Recovering the sacred in modern church architecture

Recovering the sacred in modern church architecture

Moyra Doorly

Journalist and architect Moyra Doorly is the author of 'No Place For God: The Denial of the Transcendent in Modern Church Architecture' (Ignatius Press, 2007), a critique and examination of the banality and ugliness that is evident in many modern churches and cathedrals. Carl E. Olson, editor of, interviewed Doorly last year about her book and some its main points of emphasis.

You have a background in architecture and are also a convert to the Catholic Faith. Can you tell me a bit about your interest in architecture, your journey to Catholicism, and the relationship, if any, between the two?

Architecture is interesting because of the power it has. Buildings can inspire wonder or dread, and either enhance or diminish the lives of the people who use them. My journey to Catholicism began as a flight from a series of nightmarish, New Age inspired experiences. The only connection between the two I can think of is a visit, during the first few months, to a modernist-style parish church which made me gasp with horror and ask 'What have they done?'

When did 'The Great Building Disaster', as you describe it, begin, and what were its philosophical, theological, and cultural roots?

The disaster began when the spirit of relativism, as embodied in modernist architecture, met the 'spirit of Vatican II'. Both share the desire to discard tradition and break radically from the past, to dismantle the boundaries and dissolve the forms.

What are some features of the 'architecture of relativist space' and why should ordinary Catholics be familiar with them?

Ordinary Catholics must already be aware of the changes that have taken place in church architecture over recent decades. The architecture of relativist space, like the universal model it embodies, is homogenous, directionless and value- free.

A relativist church building downplays or even denies the concept of sacred space, rejects linear forms, and is designed so that every part of it appears to be of equal importance. Outside it will resemble the local library or sports stadium, thereby proclaiming 'nothing special here'. Inside the people 'gather round' the plain and unadorned altar, having hardly noticed as they passed the Tabernacle, and the message is the same.

Once gathered, there is apparently nowhere 'beyond' to aim for because the circular or semi-circular liturgical space cannot suggest this possibility. The subjectivism of the modern age favours circular forms because in a relativist universe there is no truth 'out there'. The denial of the transcendent vision is inherent in the form of the contemporary church building and the space it creates. This same blocking of the route to the transcendent is also the result of sanctuary re-orderings in traditional churches.

The recently built Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles has been very controversial here in the United States. In what ways does it give shape, so to speak, to what you call the 'relativist church building'?

The new cathedral is designed to be more 'inclusive and universally appealing than specifically Catholic' said one official of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. According to the brochure, the cathedral is 'for people' and is 'a place for everything that ennobles the human spirit; fine art, music, folk craft worship and more'.

One question must be asked. Why build a Catholic cathedral that has as one of its central aims not to be specifically Catholic? To aim for universal appeal is a relativist impulse borne of the belief that all religious traditions are equally valid, that there's 'nothing special' about Catholicism and nothing special about God. In Los Angeles Cathedral it seems that only man is special.

Some modern church architecture has been based on the premise that it reflects a more accurate understanding of the worship of the early Christians. How did this notion come about and how accurate is it?

This notion is entirely mistaken. Again it is a modernist impulse to discard two millennia of tradition in an attempt to return to the imagined simplicity and sense of community enjoyed by an ancient age. In the early Church people gathered in houses because church building was illegal. The early Church did not allow catechumens into the main body of the church and the entirely 20th century novelty of Mass facing the people would have seemed an alien practice

The final chapter of No Place for God is a plea for a return to ad orientum - the priest and people together facing east in liturgical worship. How vital is facing liturgical east to a re- appropriation of good church architecture?

The return to ad orientum - the priest and people together facing east in liturgical worship is vital if the transcendent vision is to be reclaimed. Turn again Father.

Any signs of hope when it comes to church architecture?

There is definite hope. A new generation of younger scholars and priests is beginning to ask these questions and draw on the magnificent tradition of the Church both in writing and practice. Churches are beginning to be re-re-ordered by reversing the stripping of the altars that has taken place. Secular architects began abandoning the principles of relativist space thirty years ago. Church architects can do the same given the lead by those who commission the designs.

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