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Church Architecture 101, Part 5: Architecture and Second-Hand Heresy

Church of Sts. Peter and James

Church of Sts. Peter and James

Since the last installment, a gentleman who read these articles made the following observation about architecture. He said there are two “courts.” One that is ‘modern’ and the other that is ‘historical.’ He justified having a preference by saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” He also made the point that there are elitists in both camps that speak to only a select few by choosing to use stylistic design elements that only a few are familiar with.

His comment about elitists introduces the idea that there are moral implications.  It points out the necessity to use the vernacular as using design elements that only speak to the select few means many are ‘left out’. An architect who mimics a style or architectural language from the 1930’s or 1530’s, that requires specific knowledge in order for it to be ‘decoded’, is an elitist, as he said; a snob (sin nobilta).

The statement, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, dismisses the moral implication with respect to architecture that is designed to communicate to the select few.  It reduces architecture to a visual art

This is not the case. Even the blind experience architecture.  And there is a great deal they experience without vision. They focus on the transcendent aspects of architecture because it is far more difficult, if not impossible for them to objectify a building. The “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” maxim only refers to the external aesthetics. It completely ignores interior beauty (e.g. structural integrity, etc.). With respect to architecture, this obviously is not referring to “interior design”, but the capacity for a series of spaces to facilitate certain human, including spiritual, experiences.

I have apparently failed in clarifying that architecture is not about either “court.” Architecture is not about buildings as objects, defined by stylistic preferences. This is the Second-Hand Heresy that has lead to reducing architecture to “oggettistica.” Oggettistica is also an art form. Objects, ornaments, are designed and created purely for their aesthetic qualities and appreciated according to an individual’s particular taste. As objectifying the human body is grave sin, to objectify a building is to eliminate the spiritual implications altogether. And buildings have spiritual implications; all buildings, not just churches. It is the quality and characteristics of the space itself that can deeply effect the human experience within a building and which can transcend all implications of ‘styles.’

Neo-neo classicists have chosen to live in that false “traditional court” … perpetually. These “traditionalists” ridicule true masters, such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Aalvar Aalto; men whose work was free of the slavery to style, which can condition every aspect of architectural form. Frank Lloyd Wright’s contribution to the profession is perhaps only matched by Brunelleschi. He understood the moral implications of defining space in the terms he did, whether or not he viewed it as representative of Divine Economy or not. He did far more with far less than architects who waste vast amounts of money, materials and space, to communicate an abstract thought regarding their conception of beauty; based upon rules that in many instances do no more than to reinforce the false notion that beauty cannot involve anything that is not aesthetically pleasing. Mother Teresa was not “aesthetically pleasing”. Jesus on the Cross was not aesthetically pleasing.

Wright did more to liberate people from living within the confines of ‘boxes’ than anyone in history.  In God’s creation, there are none of these artificial barriers that divide us and which in some instances lead to forms of segregation. Through an understanding of how space exists in nature, Wright was able to design 1200 square foot homes that felt like 2400 square foot homes. And unless you have really deep pockets, and money to waste, it is not hard to appreciate what an extraordinary accomplishment this really is.

Parishioners today only have a great deal in common with parishioners 500 years ago in the abstract. Parishioners in one parish often have little in common with parishioners in another parish in the same town. So how can an archetypal form be promulgated with any seriousness? Only in the abstract. And this probably explains why those who have a fascination with the works of the neo-neo-classicists, including many religious, are intellectuals who reside to a large extent in their heads, “and slightly to one side”, as Professor Ken Robinson put it in his now world famous TED TALK (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY ). Should it come as any surprise that he describes this form of intellectualism and education as the reason for destroying creativity in schools? When you have time, watch Professor Robinson’s talk … I’ve yet to meet someone who didn’t enjoy it.

