For a person who loves to restore dilapidated, old or ancient churches to their original beauty, what to think about….modernism?

It is easy to decry the negative aspects of modern church architecture. When we strip away everything and return to the barren desert to find God, we may find sterility or banality instead. We discussed the reasons why the aesthetics of the “Via Negativa” may go awry in our blog post, “What are the ‘Two Ways’ to Beauty?”

So.  Is there anything to love in modernism?

First, there is the modernist dictum that “Form follows function.”

Originally expressed by Frank Lloyd Wright‘s early mentor Louis Sullivan, modernists believe that architectural design should derive directly from its purpose.  There is something to admire here.

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human, and all things super-human, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.  

~Louis Sullivan, “The tall office building artistically considered,” Lippincott’s Magazine, March 1896.

Logically, if the function of a church is the worship of God then the form of the church should serve this function.  Unfortunately, many modernists rejected the worship of God and the very idea of designing buildings for such an activity. A building had to serve man and man alone.  Louis Sullivan wrote in 1902, “The tyranny alike of church and state has been curbed, and true power is now known to reside where forever it must remain — in the people.”

In discussing architecture, Louis Sullivan also stated that,”the life is recognizable in its expression.” If he were to accept the function of a building for worshiping God, his observation “the life is recognizable in its expression” could be a guide to designing a beautiful and inspiring church.  However “the life” would have to include the Catholic understanding that sacraments are visible signs, instituted by Christ, to give us grace, a share in God’s life.  If form follows function, the centrality of the altar where the Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian faith, is consecrated, would have to be the focus of the architecture.

Furthermore, statues and paintings of the saints and angels would adorn the church. The Communion of Saints, which has made the Christian life recognizable in history, would have to be celebrated in the architecture.  If form follows function, we might find ourselves in an astonishingly traditional structure, even right back where we started, or in an edifice designed in a fashion similar to the great cathedrals of Europe.  The medieval understanding of the church was that it was “theology in stone” or “theology in figures” – architecture as an expression of human faith in the ineffable God.

To be fair, not all modernist architects rejected the worship of God as the function of a church building.  It was often a parish committee, liturgical designer, pastor or a diocesan building committee that rejected a building designed to worship God and sought one better designed to “curb such tyranny.”

Second, there is the related concept of “truth to materials.”

One of the tenants of modernism is that the true nature or natural appearance of a material ought to be seen rather than concealed or altered to represent something else.

Any material may be used where most appropriate and its means of construction should be celebrated rather than hidden. Modernists were be against illusion; they want things to be honest, reacting against what they called the “disconnect from the real.”  This dedication to materials is compatible, in fact inseparable, with a truly Catholic vision.  (See our blog post, “Why Are You Such a Materialist?”)


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s