Friday, November 9, 2007

The Importance of Beauty in Church Architecture


Here's a wonderful interview with architect Duncan Stroik (whom I've spoken about here, here, and here), previously published by the National Catholic Register. Definitely worth a read (whether for church or chapel design).

The Evidential Power of Architectural Beauty

A Conversation With Duncan Stroik

BY Joseph Pronechen

January 28- February 3, 2007 Issue | Posted 1/23/07 at 9:00 AM

Over the last decade, Duncan Stroik has become a premier architect of sacred edifices and a leader in the new renaissance of church architecture.

His ecclesiastical projects, completed or under way, span the country. Among his designs now taking shape is the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wis. In Santa Paula, Calif., his plans for Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel at Thomas Aquinas College are being hailed as a model for others to follow.

He also helped design the curriculum in classical architecture at the University of Notre Dame, where he is a professor. The New York Times called the program “the Athens of the new movement.”

Stroik’s architectural firm is not far from the Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Ind. It’s online at, and it was from there that he spoke with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen.

What do you see as the general state of church architecture today?

Today we’re at an interesting time because, in general, many laity, pastors and even some architects are tired of ‘business as usual’ for the last 40 years. The ideas of modernism that seemed to be exciting and novel are no longer so fascinating. For many, the emperor has no clothes, and we realize that. I see more and more parishes trying to build traditional churches, and I see architects trying to design them. That’s a good thing. The reality is, we’re still far away from being at a high level of design that our forebears knew, but we’re coming out of the dark ages architecturally and artistically. But it’s a difficult thing to come out of and may take some time.

I believe that spiritual renewal is accompanied by an architectural and artistic renewal. The renewal of Catholic architecture is very important because our churches do teach. They speak to people and create a place where we worship God. You could think of the church building as a prayer — a prayer we build. What do our churches speak to us of? Do they speak that the universal Church is beautiful and permanent and inspiring — or that the universal Church is temporary and shoddy and casual?

What does traditional design have that modern design tends to lack?

Since our churches do speak to people, over time they’re one of the major ways we form Christian children, young adults, and adults. Churches can speak to them through iconography — a beautiful crucifix, images of the saints that tell us the saints are around us. The building helps us to pray.

Another way to look at it is the church building is the place that from earliest times we have dedicated to the reception of the sacraments. A sacramental church should be noble and beautiful and worthy of the seven sacraments, of these mysteries, these gifts from God.

Where some prefer an “uncluttered” worship environment, you talk a lot about designing for “beauty.” Why is that goal important?

Certainly when we’re talking about the house of God and building a temple to him, we try to give our best and give him the most beautiful possible because he’s worthy of that. It’s a response to his gifts to us.

Beauty speaks to people, to children, to the poor and to those who haven’t been catechized. Beauty can touch people in a deep and profound way at all times of the day and in all seasons.

How do you design Catholic churches to be architectural catechisms like they traditionally were?

There’s the universal elements — the altar, crucifix, Stations of the Cross — and the particular. In the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Wisconsin, we have more than 25 stained-glass windows, and we set them up to be the life of the Virgin. With the help of Archbishop (Raymond) Burke, we came up with a number of things to layer on top of that. The windows are placed above the titles in Latin of Our Lady from the Litany of Loreto. Each relates to the window above. Below them are statues of saints.

Each level can be read on its own, but it can be read as a relation to the others. For example, the stained-glass window of the Incarnation shows the Madonna and Child. Below, from the Litany of Loreto, is Mater Purissima. And below that is the statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

There has been debate about tabernacle placement. What is your opinion on that issue?

Two answers. First, in America, we have our tradition. In 400 years since Catholics came to the New World, tabernacles were prominent in the apse and part of the focus of the church. Second, in the Catholic tradition, there’s an evolution of the theology and worship of the Eucharist outside of Mass. By the time of the early Middle Ages and Renaissance, the tabernacle became more prominent and placed in the center. You look at all traditions of architecture, all different cultures and faiths: They put the important elements in the center of the building. In the king’s reception hall you put the throne. In the Congress building you put the podium for the speaker. In the Baptist church you put the pulpit.

So what’s important in the Catholic Church? It’s natural we put those things that are important — the altar, the tabernacle — in the center, as the focus of the church. As well as other things — the crucifix. If we truly believe that Christ is truly present in the Eucharistic species reserved in the tabernacle, we will put that in the greatest place of prominence in the church. That is in the apse, on the central axis. That, to me, is the general obvious solution. It doesn’t mean there aren’t occasions to do other things, but it’s the natural solution from our tradition if you think Christ is important.

How can churches on a more limited budget incorporate architectural beauty?

Today you can apply the same principles you’d apply in something grand in a smaller church or chapel. We’re working on St. Paul the Apostle Church in (Spartanburg), S.C. It’s a beautiful Romanesque church on a downtown site and it’s meant to be inspiring and beautiful on a fairly reasonable budget.

Another nice project is St. Therese Chapel.

It was a very functional daily Mass chapel for a large parish in Houston. The pastor wanted to improve it and make it inspiring, but without spending a lot of money. Working within the existing walls, we were able to transform the chapel. The parishioners say they now feel like they’re walking into heaven.

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