010 10:43:00 PM PDT by caww
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