In reality, people today live an existence that is so different from the existence of 500 years ago that to ignore the differences is immoral. This brings us back to what the architecture is really all about, but which most do not understand because of the Second-Hand Heresy that has affected us all. It is worth repeating it somewhat from a different perspective. Fr. Tom Collins, whose blog can be found at http://countrypriest.livejournal.com, said the following with respect to architecture:

The “second-hand heresy” that needs to be overcome is the
obsessive-compulsive desire to impress the worshipers, rather
than inspire them to aspire to participate more fully in the
sacred mysteries made efficaciously present in the sanctuary.
Authentic worship is not a product of manipulation, but the fruit
of reverent communion with the transcendent and transformative
love of God …”

In short, what the “Country Priest” is saying is that it is possible to take a position which reflects heresy simply because our formation is so lacking or so flawed, usually through no fault of our own, that we are no longer aware of the error at the root of our thinking; most everyone’s thinking. And here is another way of looking at the “second hand heresy”. The aesthetic aspects of a building are as important as the ‘good looks’ we received from our birth. Clearly it is no architect’s goal (or it shouldn’t be) to intentionally design an ugly building; or more appropriately expressed, a repulsive building. From the outside, every church should make one feel welcome. But the thought that a facade should be designed based upon abstract notions of aesthetics, unique to a given culture or period in history, feeds this “obsessive-compulsive desire to impress the worshipers.”

As we all know, sometimes the best way to communicate an important point is by example. A slave knows when they are liberated. As anyone following these articles will have understood, I have a great deal of respect for Giovanni Michelucci because his little book (La Felicita’ dell’architetto), and subsequent conversations with him, liberated me from the slavery to form and style which has the over-riding motivation and goal to “impress.” Being liberated can be scary. That’s why many slaves preferred to remain on plantations after being liberated, for fear of facing the unknown. It’s why many convicts either commit suicide (e.g. remember Brooks in Shawshank Redemption?), or choose to commit another crime in order to get back to what they know and feel comfortable with.

It is important to be open to making mistakes. If you watched the video by Professor Robinson, you will remember his stating that the educational system has so stigmatized “being wrong” that it has paralyzed creative thinking. So adults, often through too much “education”, seek a position where they are never wrong (http://tinyurl.com/kcg59gq out of fear of making a mistake.The point he makes is very profound. It is the explanation of why neo-neo classicists never make mistakes and why their work lacks any real creativity. How can one ever be wrong (so they believe) copying great works from the past?

Church of Lardarello

Church of Lardarello

Giovanni Michelucci designed many churches. I would like to speak about two of them. He later considered them both mistakes. The first Church is the Church in Lardarello.  While his own commentary expressed an understanding of the importance of facilitating worship and situating the structure appropriately in the urban context, he later came to the realization that in effect, he had designed the Church to “impress.” He realized that he, too, was not yet free of treating the building as an object. He stated as much. It became the cause for serious depression, where he considered quitting architecture all together. That’s serious. When a slave is set free, it is still very hard to change behavior. It usually takes years.

The other church is a small country church (i.e. Church of Sts. Peter & James).  The forms and elements … materials … are all indigenous. The design reflects the lives of those who lived there and who would attend this church; people used to simple and humble surroundings. He reflected this same spirit in the design of this church.  Years later he considered this a big mistake for an entirely different reason than treating the building as an object.  These poor people didn’t need to be reminded of their poverty.  They lived it all week long. They didn’t need to be “humbled” on Sunday. He said that if he had it to do all over again that he would have designed soft benches and kneelers along with a much richer environment. These parishioners needed to experience God’s abundance.

What this all comes down to is this … Listening. Listening to the needs, hopes, aspirations, desires of the specific people who will use that particular building.  To impose almost any architectural style, especially the older archetypical forms, all but ignore these considerations.  And as Michelucci said himself “chi non capisce l’uomo, non capisce niente.” … He who doesn’t understand man, understand nothing.


Mark Wilson studied architecture and design at the University of Florida, the Universita’ di Firenze and Pratt Institute.  His professional practice consists of architecture, business venture startups, industrial design and product development. A few examples of his work can be viewed at  http://www.coroflot.com/mwilson
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  • Howard

    I don’t think we could possibly agree. Of course right angles rarely occur in nature; but then tabernacles never occur in nature. A church building is not about the relationship between man and nature, which is beneath man, but between man and God, Who is above man, so again the fact that “boxes” are common to mankind but unknown in nature is no argument against them. In addition, a church might be built to last for a longer period of time than has elapsed since the death of Frank Lloyd Wright, so any proposal for a church building needs to be recognizable as a church building both in 2013 and in 1813; that is the best guarantee it will be recognizable in 2213. Finally, you may likewise hold in contempt the lack of originality in the White House, the Capitol Building, and their counterparts in the various states, but something along the lines of Falling Waters would be no more appropriate for these buildings than a triple wide (such as Arkansas used while the governor’s mansion was undergoing renovations). There is a point to an architectural style that reminds us of the origins of democracy in Greece and of republicanism in Rome. There is likewise a point to churches that are not built in a contemporary style; they remind us that the Church Militant is not the whole Church.

