What the Walls Say: A Word on Relativist Church Architecture

Moyra Doorly

Modernist architecture is the architecture of Relativist space.  By adopting the Modernist style, the Church has incorporated Relativism into its very fabric.  The fact that so many contemporary church buildings are banal and uninspiring is bad enough.  Far worse is the fact that the Modernist style of architecture has given us church buildings that are barely churches at all.  Instead they are temples to the spirit of the age, which is Relativism.

It has been said that the Modern Age began in 1915 with the publication of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.  The theories were an answer to the already well known and subsequently repeated Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887 which showed that light does not obey the laws of Newtonian physics.  Einstein’s idea was that each individual occupied his or her own reality in which the speed of light remained constant, and the Relativist universe was born.

In the contemporary Relativist universe everything depends upon the point of view of the observer.  What may be right for an individual in certain circumstances may not be right for an individual in different circumstances.  ‘Everything is Relative’ is the mantra of the age.  Since the existence of objective truth would imply a standard against which differing viewpoints might be measured, Relativism cannot accommodate belief in any objective truth that is held to exist ‘out there’, and neither can it accommodate faith in a transcendent God.  

Relativist space is homogenous, directionless and value-free.  In other words, it is the same everywhere you look and no part of it has any more significance than any other part.  In the Relativist universe there are no signposts and no obvious paths forward, because nowhere has any more or less meaning than right here.  In Relativist space, boundaries and distinctions are dissolved and since the concept of a special place set apart is an alien one, sacred space, by definition, cannot exist.  Therefore in a universe from which the sacred has been eliminated, the only place for the human individual to look is within.   

These are the ideas about space that are embodied in the Modernist style. They also characterise the model of the universe as conceived by the modern age.  Space, that is outer space or universal space, has a form and an architecture which is reflected in the architecture of buildings.  The Medieval cathedrals, with their verticality, their hierarchy of spaces and distinctions between spaces were the perfect embodiment of the Medieval universe, which was also vertical, hierarchical and marked by distinctions between Heaven and Earth, between the sacred and the profane.

The Bauhaus School of Design in Weimar, Germany was founded in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius.  Starting from zero was the big slogan there and was deemed necessary to create a pure, new architecture for a pure, new future.  Many of the prophets of Modernism taught at the Bauhaus – Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Lázló Moholy-Nagy and Henry van de Velde – not to mention the artist Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky.

According to the architects of Modernism, the traditions were obsolete, the styles redundant and all forms of embellishment and decoration should be rejected. Instead, what was required was a revolutionary and universal architectural aesthetic to be found through geometry, mass production and the use of honestly expressed materials. 

New construction methods employing steel and reinforced concrete allowed greater spans to be achieved without so much solid masonry.  Space could now ‘flow’ because there was no longer any need to restrict an activity to an area enclosed by heavy walls.  Sliding doors and partitions would allow activity areas, or zones, to be closed off and opened up again as the need arose.  Buildings were no longer to be considered in terms of connected but individually defined spaces, but as an expression of unbounded, non-hierarchical space, space which could be multi-functional and flexible because nothing need be fixed or absolute.  The old formalities were lifted; the boundaries were dissolved; open-plan was born.  Lightweight curtain walling and extensive areas of glazing would help lighten the perimeters of buildings and visually connect their interiors with the landscape.  Raising buildings off the ground on columns, or ‘piloti’, would allow the space around them to flow without restriction or limitation.  Abandoning the traditional patterns of streets, squares, avenues and courtyards etc, would liberate the city and buildings would no longer need to fit into an imposed ground plan.  Private and semi-private space was kept to an absolute minimum because these require boundaries.  The creation of universal space was the aim.

 Church Architecture

That the Church has embraced the concept of Relativist space is made obvious by the liturgical revolution which took place after the Second Vatican Council.  When the Church adopted the new liturgy, existing churches began to be ‘re-ordered’ and new church buildings were designed with an internal layout that had never been seen before in the history of the Church. 

