Church Architecture 101, Part One

Giovanni  Michelucci

Church of St. John the Baptist by Giovanni Michelucci

There are strong feelings being expressed about church architecture today.  It is my hope in writing these articles that the reader will feel empowered to think for himself and not feel obligated to follow directions established by art and architectural historians who intentionally and sometimes unintentionally use their ‘special’ language and terminology to make the reader feel small and unqualified to express his own thoughts and opinions on the subject.

Often these historians support their arguments with Catholic doctrine and even cite the Gospels, but invariably there is a clear disconnect between their references and the conclusions they draw.   Something in your gut tells you something doesn’t ‘smell’ ‘right.  They make their case eloquently, and so many feel it is impossible to argue with them.  We can change this based upon an understanding of Catholic teaching as it applies to the design arts.

One of the goals of these articles is to explain what happens in these schools and why it isn’t necessary to depend upon others to understand what buildings are all about, whether historic or contemporary.  Bad architecture is bad architecture—period.  Moreover, you will learn something about what makes buildings good and sometimes great.  My hope is that the reader will feel finally liberated from a sort of intellectual tyranny, that the reader will feel capable of analyzing buildings for himself and contribute to the design of better buildings, especially ecclesiastical ones.

My degrees in architecture come from the University of Florida, Pratt Institute and a year spent at the University of Florence in Italy, reading original documents and consulting descendants of those artists and architects. I took all of the required courses in architectural history that every student of architecture takes.  With all due respect, professors of history are not known for their creativity or original thinking.  These are the professors who are responsible for reviving neoclassicism; our should I say ‘neo-neo-classicism,’ since it’s been resuscitated so many times, as Archbishop Betori of Florence, Italy, has pointed out.

Problems begin for architectural students in their history courses which are invariably taught from a secular and outsider’s perspective. Here’s History 101 in a nutshell.   Courses often begin in Mesopotamia, then move on to Egypt, and finally wind up in Greece.  Greek civilization is put on a pedestal that is justified in one sense, but in the most important sense, is not.  Just to be clear—no one is blaming the Greeks, but their architecture is no more sacred than anyone else’s.  I will expand upon this in subsequent articles.  Before I forget, you might study the Mayans and Aztecs, but rarely are they presented to be in the league of the Greeks.  Why?  Consider the following:  The Greeks and Romans won the marketing war in the western world.  And winning wars is important.  The winners write history.

Ancient Greece was unquestionably a great civilization, but let’s put things in a global context.  Prior to Marco Polo, few had any knowledge of the East.  So regardless of how great the art and architecture of the East was and is, it was generally discounted as being of equal importance for hundreds of years; and in the mind of the neoclassicists or ‘traditionalists’ (and you will see later there really isn’t much difference, they’re splitting hairs when they say there is), it has no importance.   So if readers from China, India, and Russia don’t already feel alienated (to mention only a few), it will become clear why it is unjustifiable to continue to copy works of architecture from Florence, Italy, and the surrounding area when we live in overwhelmingly pluralistic society.

Unquestionably, a lot has to do with language. Language is what enables us to communicate.  But don’t minimize the importance of this obvious statement.  Language and the use of language is how marketing wars are won, and believe me, those that consider themselves ‘traditionalists’ are in a marketing war.  Let’s start by defining the word “traditionalist.” Is the person who copies works from the past a true traditionalist? Is the person who relies on mimicking forms and rehashing architectural details from one period of time, long ago, an innovator?  It’s time for a “emperor’s new clothes” moment.  We need to state the obvious. The person who copies is called a plagiarist.  He or she does not deserve to be considered truly respectful of tradition (more on tradition later).

The Catholic Church tells us we have a moral responsibility to innovate.  Cultures that don’t innovate die.  The Church is in a constant state of renewal, and it should be, whether we like it or not; that is reality. To the logical, rational thinking person, this comes as no surprise.  In subsequent articles we will also define what it means to innovate from the perspective of Catholic morality. The crisis in church architecture is not a stylistic one; it’s a moral one.  And it is not exclusively the fault of the modernist, who has his or her own problems.

The neo-neo classicist, and/or false traditionalist, will often fall back on accusing architects whose approach to architecture is not strictly rooted in historic representations as being victims of the “Zeitgeist” (spirit of the day), as if everyone is “infected” by it.  Instead, it reflects a deeper cultural crisis.  Don’t doubt it for a second.  It reflects the objectification of parts—parts of products and machines, parts of buildings, and parts of the HUMAN BODY.  This evil has no stylistic limitations.  The real culprit is this objectification.  It affects practically everything around us and is the work of the evil one and not only limited to the realm of pornographers.  It greatly saddens us all to know that this fascination with objectification has affected the clergy as well.

If we are successful, the next time you sit on a church building committee, you will have confidence to confront the false traditionalist, modernist or whatever kind of architect you happen to have in front of you.  Your culture and your traditions are as important as anyone else’s.  Everyone has something meaningful to contribute.



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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