Review: Ugly as Sin
In print since 2001, this indispensable primer on church architecture, good and bad, by Cincinnati’s own Michael S. Rose is on sale now for $5 at Sophia Institute Press.
The most readable, entertaining, and refreshingly direct book available on church architecture, it also has the best title — bar none. Did I mention that it’s indispensable? And on sale for $5?
Having worked professional with architects for many years, I know how they think and what they consider their calling to be. That’s what makes Rose’s book better than any other on the subject. He not only explains clearly and understandably how Catholic church architecture developed and what it is meant to do, but he also grasps and explains how and why non-Catholic architects decided that what church architecture is meant to do must change.
“Spaces for worship”
Architects think in terms of “spaces” and functions. The now-ubiquitous “gathering space,” for example, is a big nondescript space (not “room”) where nothing is meant to look attractive or suggest any permanent function. The result is supposed to be that people milling about for any purpose they choose will be the main focus of the “space.”
Though generally unattractive and uninviting most of the time (when they are large, empty, and unused), gathering spaces are not necessarily a threat to Catholic worship, however much of a threat they may be to aesthetics — not to mention to heating and cooling budgets. What’s important for laity and clergy to understand is how Protestant architectural ideas about what “worship spaces” should “accomplish” have interfered with Catholic worship.
In other hands, the ideas here can come across academic and even esoteric, but they’re not. They’re the everyday stuff of the architectural profession, where form and function dictate how people use a building and what goes on in it.
How a book redefined what “church spaces” should accomplish
Rose explains clearly and engagingly what the seminal book on the subject, Architecture for Worship, laid out as the new ideals for Catholic church design. Adopted by thousands of Catholic bishops, priests, worship commissions, and parishes who wanted to be up-to-date and modern, the book’s principles were later incorporated into an official USCCB publication, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, and dictate much of what still happens in church design — whether it’s situating a Jacuzzi-like baptismal font in between the “gathering space” and the “worship space,” and thus interrupting the path from the church door to the focal altar and tabernacle, or it’s situating a nondescript, table-like altar at floor level so that the “presider” stands among the people even if that means he’s not visible to most of them.
The stripped-down decor, the dining-room-style furniture, the processional cross in lieu of a permanent crucifix, the tabernacle “reserved” in a chapel one needs a sign to find — all these are part of the architect’s design. They are meant to arrange the “space” to focus on the people and the actions they perform while in the building, rather than to suggest that while the people come and go, the Church herself remains. The result is buildings that are most suited to Protestant-style worship or a community council meeting, based on whatever the people involved in worship want to do while they’re in the building, rather than on the Catholic idea of continual worship offered to God at all times, in churches of all sizes and types and locations. In a community-centered “space,” nothing is supposed to “impose” itself aesthetically on what the people do there or remain after they leave. In a Catholic Church, though the worshipper enters and departs, the worship never ends.
Ugly as Sin is a wonderful guide to what happened to our churches, and how to fix what happened. Architects are not the bad guys here, they did their jobs and created “spaces” to accomplish what they wanted to (and were paid to) accomplish. Anyone involved in building or renovating a church must understand what it is that the Catholic Church wants to accomplish, and insist that the architects they hire put their minds to that.
And did I mention, it’s only five dollars?
Michael S. Rose, Ugly as Sin: Why they Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting spaces — and How We Can Change Them Back Again. Sophia Institute Press, Manchester, NH, 2001.
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