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Online Edition - Vol. II, No. 9: February 1997

Can We Still Build Beautiful Churches? -- Experts on Church Architecture Break New Ground ­ Say "Yes, We Can!"

THE RECENT REVIVAL OF TRADITIONAL architectural forms in the secular world and growing criticism of the legacy of Modernist architecture led a group of architects, historians, liturgists, artists and musicians to gather at the University of Notre Dame in December 1996 to discuss sacred architecture.

The objective of the symposium was to explore new principles that can positively influence the future of sacred architecture.

The interdisciplinary consultation featuring presentations from 15 speakers was committed both to tradition and to innovation, according to Professor Duncan G. Stroik of the Notre Dame School of Architecture.

A new approach toward church architecture can be seen in the design of several new and renovated churches, which reflects a new striving for beauty and interest in traditional architecture. Among these churches that provide examples of a "new classical movement" are the Brentwood Cathedral in England, St. Agnes Church in New York City, and the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City.

"Considerable theological disagreement attends discussion of the nature and function of art and architecture in Catholic worship", observed Monsignor M. Francis Mannion, in his address to the group. "This disagreement and discussion will, I believe, intensify as the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy prepares a revision of its 1978 document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship".

New Directions: New Theses

Monsignor Mannion, pastor of the Cathedral of the Madeleine and founder of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, listed ten "theses" toward "a new era in liturgical architecture". Some of these are summarized below:

1. Architecture plays a sacramental role in Catholic worship, not a sacral nor merely functional role;

2. The holiness of the Christian assembly and the holiness of the church building are harmonious, not opposed;

4. Catholic worship requires a renewal of its iconographic tradition, modem iconoclasm [destruction of images] generates a narrowing and impoverishment of Christian vision;

5. Worship today is in need of a renewal of the "glorious";

7. The restoration of the devotional function of churches will render church architecture more authentically popular.

8. The modern movement in architecture is inadequate for Catholic liturgy; modernism in liturgy and liturgical arts is based on a mechanistic model of both religion and culture.

9. The emerging church art and architecture will embrace and reappropriate architectural tradition.

Professor Stroik's address was entitled Can We Afford (Not) to Build Beautiful Churches?

Other speakers included Professor Thomas Gordon Smith, chairman of Notre Dame School of Architecture (The Baroque as Paradigm); The Rev. Walter Tappe, Director of the Office of Worship in Washington, (Theological significance of the altar and its placement); John Alexander, Architectural Historian of the University of Virginia (St. Charles Borromeo's Program for Church Architecture); and Steven Semes, an architect from New York (The Baldachino and the Altar).

The Notre Dame meeting gave a foretaste of a new vitality and vision emerging within the field of liturgical architecture which parallels similar trends in commercial and domestic architecture.

For more articles and documents on Church Architecture, click here.

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