Beliefnet
This article is excerpted from the April 21, 2000 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

Not long ago the "Living Arts" section of The New York Times featured a report on America's "New Classicists," a group of architects in their 30s and 40s who have taken to building in the style of ancient Greece and Rome. What apparently sets this "new bunch of old fogies" apart from other recyclers of architectural fashion is the high seriousness with which they take themselves and a reputation among critics for being either blatant opportunists or the stodgiest of antiquarians, all semblance of youthful vigor aside.

Of little surprise to anyone monitoring the ongoing debate over American Catholic church architecture was the appearance in the Times report of professors Duncan Stroik and Thomas Gordon Smith of the University of Notre Dame's School of Architecture. Recently, the pair has emerged as champions of classical design as well as outspoken critics of the direction Catholic church building has taken in the decades since Vatican II.

Both advocate an approach to design that rejects modern architecture's emphasis on novelty in favor of an inviolable canon of classical propriety. ("Rote is radical," Smith has observed, adding that Notre Dame architecture students are expected not simply to master established design formulas but to apply the logic of classical problem solving to present-day situations.) Both are also devout Catholics who hope to overturn a half-century of experimentation with liturgy's physical setting by re-popularizing the look and feel of buildings erected, say, by the Emperor Constantine, the Medici popes, the bishops of the Council of Trent, or the first Jesuit communities.

Holy Cross Church in Batavia, Ill.

Enough of "prayer barns" and "concrete boxes" masquerading as places of divine worship, the Notre Dame classicists have insisted in published statements; the Catholic faithful are weary of church buildings in the modern vernacular and eager to cast their architecture again in the elevated Greco-Latinate forms that were once the glory of the church of Rome.

What Stroik and Smith are proposing is not simply a preservationist initiative concerned with maintaining existing churches in the classical style. Instead, they envision a generation of entirely new places of Catholic worship built along classical lines that will set the church again on a proper liturgical/architectural path.

To Stroik, post-Vatican II architectural practice has been an "unmitigated disaster," in part because of the council's own willingness to admit modern modes of expression into the once-hermetic realm of sacred art. In his much-reproduced essay, "Modernist Church Architecture," he argues that by adopting the preferred style of mid-20th-century European and American architects, the church "undercut its own theological agenda."

That agenda, as Stroik sees it, is to preserve the Gospel message by means of logic, order, and historical continuity--the very values upon which classical architecture is founded. "Just as to do Catholic theology means to learn from the past," he writes in his equally popular "Ten Myths of Contemporary Church Architecture," "so to design Catholic architecture is to be inspired and even [to] quote from the tradition and the time-tested expressions of church architecture."Like Stroik, Smith considers the forms employed by modern architects too inconsequential to bear the weight of religious meaning. "In the 1960s," he laments in a recent essay, "the church tentatively got on the bandwagon of abstract modernism."Safeguarding the church from modern "iconoclasts" is an activity that has gained Stroik and Smith a loyal following among Catholics bitter over changes to the traditional style and setting of liturgical prayer. When in an article for Catholic Dossier, for example, Smith expresses dismay that deconstructivist architect Peter Eisenman--"[someone] who has designed for MTV"--is now dabbling in church design, his remarks seem intended to provoke an audience certain to disapprove of anything resembling Eisenman's topsy-turvy funhouses or the aggressive, music-video medium of America's youth culture.

Systematic analysis is precisely the element that has been lacking in Stroik and Smith's critique of modern church architecture. Seldom do they bother publicly to dissect the features of one or another of the buildings they find so offensive or provide more than anecdotal support for their claim that Catholics generally hate newer accommodations for worship. Instead, they resort to making the type of sweeping generalizations that should leave even the casual student of recent church history a little suspicious: Soft-headed liturgists are to blame for the sad condition of sacred art, for example. Parishes have been brainwashed, their buildings whitewashed, by armies of experts and consultants who are nothing but closet Protestants. Diocesan-level building commissions, architectural review boards, and other policy-making bodies are part of a vast "establishment" of modernists out to despoil the church's patrimony of historic art and architecture.

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