My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Maybe it’s because I’m a convert from complete secularism. I just don’t see what’s supposed to be so great about the new-fangled churches that look like cracker boxes. Or like space ships. Or like a crumpled up piece of paper.
Let’s just say it here and name the elephant in the room.
What is so great about an ugly church?
One of the things I did understand, whether secular or Catholic, was that our surroundings influence how we think and feel and act. And the point of a beautiful church is to help lift our souls to the point where that curtain between us and God might, just might, be opened for a moment of personal connection.
That was highlighted for me when I was in Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal. A young man in his early 20s was standing in the middle of the main aisle with tears running down his cheeks. His companion, a young woman, turned to him in alarm, “What’s wrong.” He suddenly looked slightly embarrassed, “Nothing. I’m just having a moment. I mean…” and he waved a hand around, “…all this just got to me.”
A transcendent moment of connection with the Almighty facilitated by a sacred place.
That is what this collection of essays by architect Duncan G. Stroik is all about, the importance of letting beauty flower in our sacred spaces, in our churches.
The architecture of the sacred presents Christianity in a three-dimensional form: visually, tactilely, and sonorously in time. The sacred must come to us through all the senses, to surround us with intimations of what Abraham felt in front of the burning bush, King David in front of the ark, Mary with the angel Gabriel, and the disciples at the feet of Jesus and at the foot of his cross. The stone underfoot, the wood of our seats, the smells of incense and of beeswax, the smoothness of marble, the strength of the cast iron grillwork and rails, and the paint on the canvas—all help to create a sense of the sacred and prepare us for the taste of sacred bread and wine.
Stroik discusses the history of church architecture, the importance of various design principles including the altar as center of the church, and the result of modern thinking on church architecture. This modern thinking he decries, by the way, is not only the effect of Modernism style in architectural philosophy, but also the tendency to have gift shops, ask admission fees in famous churches, and to think in terms of auditorium features (“Can you hear me now?”).
The essays are accompanied with photography of many gorgeous churches, both old and new, as well as some that makes one want to weep for those condemned to worship in such stark, ugly surroundings.
However, Stroik doesn’t just discuss the failures in vision. He holds out hope for future church building and renovation. I found Ten Myths of Contemporary Sacred Architecture to be particularly eye opening on this front. By presenting what conventional wisdom as myths and showing where they go wrong, Stroik shows how consideration and care can easily restore beauty as a desirable feature for church architecture.
Obviously, I already was disposed to agree with Duncan Stroik’s essays. However, it was a pleasure to see what I felt fleshed out in these essays and photographs. I am not the author’s intended audience but the essays were easy to understand and I actually enjoyed them. There is a bit of repetition since some of them originally went to a variety of publications, but I found that all to the good in thoroughly grasping the main points.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in this subject at all and particularly to anyone at all involved in Catholic church design, renovation, and building.