Modern church design: 'Spank the architect!'

Modern church design: 'Spank the architect!'

Paul Mees

Dr Paul Mees grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in an outer suburb of Melbourne and only discovered "old" churches in adulthood. He is now a parishoner at St Joseph's, Collingwood.

Dr Mees was President of the Public Transport Users Association for 15 years and currently teaches in the urban planning program at the University of Melbourne's Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning.

He is the author of numerous book chapters, journal articles, conference papers and a book titled A Very Public Solution: Transport in the Dispersed City (Melbourne University Press, 2000) which won the 2001 Royal Australian Planning Institute (RAPI) award for Planning Scholarship.

A few years ago, there appeared the most succinct piece of architectural criticism I have ever read. Behind a hoarding near my home was rising a featureless concrete apartment block five storeys high. One night, some wag spray-painted "Spank the architect" on the hoarding. The graffiti was soon removed, but was widely applauded by locals.

The modern movement in architecture began in the 1920s. Architectural critic Charles Jencks calls it a "Protestant Reformation" that sought to ban "ornament, polychromy, metaphor, symbolism, humour and convention" along with "all forms of decoration and historical reference." The reformation was not just protestant, but puritan.

Architects were missionaries charged with educating, or bullying, the general public to abandon its love of forbidden pleasures. The ruling principle was "functionalism": buildings should be designed on scientific lines and all features that were not strictly necessary were forbidden. "Ornament is a crime," declared Adolf Loos; "less is more", added Mies van de Rohe.

Understanding architectural modernism as a form of puritanism helps explain why it simply doesn't work for Catholic churches. Calvinists, having rejected the Real Presence, devotion to the saints and other aspects of Catholic spirituality, don't need sacred space: their churches are "functional" meeting halls. Ornament distracts from the Word, delivered in written form or by the preacher, and from the austere way of life demanded of a puritan.

This has little in common with the Catholic attitude to good living, expressed poetically by Hilaire Belloc:

Where'r the Catholic sun does shine
There's music and laughter and good red wine
At least I've always found it so,
Benedicamus Domino.

This version of the verse comes from The Catholic Imagination, an excellent book by the American priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley. Fr Greeley, who made a name in the 1970s advocating a liberal line on some doctrinal questions, has re-emerged as a tub-thumping traditionalist about Catholic "style." The Catholic imagination, Fr Greeley argues, is a forest of saints' lives, devotions and traditions which "inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation." Catholic churches are designed to communicate non-verbally this fact of God's presence, to help us weak individuals strengthen our faith - "save in some sterile modern churches with which architects and clergy, in a burst of mistaken ecumenism, have tried to placate the Protestant suspicion that Catholic churches hoard idols."

But that's just what many Catholics convinced themselves was required by the spirit of the age, even before Vatican II. The Council itself had little to say on the question, suggesting (in chapter 7 of the Decree on Liturgy) that "[t]he art of our own days, coming from every race and region, shall also be given free scope", but adding the prophetic proviso "provided that it adorns the sacred buildings and holy rites with due honour and reverence."

Compulsory modernism

This was interpreted as justification for making Western modernism compulsory, an attitude illustrated by the footnote added by one editor of the Documents of Vatican II. The sentiments, and the hectoring tone, would have been warmly approved by Calvin or Van de Rohe: "This marks a strong welcome to the art of today, which is the art that should participate in our worship ... too often recent churches have striven for the monumental and pretentious, rather than an honest, functional style that fits the needs of God's people at worship."

Early modernist Catholic churches retained some traditional forms, such as hall-like shapes, spires and even statues (generally crafted of unpainted wood or metal with abstracted features, to remind observers that they were "art", not aids to devotion). But by the 1970s, even these concessions had been abandoned, and churches began increasingly to resemble meeting rooms, indoor basketball courts or even Pizza Huts. And since this period saw a great expansion of cities and church-building, the resulting product dominates the ecclesiastical landscape. In outer suburbs, or in a city like Canberra, Catholic worshippers experience little else.

Many older churches were renovated to make them look modern. The process has not stopped. One (nameless) inner-city parish recently demolished its beautiful high altar, side altars, communion rails and pulpit and removed the remaining statues. The parish website boasts that the new design "has that openness and unity of space that Modern Liturgy demands" (note the capitals and the word "demands"!).

