Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church


“Sacred Space”

May 18th, 2011, Promulgated by Ink

America Magazine is running an article on “Sacred Space,” to be published 23 May.  As an aspiring architect (who wants to build churches), some things in this article jump out to me as a bit… well, hollow and feel-good-sounding.

We asked two experts, one an architect and the other a sacred space planner, a series of questions about church design today. In the May 23 issue, Roberto Chiotti and Richard S. Vosko suggest three things that American Catholics should know about church design. We also asked them to cite a recent project they admire, and to name an up and coming church designer.  The Editors [Buzzwords: sacred space planner, American Catholics.  Total: two.]

While deliberating the submissions for the 2010 Faith & Form/IFRAA International Awards Program for Religious Art & Architecture, I was drawn to the St. Bartholomew’s Chapel in Valley Center, California by Kevin deFreitas Architects for the significant amount of site-harvested materials used in its reconstruction. [That’s cool.] The beautifully organic hues [read: brown] and texture [read: rough and sort of ugly] of the sanctuary’s rammed-earth sidewalls [who on earth would ever decide this is a good idea?], sculpted from 120 tons of sacred reservation soil [wait, what the HECK is that??], tangibly and symbolically ground the new sacred space within its sacred earth context [hurrah, Earth Mother!], while manifesting the client’s desires to pursue LEED Gold certification. The roof appears to float above these walls, which are situated to afford visual connections to the congregation’s surrounding ancestral home [and we are all going to become one with the world around us.  Everyone take a deep breath and say “OM.”].

I think we should be encouraging up and coming church architects/designers to embody and reflect in their work an understanding of early scriptural teachings that emphasized the sacredness of all creation and not just the sacredness of humankind […and of course we ignore the extreme importance of Man, as we were made in God’s image and given dominion over all the earth.]. As Catholics who are willing to re-claim these important insights along with embracing creation as a primary revelatory experience we can offer the world a significant contribution towards achieving an earth justice [what is earth justice?] that will enable the realization of gospel values that promote peace and social justice for all [I smell a hidden agenda.  And a sentence with dangling modifiers–how does “earth justice” promote “peace and social justice for all”?]. Our sacred spaces can and should become opportunities for catechesis, engaging our senses, awakening our spirits and inviting transformation. [Can’t disagree here.]

— Roberto Chiotti

There are several talented architects doing good work. One of them is Joan Soranno, FAIA (HGA Architects, Minneapolis, Minn.) who designed the Bigelow Chapel at United Theological Seminary, New Brighton, Minn. The shape of the place is evocative, refreshing and functional. The materials are organic and integral to the plan. Abundant natural light in this flexible environment creates an atmosphere that fosters a feeling of the sacred. [Okay, we like natural light.  Windows are good.] One could say this chapel is a venue for experiencing the ineffable holy one in both an immanent and transcendent way.

There are few design professionals who are bringing a fresh interpretation [read: “modern” worldview] to the field of religious art and architecture. One of them is Victor Trahan, FAIA. His use of architectural concrete to create more ascetic places is inspiring and reminiscent of some of the more contemporary church buildings in the European Union [And we all know that most of Europe is on its way to Hell in a handbasket.]. His designs invite the congregation to engage with the ritual actions that occur around various focal points without being distracted by excessive ornament or stylistic fashion [Puritan much?]. The use of light, harmony, verticality [these are good things] and materials invites contemplation even during public worship. [It should evoke contemplation primarily during public worship!  Or are they forgetting the whole idea of praying as a community does not mean holding hands and singing Kum-ba-yah?]

— Richard S. Vosko

To me, this entire article is loaded with modernism: it is only good if it is NOW.  Catholicism is all about tradition (and Tradition)–there is a LOT of tradition in the building of churches.  They have always been for the glory of God, to cause those who enter to be in awe.  It seems counterintuitive, then, to make it more “earthy” and worldly–dirt is not impressive.  Why do you think a mother tells her child to go change into clean clothes for dinner, or a formal occasion, or Mass?  Dirt is… well, it’s dirt.  It’s base.  And it is not exactly awe-inspiring.  Personally, I prefer my church walls to be stone.

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15 Responses to ““Sacred Space””

  1. avatar Kevin says:

    You’re a budding architect who wants to design churches? Rock on! I’m studying civil engineering and would love to do some church design. Being at the Catholic University of America and looking at that massive basilica influences me. However, I wouldn’t just do Romanesque and Byzantine, but no modern crap.

  2. avatar Kevin says:

    Also, that “rammed earth” church building looks like crap. Looking at the whole thing, looks like they spent a lot more on the kitchen than the altar or Stations of the Cross. So much for “focus on God”, looks like they care more about how well they eat afterward.

  3. avatar Gretchen says:

    The flat, earth-boundedness of the Bigelow Chapel reminds me of Lenin’s tomb in Red Square. (No reaching for Heaven there!) Not surprised that Fr. Richard Vosko likes it – he supervised the renovation of our Cathedral.

  4. avatar Matt says:

    *shudder* Vosko is perhaps the most destructive force in “Catholic” architecture of the late 20th century

  5. avatar CPT Tom says:

    The good news is that many of the younger Church architects to be moving (running?) away from the modernistic styles that Vosko and company promote. Such as Matt Alderman of the Shrine of the Holy Whapping or or my particular favorite, Duncan Stroik, just look at the church renovations and Churches Duncan has done: Just like the Liturgical winds are shifting, so is the Architectural winds. Brick by brick!

  6. avatar Scott W. says:

    sculpted from 120 tons of sacred reservation soil [wait, what the HECK is that??]

    I’ll see your question and raise you a “What the frackin’ HELL is that??”

  7. avatar Mike says:

    In earlier times we built churches and cathedrals that seemed to soar towards heaven. Now the modernists are congratulating each other on making them nearly indistinguishable from their earthly surroundings.

    What a commentary on their spiritual outlook!

  8. avatar Bernie says:

    Ink, what a hoot!
    Very well done.

  9. avatar Ink says:

    Kevin: maybe we’ll work together some day! I love majestic churches. Maybe we can find an interior designer who will return the worship space to the gold-coated beauty it should be (instead of looking like how I would decorate my living room).

    Scott: you made me literally laugh out loud.

  10. avatar Raymond F. Rice says:

    Kevin!! What do you think of Le Corbussier???

  11. avatar Kevin says:

    Le Corbusier’s work looks ugly as sin. I hate the Modernist movement. So happy it started dying after Robert Moses destroyed Penn Station in NYC.

    I don’t think we’d need an interior designer because I feel most of them would want to go the living room route.

  12. avatar Kevin says:

    I’m also looking at the website of Vosko. It baffles me how he thinks that destroying all that beautiful architecture from pre-VII, the elaborate high altars and everything, how he can possibly think that allows people to share a closer relationship with God. This isn’t a communal meal like the Protestants. If he is so convinced of that, he can go be an Episcopalian or evangelical or something.

  13. avatar Ink says:

    Kevin, we should start planning. Email me and we can bounce around insane ideas:

  14. avatar Raymond Rice says:

    Kevin!! And what about Matisse’s chapel for the nuns on the french riviera??

  15. avatar Kevin says:

    Eh, just not my thing.

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