  • Mark Wilson

    Hi Howard, and thanks for your comments. I think fundamentally, you are still stuck on buildings as objects and are ignoring the undeniable value of organic space. The box is a man-made. There is no denying it. The fact that tabernacles never occur in nature is irrelevant to the point being made. Of course we design many objects which are boxes. But we don’t live in ‘objects’ … or at least we shouldn’t.

    Most people, including architects can’t define organic space or Wrightian space, but it is important to understand the great contribution FLW made in these terms. I understand the point you are trying to make, but it seems again you are still stuck on ‘styles’ and only the symbolic value of architecture from the visual perspective. You make no mention of the human experience in those buildings.

    Not only would I never suggest “Falling Waters” for the buildings you reference, but I can confidently say that Frank Lloyd Wright wouldn’t either. BUT … this doesn’t diminish the inappropriateness of Greek or Roman architecture when the Christian roots of this country were not part of either of those other cultures. Just because the Roman Republic (and Greek to some extent), can remind us of the origins of democracy, doesn’t justify using these archetypal forms any more than designing a car today that looks like a Model T Ford because it reminds us of the origin of cars. Frank Lloyd Wright had a Christian understanding of democracy which neither of the other cultures did. None of this is reflected in the monumental works you refer to. So instead of having buildings which are a testament to a Christian understanding of the relationship between God and man as well as man and man (both of which are very different among Christians), we promote the worldview of pagans (i.e. the polytheistic).

    The fact that the church building is about a relationship between man and God does not mean one shouldn’t be inspired by nature. In fact, when God inspires one to create, what better than to turn to his own creations as a means to understand how the Christian vision can be incarnated. It is the truth which is behind everything that exists in nature which we know comes from God. Pope John Paul II said, “Yet it was the Creator’s will that man
    should communicate with nature as an intelligent and noble “master”
    and “guardian”, and not as a heedless “exploiter” and
    “destroyer”….” The Greeks and Romans dominated nature. There was no effort to exist with nature the way FLW expressed. One doesn’t have to be Christian to have reverence of nature. The Japanese have a long architectural history of respecting nature. Chinese architecture is again one that dominates architecture.

  • Mark Wilson

    Another important clarification Howard. In what way should any Church building proposed today be recognizable by someone who lived two hundreds years ago (i.e. 1813)? Naturally, this poses a false problem until we develop the technology to travel in time. But let’s assume that is possible. Then the answer would be primarily in the EXPERIENCE of the liturgy. Not necessarily from the exterior visual characteristics, though it likely would and should. But it is secondary. Again we shouldn’t forget that the blind person also experiences a church independent of its visual aspects.

    Everything we design and build is done for the present and the future, while honoring and respecting the most valued aspects of the past. I think we both agree on this. So we may respect, honor and reflect the great contributions of those of the past, but it shouldn’t overwhelmingly condition the hopes and aspirations for a pluralistic society just because a few key decision makers falsely believe that one culture is superior to another. The point is, the human experience of the spaces, which relate to whatever activities occur within a building, is what should touch people of all time … and I would agree with you that this would also be true for the time-traveler. But we mustn’t forget that a great deal of architecture is, and should be, very specific to the specifics cultures and in the case of a church, specific parishioners. Just because you and I can’t relate to a church building, especially the exterior, designed by and for people of a very different culture, doesn’t make it good or bad per se.

    Also, I don’t have contempt for individuals who give reverence to the Greeks and Romans, I pity them. They apparently are blind to the great contribution a Christian in a free society can make. Rarely (e.g. Palladio), is an architect free from the slavery to form when they incorporate Greek and Roman architectural design elements. And again … the point of the article is that the Second-Hand Heresy is the belief that architecture is strictly a visual art to be contemplated in the abstract for its symbolic value, instead of recognizing that the artistic qualities of buildings primarily relate to the human experience within the spaces defined by the architect. An architect who is not a slave to form would have no problem designing a church for a community of Vietnamese that would reflect and respect their culture. The neo-neo classicist, who is a slave to the old archetypal forms would either have to pass on taking that commission (as often is the case), or do their best to convince a community that their architectural history is worth less than others and that they should study about the “golden age” of the Renaissance and learn to appreciate and understand it; that “Golden Age” that Archbishop Chaput said, never was.