Ugly architecture, more worshippers?

Ugly architecture, more worshippers?

The New York Times architecture critic seems to think that if only we built churches that look like airport terminals, people would come back to church. Maybe Europeans think differently (after all that’s where the ugly “Euro” design style came from), but I can’t imagine a bunch of buildings, beautiful or ugly, leading people back to the faith. Don’t get me wrong, I think good architecture is a help, but I don’t think it’s as important as they’re making it out to be. And certainly bad architecture isn’t going to do it either.

As Rod Dreher said in reference to the Padre Pio shrine that looks like an airport terminal: “Come fly with me, come fly with Padre Pio.”

  • Dom,

    I don’t think we can summarily dismiss the role Sacred Art and Architecture has and does play in Evangelization down through the centuries. We have an incredibly rich patrimony that communicates our theology. Finite forms express Eternal Truth. While not a perfect expression, beautiful form well communicates what is Good and True, to both the literate and illiterate alike. Unfortunately, Christendom has suffered repeatedly from misplaced Iconoclasm, in an effort to return to the Faith of Apostolic times. Witness the destruction of the XVII century Protestant rebellion, witness the minimalism of Puritan New England.

    Yes, even modern architecture can serve as an effective tool for Modernist error and iconoclasm through its self conscious minimalism. A minimalism that was borne out of the atheism of 19th century philosophy, which shunned God and self-deified Man. Witness the secular, non hierarchial, asymmetrical form that serves as an expression for many of our contemporary(last 60 years) churches. Witness our ‘bus terminal church’! Have you been to LaSalette Shrine in Attleboro in the last 5 years? I dare say, it represents a complete disconnect from the traditional theology of form, in what it communicates. 

    The beauty of our Holy Faith is that we have a Magisterium that cannot and does not add to Apostolic Truth, but continues to teach a deeper understanding of this Truth. The development of ecclesiastical Art and Architecture throughout time gives form to this understanding. It is a Natural response to a Supernatural Reality. It serves as a sign post, if you will, to direct and move us to God.

    In the world, the beauty of Sacred Art and Architecture can move both Believer and non-Believer alike. It can serve as a beacon in world gone mad with secular non-Belief.

    Rob Quagan
    West Roxbury, MA

  • Rob,

    I didn’t dismiss the role of architecture. I’m saying it’s not as important as the NY Times architecture critic says it has in bringing people back to the faith. I tend to think that evangelization, the sacraments, the communion of saints, the witness of Christians, and so on all have more to do with it.

    As for what modern architecture does, didn’t I say just that? I was criticizing the modern architecture of the Padre Pio shrine mentioned in the article.

  • Dom,

    I misunderstood, sorry. Nevertheless, I think we can both agree it IS part of the equation which can bring people back to the Faith.

    I think all the variables you mentioned can be categorized as active/passive and/or natural/supernatural tools for Evangelization.

    I think we can liken Art and Architecture as a passive/natural part of the equation. I hate to reduce it to this, but here goes… A&A helps convey the Church’s ‘Corporate Identity’, it communicates Its ‘Values’, Its ‘Plan’ and Its ‘Product’.

  • Maybe a bunch of beautiful buildings wouldn’t lead people to the faith but a couple of years ago I read “The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, C.1400-C.1580” by Eamon Duffy. The very first thing done when the crown wanted to suppress Catholicism was literally to strip the parishes visually of any and all reminders of Catholicism. And we know the eventual outcome of that.

    It’s a great book.

  • Absolutely—beauty plays an essential part in drawing people to the Church, and that includes architectural beauty.

    It can and does draw people when they yet object to the other parts of Catholicism.  Cradle Catholics often underestimate the power of beauty in conversion.

  • Ever notice scenes in movies that make reference to the Church? Huge altars, burning candles, stunning architecture and the like? Secular Hollywood won’t use a Catholic church that looks like a glorified bus station, but we’re supposed to settle for less?

  • One of the things that led me to my conversion to Catholicism was visiting the Chartres cathedral as a 17 year old, and feeling that I wanted to know more about and be part of the religion that could inspire a building like this. So yes, architecture is important, as is liturgy, as is beauty.

    What I find idiotic in that article is the idea that good architecture alone is sufficient to bring people back to mass, and that the kind of architecture in the new Padre Pio church has anything to do with teaching anybody anything about the faith. As a naughty priest friend said of the photo accompanying the Times story, “It looks like a giant caterpillar humping the congregation.”

  • Oh, no, when it gets down to the real thing, it’s more than architecture—it’s even more than one’s feelings or perceptions. 

    But the great cathedrals inspire, pointing out to people that there is more than they usually settle for in their everyday lives.  Even all the wealth and prestige of modern America/Europe cannot hide death and the taudry routine people have to negotiate everyday if they believe they are by themselves in eternity.  The witness of beauty is incredibly important to evangelism.  It is another form of “reasoning.”