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Debate: Is modern church architecture always hideous?

Or are there some modern churches that really do inspire devotion and raise people’s spirits to God?

By on Thursday, 24 November 2011

The 'Jubilee Church' in Rome, designed by US architect Richard Meier (Photo: CNS)

The 'Jubilee Church' in Rome, designed by US architect Richard Meier (Photo: CNS)

The respected Vatican commentator Andrea Tornielli says a Vatican commission is being established to put a stop to “garage-style” churches. He writes:

Too often architects, even the more famous ones, do not use the Catholic liturgy as a starting point and thus end up producing avant-garde constructions that look like anything but a church. These buildings composed of cement cubes, glass boxes, crazy shapes and confused spaces, remind people of anything but the mystery and sacredness of a church.

Surely, he is right: modern churches often look more like supermarkets or spaceships than places of worship. Traditional church architecture works. It inspires devotion. Modern architecture, by throwing out tradition, fails to offer anything that can raise people’s spirits to God.

On the other hand, bold design can still take the liturgy as its starting point. There must be some examples in Britain or around the world where modern architecture does convey mystery and sacredness.

So, is modern church architecture always hideous? Or are there outstanding new churches that do inspire devotion?

  • Anonymous

    Almost…

  • Peter

    Our Cathedral in Johannesburg, consecrated in 1960, looks like a jam factory from the outside but inside it’s all right as the stained glass lends atmosphere and there is plenty of space.  I think the Jubilee Church looks very impressive in your photo. 

    My own church is mock Gothic, built of stone in the late 30′s.  I think it is quite ugly but most people think it is beautiful!  There’s lots of German stained glass in a similar style.  All that shows you is that it’s a matter of personal opinion!  It does have excellent acoustics for choral music, thank goodness, and it does look like a church as well as being functional.

  • Derbys

    Clay Cross Portiuncula is modern,efficient and a reverential sacred space; although I love Gothic churches..also the book and dvd: A Glimpse of Heaven, is a revelation.

  • John Gramstadt

    99 percent of modern churches are frankly hideously ugly and tell you more about the architect’s immense ego than they do about the transcendence of God.

  • Anonymous

    Difficult question for sure. Personally I don’t find many modern Churches that inspiring, but not because they’re modern. I guess that with any Church the question is whether you go into the place and feel that it’s a place where the spirit of God is really present, and I think that’s about more than just architecture. I also think that in any case it’s always important to do what we can to make Churches accessible in terms of how well they understand the significance of the place. i.e. Catechesis is needed.

  • Anonymous

    The only (almost) brand new RC church I know is at Walsingham in the village and it looks pretty good in my opinion. Most of the “monstrosities” I have seen were built in the 1960s, so I suspect the Vatican commission is a few years too late

  • Poppy Tupper

    No it’s rubbish. The old one was much nicer.

  • HarleyJunior

    I attend a 1930′s parish church that has been updated a few
    times and frankly struggles to fullfil all our needs.
    There is more work planned to solve the latest problem.

    I have recently visited St Bede’s in Basingstoke and St Dunstan’s in Woking. Both
    are very modern churches where the architects significantly diverged from the standard
    design.

    Both are amazing and yet Holy. Huge multi room complexes including kitchens, meeting rooms
    and most importantly enough space for all the people to worship at the same
    time. A library even. The Tabernacle at St Dunstan’s is incredible. Looks like
    an IKEA piece of ordinary deco furniture until it is opened. Then just wow. The
    inside is beautiful and makes such a statement. Here is where this parish keeps
    its most important possession, the living host, in splendour. Similarly, the
    font in St Bede’s is remarkable and decorations for the side chapels are
    beautiful and awe inspiring.

    The only thing these bigger churches could do with is intimate chapels. When
    the church is empty, the size is intimidating and the chapels need to cocoon
    the worshipper from this emptiness or more precisely the echo. Some sort of semi-transparent
    or slashed fencing or artwork  would have
    made this possible.

    Overall my visits were very pleasurable and prayerful. I wish mine had all these
    facilities in one place. I’d love a library where I could sit and browse at
    leisure.

  • theroadmaster

    Modern Catholic architecture since the onset of Vatican 11 has reflected a mundane, functional approach to Church building which has resulted in drab,formless structures that lack any indication of a sanctified space reserved for the celebration of Holy Mass. This post-modern, secular trend has infected liturgy and the even the educational approach to teaching the basics of the Faith.  The Classic periods of Church architecture as reflected in the Romanesque,Gothic and Baroque eras, left behind glorious cathedrals and churches across the world, which in form, dimensions and and decoration left little doubt that we are in the presence of portals to Heaven.  The global Church needs to reinvest again in the establishment of Church buildings which continue the masterpieces in stone left behind by past generations of architects, artist, sculptors,master masons and artisans. One example of post WW11 Catholic religious architecture that present day Church designers might emulate, is the splendid church in Vence, southern France with those famous radiantly, beautiful stain-glass windows, which was designed by the great French artist Henri Matisse.

