Sunday, July 22, 2007

Chapel design in light of the Tradition of the Church

So here I go on a rather academic topic, but still no doubt of interest to some of you who read this blog. It's obviously of interest to me or I wouldn't be writing about it. I think it's important enough to establish the fact that I'm serious about our chapel and I want it to in some way reflect the architectural traditions of the Church (and the "big-T" Tradition of the Church). This may seem a little goofy, or that I'm taking this a little too seriously, but whenever I do something, I do it all the way (or else, what's the point?). This blog is probably one example. My seminarian brother Evan (in his second year of seminary at the St. Paul Seminary, the major seminary of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis) has already commented to me that this blog is a great example of the axiom, "anything worth doing is worth overdoing." I kind of like that actually. Molly is kind of the practical half our spousal unity, as you can see in the one post she has done on the blog so far. As another example of this, I remember talking to her about ideas I had for the chapel design, when she commented "Do you think it will be cold in there?" Perplexed, I gave her the standard blank stare, to which she continued, "I guess when I picture it in my mind, I'm imagining going in there early in the morning for prayer, and having my bare feet touch the floor and it will be freezing." Okay, I guess I never thought of that, especially since I am quite sure there will not be carpet in there. I offered up a suggestion that we look into installing in-floor radiant heat in the chapel, and that seemed to be satisfactory to her. Brendan = theoretical, Molly = practical.

At any rate, I mentioned in the last post that I had set out to educate myself in the architectural traditions of the Church, and Duncan Stroik's web site was the place I started. He has links to many publications he has authored that shed light on what is necessary for a truly timeless Catholic church design, and why (as is painfully obvious to most of us) the vast majority of Catholic churches in the latter half of the 20th century fall woefully short of these standards (in some cases scandalously so). But what are these standards? It was actually Michael S. Rose, author of Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces and How We Can Change Them Back Again, that summed it up most understandably for me when he writes that Catholic churches must incorporate five absolutely necessary elements:
  • Verticality
  • Iconography
  • Formality
  • Hierarchy
  • Permanence
In my own words, I'll quickly explain these. The first is verticality. Catholic churches post Vatican II (and some before) have often emphasized our relationships with each other (which are important as part of the Church) to the detriment of emphasis on our relationship with the Lord (which is even more important). This over-emphasis is expressed architecturally in "horizontal" churches; that is, churches that keep our spirits rooted to the ground and concentrated on each other instead of lifting them upward to the Lord. Some random but notable examples of this are Notre Dame du Haut, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University,

and pretty much every church project this hopefully well-meaning but extremely misguided priest consults for.

Opposite of this are some wonderful examples of how incorporation of verticality assists one's spirit to awe and reverence, such as the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, MN (the most beautiful church in America, but I'm biased), St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and the currently under-construction Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Lacrosse, WI.

Verticality is a concept that is fairly easy to understand. If you enter a church and look upward and whisper to yourself "wow!", that's probably a church that has been successful in making use of verticality.

Iconography is maybe even easier to explain and understand. You kind of either have it, or you don't. Iconography is paintings, sculpture, icons, reliefs, stained-glass windows, etc. that communicate essential aspects of the faith to the faithful. Absence of these essential items means absence of beauty and of an essential mode of evangelization: art. In Catholic churches, post Vatican II modernism often felt embarassed by core-tenets of the faith, such as asking those in heaven, who are more alive and closer to God than us, to pray for us. This resulted in the conspicuous absence of sculptures, paintings, and side chapels dedicated to the saints. We are physical beings, created as such by God, and physical manifestations of the faith communicate to us in very powerful ways.

Formality, another necessity, means that a Catholic church is a place for worship and the reception of the sacraments, not a meeting hall or warehouse. Thus, the actual structure must be designed to communicate a certain level of formality to the faithful. Lots of carpeting, plushly cushioned pews, and cheap materials hurt the sense that the church is a place for prayer and a direct encounter with the Lord.

Hierarchy is also important, in that the priest is the representative of the faithful during the mass. Pews that are oriented in one direction toward the altar, with a defined nave and sanctuary, rightly order the church for the hierarchical liturgy of the mass. Of course, many in the modern or post-modern world don't feel "validated" or "included" with such a design, and so churches were designed with the altar in the center of all of the pews, with the pews in an almost theater-like arrangement around the altar, which may have given the desired emotional response but destroyed the hierarchy of the mass and de-emphasized the importance of the priest.

Lastly, permanence requires the construction of a church with solid, well-constructed, and yes even expensive materials, rather than cheap materials that make the structure feel as if it will need to be replaced in 20 years (and indeed that often happens). Duncan Stroik commented in an article that I read that it may sometimes be expensive to build a church the right way, but if necessary, build the church in stages. Let the construction proceed in stages, even involving more than one generation of parishioners. Cathedrals often took decades to construct, why must we be so impatient? Create a nave and sanctuary, then leave side chapels, or a formal baptistry, or other spaces for later when they can be done properly. Create a truly reverent space for the Lord, a Domus Dei (House of God). Permanence aids worship almost subconsciously, because it symbolizes the permanence of the greater Church.