I don't claim to be qualified to judge the theology of such justifications, but the general tone is vintage architectural modernism-speak. What the renovators seem to have missed is that architectural modernism is dead as an idea. Its ideological basis collapsed in the 1970s. Architectural theorists don't talk about functionalism or scientific building any more. They admit the calvinist project of reforming people through austere architecture was a disaster; Van de Rohe's commandment has been replaced by the slogan "less is a bore".

Collapse of ideology

But the construction of modernist buildings proceeds apace despite the collapse of the supporting ideology. The main reason is that architects don't know how to design anything else. At universities, students are taught nothing but neo-modernism in design studios. This narrow repertoire is reinforced by professional experience: big firms and competition judging panels are dominated by architects trained in the heyday of modernism, and woe betide anyone who breaks ranks. This conservatism is reinforced by the fact that architecture is a gerontocracy - a recent review praised the architect Glenn Murcott for having accomplished so much for a man "only in his 60s".

Catholic clergy have a similar age profile to architects, which may explain their persistence with modernism. But "Ockerism" may also be a factor. Peter Corrigan, designer of the famous (among architects, at least) Resurrection Church in Keysborough, argued in 1977 that "[a]fter 190 years an identifiable culture is emerging in Australia" and church architecture should seek to be "relevant" to this culture. This idea came from the circles in which Corrigan moved at the time, notably David Williamson and the other progressive playwrights based at the Pram Factory in Carlton. Hence, we should look for "[m]odest means, pedestrian imagery and bush detail," leading to churches that look like lounge rooms and other ordinary places; architecture that, while frequently expensive to construct, looks "cheap".

The problem with the ocker vision was revealed recently by Williamson, who commented that what he and his Pram Factory colleagues called "Australian culture" in the 70s was that of a sub-group of white, "anglo" males. This ignored the lived experience of groups as diverse as women, migrants and aborigines. Nowadays, support for "ocker" Australian-ness is the property of the political right: witness Hansonism, or John Howard's cringe-worthy constitutional preamble, with its deification of "mateship."

Williamson might have added Catholics to his list of excluded groups - Australian secularism has always been suspicious of Catholics and their "idolatrous" churches. To make things more complicated, the percentage of overseas-born and non-English-speaking Catholics is much higher than for the remainder of the population. A Filipino friend stopped attending Mass after migrating to Canberra, because his local church was "like a Protestant church: no candles or statues or anything." This makes it particularly ironic that Corrigan's Resurrection church should have been built for a Catholic congregation - and in Melbourne's most multicultural suburb.

The irony deepens. Multi-culturalism has eclipsed feminism and queer theory as the most fashionable form of "radicalism" among Arts Faculty academics. Some younger architectural theorists are even using it to attack the "hegemony" of modernism, now criticised as a manifestation of "whiteness" as well as puritanism. Ph.D. students wax lyrical about ethnic architecture, of which places of worship provide the best example. Keysborough is full of them, including three Catholic churches built by Polish, Croatian and Vietnamese communities, and young researchers examine their very traditional designs for clues to a way out of the desert of neo-modernism. Few bother to visit Corrigan's church now, although it remains popular with older architects nostalgic for simpler times.

Another problem with "ocker" architecture is that it flies in the face of the actual architectural preferences of ordinary Australians. The new suburbs of our cities are testament to their housing desires, and show that almost any style - Federation, Victorian, Georgian - is acceptable, except modernism. Businesses seeking to appeal to the public understand this: developers fill their shopping malls with visual stimulation. Some of these temples of mammon even sport towers vaguely resembling those which were once permitted to adorn Catholic churches!

Basketball-court blandness

Any shopping mall owner could explain why modernist church design hasn't worked. If the local church looks like my lounge room, the message is that I should expect to find there what I find in my lounge room. So why bother to visit the church? Perhaps the calvinist "elect", having been predestined for salvation, can feel God's presence despite the basketball-court blandness, but fallen, sinful Catholics need more help than that. And while architects are still reluctant to provide it, younger theorists are exploring the radical idea that the "old-fashioned" churches built by ethnic congregations might point a way out of the morass.

Interestingly, the related discipline of planning, which has a younger age-profile than architecture, has abandoned modernist principles completely. The most fashionable concept in the discipline is "smart growth", also tellingly called "neo-traditional design", whose supporters condemn modernist design for discouraging local community and entrenching car use. Planners who see themselves as progressive and environmentally aware wouldn't touch modernism with a barge-pole: they are trying to revive urban design principles from before World War II and adapt them to current realities. Perhaps some of them should be asked to branch out into ecclesiastical work.

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