  • Parasum

    The Church of God the Merciful Father designed by Meier (see photo in article) looks like a collision between Sydney Opera House & and a public convenience. It’s as hideous as that mostrosity committed by Gaudi. According to an article on Meier’s abortion, the building has one cross, and no other Catholic iconography. And this is the best the Commission that choose Meier could come up with: they might at least have been able to find a Catholic architect, instead of a Jew. To build a Catholic Church (*a fortiori* one in Rome), Catholics should be commissioned; but the men who were in charge of commissioning 50 new Churches in Rome to mark the Jubilee could not do so much as that.

  • chiaramonti

    St. Mary’s Priory Church in Leyland, Lancashire is an excellent example of a modern but magnificant church. (built in the 1960s). It was, in fact, the brainchild of the then parish priest, the late Dom Edmund FitzSimmons, OSB (always with a capital S) and the Holy Souls Chapel bears the religious names of the monks who served the parish at the time it was designed; Anselm, Edmund,Vincent and Theodore, the latter (Dom Theodore Young OSB) still serving, in his nineties, in the Benedictine Parish of St Austin’s on the outskirts of Liverpool.

  • Anthony

    You guys are all sticks in the mud!
    I like it.(see photo). Also nice is the new cathedral in LA. Not everything has to be neo-Gothic you know!
    Stop pining for past expressions of architecture. In fact, stop moaning in general.

  • Anonymous

    Much modern church architecture is uninspired and bland. Some of it is actively ugly. However, I think Gaudi’s cathedral is utterly wonderful.

    I also think this Cistercian abbey:
    http://www.cistercian.org/

    and the new part of the church at Douai:

    http://www.douaiabbey.org.uk/

    are very nice, spiritual places.

    Modern architecture can be good – it just needs to be done well. Old doesn’t equal good – there are plenty of perfectly hideous Victorian churches as well as the gorgeous Pugin ones.

  • Anthony

    It is supposed to be “bland”. It expresses the nihilism, and fracture of post-modernism. If you want to argue, dont blame the artist, blame the philosophy.

  • Anonymous

    I also quite like the new chapel at Buckfast, and the church in Nottingham  – the Good Shepherd – in both cases because of the glass. Also the cathedral in Brasilia.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathedral_of_Bras%C3%ADlia

    http://swordinariate.blogspot.com/2011/02/ordination-at-buckfast-abbey.html

    http://www.goodshepherd-arnold.org.uk/powerpoint/img2.html

  • Anonymous

    I think I just love stained glass.

  • Carlton

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  I’ve seen stone barns turned into oratories which were far more “Catholic” looking than some renaissance or gothic revival churches. 

    Let’s hope the Vatican doesn’t try to force a one- size- fits- all concept of the ideal church design upon all dioceses.  Then command bishops to submit every design they have for a new parish to the CDW for its approval. He needs to realize a pointed arch over a window does not a gothic church make.

  • Carlton

    Yes, a drab formlessness in architecture to go with a drab liturgy.

  • Carlton

    Sorry Parasum, but a mature Catholic doesn’t need pretty pictures on the walls of a church.  Children, on the other hand, always like pretty pictures and usually need them in order to pray.

     Jewish architects, by the way, are usually far more talented their Catholic counterparts.  The latter are more likely to be slaves to the past, follow the strict rubrics of the Church like obedient sheep,  and are, with few exceptions, almost entirely without imagination.

  • Carlton

    ” The global Church needs to reinvest again in the establishment of
    Church buildings which continue the masterpieces in stone left behind by
    past generations of architects, artist, sculptors,master masons and
    artisans.”

    I hope Rome doesn’t look to the U.S. for inspiration.  With a couple of exceptions, there haven’t been any “masterpieces” in stone or any other material.  We have far too many parishes designed by architects who know nothing about ecclesiastical architecture.Perhaps, a good reason for establishing the new commission by the Congregation of Divine Worship.

    With the exception of St. Louis Abbey in St. Louis Missouri and St. Gregory’s Abbey in Rhode Island, both Benedictine institutions,   we’ve had a sad history of building disappointing, mass produced brick and concrete boxes or tent-like Protestant tabernacles.  So many filled with appointments  purchased from religious supply houses rather than from commissioned works.

    It appears every  architectural firm in America has a special filing cabinet reserved just for Catholic Church Novus Ordo-style designs.  Parishes, or more popularly referred to as, “worship centers” frozen in a 1960s time period.  Filled with white glossy marble, aluminum , and cheap looking polyester vestments. They’re about as inspiring as a petrol station.

  • Anonymous

    How about Notre Dame du Haut, at Ronchamp? Or how about the Cathedral of Brasilia by Oscar Niemeyer?

  • Anonymous

    http://www.randol.org/

    The abbey of Randol has its merits.