Sum all of these elements together and you get another overarching ideal: transcendence. This is a goal for our chapel and for our entire home, an acknowledgement that a greater reality extends beyond the basic structure, a supernatural reality.

How will these five elements manifest themselves in our chapel? We don't know at this point, but the heavy lifting has already been done in realizing the importance of these elements and in desiring their inclusion the design of the chapel. I pray that God's will be done in every aspect of the home and in our family.


Allison said...

I must disagree with your comments about the French church, Notre Dame de Haut. I visited this church in 1996 and it is quite stunning to see in person. Entering the space, I found myself thinking of the early Christians praying in ancient caves with only the occaisional small point of light. The exterior mimics the idea of the interior, but since the altar faces an endless vista of the French countryside it is a rejoicing of our ability to practice our faith out in the open. It was eleven years ago and I still remember it vividly. Regardless of what one reads, nothing can replace experiencing it for oneself. Those are just my thoughts, but since you mentioned last night that none of your family have commented, I thought your favorite sister should be first!

Brendan Koop said...

Okay, sis, I'll have to re-emphasize that this is a terrible Catholic church. First problem, designed by Le Corbustier. Have you read any of his architectural philosophies? Modernist to the core, and this church shows it. Never mind that he's not Catholic (probably obvious, but you'd think it would strike those who commissioned him that in order to effectively design a Catholic church, one should be Catholic, or at the very least demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the Catholic faith, art, and architecture). Can you honestly say that you could identify this church as being Catholic from the outside if you never saw it before? It fails on iconography (of which there is virtually none), formality (obvious by looking at it), and verticality (a "high" space does not equal "vertical" space, the horizontal "roof" kills any potential of verticality). You may be confusing a good building with a good Catholic church. A building such as that may be a "cool" building or space but have no business being a Catholic church, and this building has no business being a Catholic church. Actually, I would argue it's not a good building either, but you would be right in saying I would have to see it to make that judgement. I would point out that in the modernist rush to do something "new" they disconnected themselves from timeless prinicples of design in favor of architectural novelty that quickly becomes vitim to the next "fad".

For those who don't know, my family grills each other like this all the time, we love it! Welcome to the Koops.

Allison said...

In the interest of bringing a more specifically schooled opinion in on this debate, I shall email The Architect to find out his thoughts. Yet, I still disagree with the notion that unless a church space mimics St. Paul's, it is not a valid space to be a church. Since we grew up in an unfortunately modern and poorly designed church ourselves, I can understand your skepticism towards certain forms of modernity. However, you cannot discount all of it! As I mentioned in my first comment, Notre Dame du Haut evoked a feeling of ancient Christianity in me. Certainly early Christians made their churches in spaces without the elements you describe, such as iconography and verticality. These are not essential or even necessary to devout worship! This has little to do with it being a "cool" building and a lot to do with the fact that when I stepped into the space I felt not only the presence of Christ, but the presence of generations of believers. Very few "modern" buildings can evoke such feelings. One of the many reasons for my own Catholic pride is the Church's promotion of art and architecture. Since promotion means "futherance" and not "glorifying only that which was built at least a century ago," I see churches like Notre Dame du Haut as being a part of that exploration of what art holds for us in the future. Le Corbustier's politics and philosophies aside, I stand by my earlier post. I cannot answer your question about knowing that it was Catholic church because I was told it was before I saw it. I do conceed, however, that we are talking about French architecture, which should in it of itself stand as a caveat to our discussion.

Brendan Koop said...

Surely you don't mean "St. Paul's" as in the Church of St. Paul, which, despite it's status as an incredible parish, is not a good church in terms of architecture either.

I doubt you could contact Le Corbusier, since he's been dead for over 40 years now.

I think you need to do some further reading on this subject. You are certainly incorrect regarding ancient church architecture, go here and see:

This is the point. The whole point of church design is to unite it with the history of church tradition, all the way back to the beginning, which has been virtually unchanged in it's 5 essential elements for 1900 years, until the 20th century and modernism. This is independent of style, go look at a good use of these principles, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (on Wikipedia or elsewhere) for a stark contrast in style but a wonderful accomplishment of the essential elements. Modernism is of course a very specific period of the early 20th century which has long since ended, so the term "modernism" should not be used generically. Unfortunately, subjectively evoked "feelings" do not constitute good architecture. How does this "church" evangelize? Are there iconographic symbols of the faith? Are there chapels devoted to the saints? The answer to these questions is "no", whether one is has been there or not.

Again, don't confuse good modern buildings (of which I think there are many) with good modern Catholic churches (of which, la Sagrada Familia aside, there are virtually none).

Brendan Koop said...

Here's the link from above in a readable format (you'll have to do some cutting and pasting):