Thursday, December 13, 2007

Starting out as she means to go on

I'm finally getting around to this book, and I'm loving it. Especially for the way she begins the first chapter:

The modern age has witnessed the construction of the most banal and uninspiring churches in history. The attempt to create a church architecture that would meet the needs of the age has resulted in churches that are unfit for any age. Contemporary church buildings, as well as being the ugliest ever built, are also the emptiest.

I suppose I'm particularly sensitive on this issue because when the charming old California-mission style parish church where I spent my childhood -- St. Mary's, in Fullerton, CA -- burned down about 1970, it was replaced with the kind of church that Doorly refers to: white walls, bare concrete, cold and comfortless. And empty.

Doorly ties contemporary church design to the Modernist revolt in aesthetics, typified architecturally by the Bauhaus movement, and ties it to philosophical and quasi-religious trends (such as Theosophy). She notes that the Church is once again behind the times: the secular world has already torn down or blown up some of its first failed experiments in we-know-what's-best-for-you Modernist architecture, e.g., the Pruitt-Igoe Towers in St. Louis. Heck, we're still building the darned things.

For Catholics who are stuck with an ugly Modernist church: take heart in this inspiring photo, of St. Louis' visionary action on Pruitt-Igoe:

Well, OK, it wasn't visionary; when St. Louis finally got around to asking PI's tenants what they wanted to have done to improve the buildings, they said "demolish them". The city just took a great idea and ran with it.

I wonder how many Catholics might give a similar answer if asked about the plain concrete boxes they now are forced to worship in. Now, please don't think I'm advocating blowing up churches; in most cases, a conventional wrecking ball is a much more affordable prelude to the construction of something beautiful, reverent -- and yes, traditional.