2016-06-30
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.

It appears not to trouble either Stroik or Smith that they may be overestimating classicism's iconic potential in the current visual landscape or misjudging the extent to which the style has been debased by commercialization. One has only to visit the typical American mega-mall, with its bounty of phony pediments, cornices, balustrades, and cupolas, to observe the latter. Are American Catholics really to swoon over classical details in church buildings when their fiber-resin equivalents can be found at every ATM cubicle, photo-processing kiosk, convenience store, or outlet mall in the country?

Neither does it faze them, apparently, that they may be significantly underestimating the depth of sentiment the public is capable of applying to even the sparest of architectural gestures. Witness the citizens of Columbus, Ind., who have worked hard to secure a place on the National Register of Historic Places for their dense collection of buildings by world-famous modernists.

If Stroik and Smith were really the classicists they claim to be, they would hardly indulge in the passing polemics of contemporary church art but content themselves with the transcendent view their ancient orders are supposed to afford them.

The Notre Dame classicists' fundamental folly lies in thinking that American Catholics can easily forget all they have learned in recent decades by inhabiting buildings shaped by the internal logic of liturgical prayer--buildings that encourage worshipers to assemble less like members of a marching band than like the integral players in an orchestral ensemble; buildings that, by coincidence of history or cultural predilection, are designed with a modernist eye for practicality; strong, handsomely appointed buildings with decent restrooms, coatrooms, diaper-changing rooms; proper planning-and-primping-and-feasting-and-mourning rooms, all conceived with the same care as the room reserved for divine worship; buildings, in short, where the church can sacramentalize the here-and-now of its creed in surroundings linked to the here and now.

By proposing to replace all this with an expanse of lovely, antiqued shrine boxes, Stroik and Smith are bound to ingratiate themselves with today's tabernacle-obsessed bishops. What an architectural legacy they risk destroying, however, for the sake of erecting new church buildings in such an old-fashioned way.

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