Saturday, September 22, 2007
A Sign of the Times
AND SO IT GOES, while the architecture critic of the New York Times continues working as a press agent for Starchitects and their egocentric ideology, the news departments at the Times present different views. Today the paper's Religion Journal reports dissatisfaction with Modernist churches and a trend towards new traditional designs. Yesterday was the story on Rem Koolhaas's megalomaniacal megalith and local protests in Mexico City, similar to the protests reported in St. Petersburg over the quarter-mile tall Gazprom City (protesters carried signs saying "Lunatic City," a Russian pun on the original, which is named for the local gas company).
Without editorial condescension, Times reporter Brenda Goodman writes,
In 1997, St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston was a congregation bursting at the seams. The community of 6,600 members was housed in a building that could seat just 675. It took six services every Sunday just to give everyone a chance to worship.
But more frustrating than the lack of space to church leaders was a paucity of spirit in the architecture of the boxy, brick 1950s-era chapel.
The Rev. Laurence A. Gipson, then rector of St. Martin’s, started talking to church members about what they might want in a new building.
“In 300 conversations with people, universally, it was clear,” Mr. Gipson said. “Traditional worship within a traditional building was the thing that enabled us to draw most closely to God.”
The church’s new building has become the focal point of what some architects are calling a revival of traditional religious architecture in the United States, as congregations like St. Martin’s have begun to yearn for a return to traditional appointments in their buildings and worship services.
“We’re actually seeing kind of a pendulum swing back toward some of the great traditions of religious heritage,” said Charles J. Hultstrand, secretary of Faith and Form, a division of the American Institute of Architects that focuses on liturgical architecture. “People have missed that heritage, and that’s reflected in a good number of new church buildings.”
It is a response to a kind of a bland, boxy building made popular in the 1960s that Richard Kieckhefer, professor of religion at Northwestern University and author of “Theology in Stone: Church Architecture from Byzantium to Berkeley” (Oxford University Press 2004), refers to as the “modern communal church.”
“In the mid-20th century, there were liturgical reformers who said it was necessary to change church architecture,” Dr. Kieckhefer said.
“Architects began to design churches that were meant to promote a sense of community gathered for celebration,” he added. “While older churches tried to set themselves apart from the world, these were buildings that were meant to blend into neighborhoods.”
These buildings were focused around casual, multipurpose spaces. Pastors asked architects for assembly halls that would allow members and clergy members to be able to see one another’s faces, so sanctuaries were often arranged in circles or semicircles. Pulpits were moved from the head of the church to the middle or done away with altogether. Statues were removed. Pitched roofs became flat. Steeples vanished.
Critics of the movement saw this trend toward plain, functional buildings as an insult to the divine. A flurry of books by influential architects and critics led the attack, including Michael S. Rose’s salvo, “Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches From Sacred Spaces to Meeting Places and How We Can Change Them Back” (Sophia Institute Press, 2001), and Moyra Doorly’s “No Place for God: The Denial of Transcendence in Modern Church Architecture” (Ignatius Press, 2007).
Ms. Doorly, an architect and writer in Britain, has also started a campaign called Outcry Against Ugly Churches, or OUCH.
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Listed below are links to weblogs that reference A Sign of the Times:
My italian friends already launched a movement at examining why contemporary churches are so ... well, anti-religious in their architecture. We are trying to explain this phenomenon in terms of the choice of geometry and surfaces, and the debate is only getting more intense over there. Several articles were published in italian on the website Il Covile, and these are now collected and made available as a pdf document from http://www.stefanoborselli.elios.net/scritti/.
For readers who don't read italian, my own contribution from this document also appears in english as a chapter of my book "Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction", 2nd Edition. Note, that, curiously, the italians turned to some of our american traditional architect friends for the best examples of contemporary religious architecture. (Scroll down for the pictures of good examples of new churches).
Posted by: nikos salingaros at Sep 22, 2007 1:55:58 PM
Sorry, I did not take care to provide a one-click link to the collection of articles in italian. Here it is again:
Posted by: nikos salingaros at Sep 23, 2007 8:29:27 AM
Thanks, Nikos. I edited your link so that it doesn't scroll off the screen. If people click on the link the PDF will download.
Posted by: john at Sep 23, 2007 11:57:19 PM
Just when we were talking about the topic of religious architecture, my friends over in Italy published a small article, along with my own commentary on a video. All of the text is in italian, but our friends over here should see the linked video, which shows how a plain table is transformed into an altar within 15 minutes.
Posted by: nikos salingaros at Oct 7, 2007 10:59:26 AM