In the contemporary church building, boundaries have been dissolved and distinctions diminished. The narthex, the nave, the sanctuary have been merged into one.  Where boundaries once existed between the different spaces within the building in order to indicate their respective functions, these have been eradicated.  The sanctuary has been opened up both visually and physically, with constant movement between sanctuary and nave made necessary by everyone having to ‘take part’ in the liturgy. 

The traditional hierarchy of defined spaces, in which the pilgrim passed from the world via the narthex and nave to the sacred space that was the sanctuary has been replaced with a single, homogenous space within a building that is unable to announce its sacred nature to the world because it embodies a universal view that denies the existence of the sacred.  From the outside, many contemporary church buildings are barely distinguishable from the local library, fire station or community centre.

The adoption of the minimalist style of today has resulted in the elimination of imagery and symbolism.  Religious art and decoration are considered superfluous in a building designed primarily as a worship space for the People of God.  It has even been suggested that the church is not a sacred building as such, but is rendered sacred by the liturgical action of the people.  This is entirely consistent with a Relativist world view in which sacred space can only exist within the individual human being and within the community.

The spaces within today’s churches are homogenous, directionless and value-free.  Since no part of the church building can have a greater value than any other part and the transcendent vision is denied by refusing to look to what is beyond, the impulse is to look inwards.  Consequently, all the emphasis is on the gathering of the people around the altar.  The entirely modern innovation of Mass facing the people emphasises the preferred circular arrangement within today’s churches, circles which by their very nature turn away from what is beyond.

One of the modernisers’ claims is that they have rediscovered the practice of the early Church and that the original simplicity of that period had been smothered by subsequent and unnecessary accumulations and practices.  But this desire to sweep away two millennia of tradition and reclaim the purity of the ancients is a Modernist impulse and, in any case, the archaeological evidence contradicts the modernisers’ claims.  What’s more, the verticality of the universe known by the early Church could not have produced inward-looking church buildings where people ‘gather round the altar’.  A vertical universal model does not call people to gather round, but to reach out and move forward.  The actions of gathering round and moving forward are mutually exclusive. 

In the universe of the early Church there was a clear distinction between ‘nature’, which was composed of the four elements – air, fire, earth and water – and ‘sky’, which was of an entirely different substance – aether.  The astronomer Ptolemy of Alexandria, who died around AD 140, first mapped out the planetary orbits showing a universe of concentric spheres, like one of those Russian dolls which keep opening to reveal yet another smaller doll inside.  Outward from the Earth lay the orbit of the Moon, then Mercury, Venus, Mars, the Sun, Jupiter, Saturn and finally the Stellatum which was the sphere of the stars.

According to the Ptolemeic model, the orbit of the Moon marked the boundary between the Earthly and the Celestial realms.  Above the Moon was eternal and immutable:  below the Moon was subject to change and decay.  The spheres increased in rank and dimension the further away from the Earth they were.  This was a universe of clear boundaries between the realms and between the spheres.  This was the universe known by the early Church and, as a basic model, it lasted right through the Middle Ages. 

Modernist architecture has been as harmful to the Church as it was to our towns and cities.  Much of the havoc caused by the massive urban developments of post-war decades still has to be lived with.  But thankfully the secular builders have abandoned many of the ideas about space which were promoted by the modernists. State governments and the architecture profession had to wake up to the devastation before enough could be enough, despite the fact that people had been complaining for years.

It is often said that churches buildings represent ‘theology in stone’, and that they can be ‘read’ as such.  If this is true for the Gothic cathedral, with its towering internal spaces pointing to God and its abundance of imagery offering instruction and inspiration to the laity, then it is equally true for the emptied out church buildings of today.  Emptiness can speak volumes, just as silence can be deafening.

If buildings speak to us, what does this new church architecture say about the state of Christianity today?  It has been said that the motto of the modern age is ‘No particular place to go’.  In a Relativist age, the sign over the church door might as well be ‘Nothing special here.’   The new ideas about style and worship represent a profound shift away from the concept of the church building as a ‘House of God’ towards the concept of a church as somewhere where the ‘People of God’ gather.

Many commentators have noted with regret the elimination of mystery, awe and reverence from the contemporary Church and its liturgy.  Just as regrettable, surely, is the impulse toward self-worship that has declared the contemporary church building to be ‘No Place for God’.