  • American Guest

    I liked going to Saint Mary’s cathedral when I lived in San Francisco.
    http://www.stmarycathedralsf.org/aboutUs.html
    Kind of like a washing machine agitator on the outside, but the interior was very spiritually uplifting.

  • Maryam

    I don’t know, I’ve never visited St. Mary’s Priory Church, but I found images of it online and it looks to me like many of the churches we have in the US. It reminds me more of a modern auditorium or gymnasium than a Church…

  • Maryam

    I have to say that, if I wasn’t already Catholic, if my only exposure was to watered down liturgies at these gymnasium-auditorium cold, soulless looking new churches, I’d have no desire to convert save for the Grace of God and some miracle.
    When I visited this church, my spirits, rather than being lifted, shrank. I actually felt a sense of fear.

    http://www.worldofstock.com/stock_photos/PFR2626.php

    The crucifix (can’t find a photo) is so large and iron like and cold looking that even the priest told he me often worries it will fall on him and kill him during Mass!

    An acquaintance who attends this parish said of the tabernacle,  “I could make a better one in my garage!”

    http://www.cathnewsusa.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/0218-oc-a.jpg

    I often feel it hard to even pray at these churches, as I’ve so distracted by the atrocious architecture. It seems to be a phenomenon in the western world, where, no doubt not a coincidence, the liturgy is much more watered down.

  • Maryam

    Impressive as a building, maybe. But I don’t think at all impressive as a Catholic Church.

  • designdef

    The 1960′s was an era of foresight, vision and hopefulness which was reflected in the architecture of the time, sadly in present times, people fail to have these qualities of optimism. Far from ‘throwing out tradition’ 1960′s style was based on tradition, which in those days people had the strength to follow, it’s noticeable that I can’t comment on ‘new’ church architecture as there are so few being built, here in the UK anyway.  To bring everyone back down to earth (as they say) the Roman Catholic church embraced ‘futurism’ in the 1960′s because most of it was untried and untested building methods and so came at a much reduced cost to the local parish. You see, it’s all down to money in  the end!

  • Anp1215

    I think my parish church is one of the best post Vatican II churches I’ve seen…
    It was built in 2000.
    Here are some pictures (these are wedding photos, I have no idea who this is, I just found the album online when looking for pictures of the church)
    http://www.morethananimage.com/blog/2011/03/laurenbobby-the-woodlands-tx-wedding-photographer.html 

  • Mothandrust

    Perhaps the architectural ‘high art’ churches in metropolitan areas may manage upon occasion to inspire momentarily by surprises of light and structure. On the other hand, when disparate elements from these churches are latched onto by eager architects and design committees in far-flung suburban or regional areas the result is more likely to be a surprise of a less than inspiring nature.  (The Nun’s Ski Jump in Dubbo NSW for instance)  I have noticed as well, that the pendulum is swinging back toward a ‘more traditional’ style, of recognizably church-like structures. A simple country church inspires by its humility and gentleness. A simple country church could be housed in an old garage which may well have more architectural integrity dignity and human warmth than many of these moderne extravaganzas of glass, cement and steel; it could be transformed by the REALITY of The Church as an Outpost of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Building churches that end up looking like garages sends a very different message. The story of Christ’s birth would be a very different one if Joseph and Mary had commissioned a highly skilled craftsman to design a very expensive cradle for Jesus that only LOOKED like a ‘manger’.  Wouldn’t that be called ‘spin’ or even a publicity stunt? Would anybody be able to take the story seriously??

    http://www.bathurst.catholic.org.au/Parishes/dubbo.html
    The “Nun’s Ski Jump” church in Dubbo NSW is an interesting example. The interior, with its floor sloping down toward the altar… (oops, what kind of  theological statement is that please?) One is compressed into the pew by the ceiling, which swoops ominously. Curiously, the only place that has a feeling of ‘uplift’ is AT the Altar. I suppose this might encourage vocations, since the only seats in the house that don’t feel oppressive are the Priests and Servers.

    The exterior, with ‘Soaring Spire’ (reminiscent of a fast food restaurant roof, only much taller,) is intended to, well, SOAR. Alas, the nickname for the church says it all… it’s all downhill from here.

  • Ollie

    In my work i see a lot of churches of many different denominations, new and old. Although I have to say I really like it when older buildings are reordered to create a beautiful listed building with a more modern twist. Thats said I have also seen newer buildings done tastefully which really inspire their congregations!

  • Elwynkimber

    It might help if you cherished your good archItects more – eg Rainer Senn, Von Branca, Gottfried Bohm – some of these classic modern churches being now in danger of demolition. There are always bad buildings and egotistical architects

  • Squire Western

    Modern architecture is too radical for religious buildings. Architects have too free a hand and design everything as though for the first time without reference to tradition. Ornamentation is another problem- ever since our society developed machines able to mass produce what would previously have required a skilled artisan, elaborate ornamentation has been regarded as tawdry. Yet all the most spiritually uplifting churches are highly decorated.