When I tell Catholics I meet that I’m an architect, invariably they ask me, “Why doesn’t the church I attend look like a church? Why don’t they build nice churches like the old ones we love?” Sometimes I come up with a complicated answer or theory, but most of the time I answer, “architects.”
In the United States, we have a fairly good tradition of building beautiful churches in which one can feel a true sense of reverence. One would be hard pressed to find a church built before World War II that wasn’t beautiful and beloved by its parishioners. It would be an even more difficult task to find such a church built after the World War that comes close to the beauty found in an average 1920s church and a Herculean task to find one built since the 1960s.
How is it that even within the Catholic Church, where we affirm and believe in the importance of tradition, that a deep and profound architectural heritage came to be abandoned? Again the answer is that architects, like so many other artists, have become obsessed with the idea of novelty. Most artists have been trained to believe by their mentors in 20th century art culture that only novel or “revolutionary” creations are worthy of being called art.
Today, I would venture to guess that most architects labor under this idea in one form or another. Some are truly dedicated revolutionaries, trying to undo centuries of tradition and casting aspersions towards traditional architects as backwards monarchists, luddites, or purveyors of kitsch. Most, however, are simply trying to be creative in the best way they can, some even maintaining an innate affection for the traditional, but still holding it at an arm’s length.
But in terms of high profile architecture, the revolutionary architects have been the ones that have caused the most egregious damage to the beauty of the Church, creating bunkers that one barely recognizes as a church, let alone a Catholic one. The Jubilee Church in Rome by Richard Meier, Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles by Rafael Moneo and the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland by Craig Hartman of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, to name just a few, are examples of the tremendous ugliness foisted upon the Church by these revolutionary modernists. Coincidentally, or perhaps quite logically, all of these architects are atheist or at least agnostic spiritualists. However, most churches we see daily in our communities are built by skilled, but uninspired, architects. A great many of them are committed and practicing Catholics, who nonetheless labor under the philosophical sway of the revolutionaries.
Now, most architects don’t want to rock the boat and become bomb throwing revolutionaries; they are content to go with the flow, while not realizing the philosophy they casually subscribe to contradicts the basic philosophy of their very own Church. Most believe, as do a great many Catholics, that progress is a good thing and so too even in the Church. A great many indeed believe, given the changes of the Mass and the art of the church that the Church during Vatican II embraced the idea of novelty writ large.
But this philosophy of novelty is contradictory to the teachings of the Church because it rests upon a fundamental belief of the modern movement: the absence of objective truth. A philosopher friend of mine explained to me that the one unifying strain of thought in modern philosophy is the belief that truth itself is not something to be discovered by man, but rather something that man creates. The classical philosopher, on the other hand, believes that truth is eternal, that we are by our nature made to seek and know the truth. To the modernist, however, there simply is not such a thing as objective, knowable, eternal truth. This belief in the absence of real truth is what is at the very root of this insatiable thirst for novelty.
The ancients believed that art was one of many ways that one could come to understand the truth, as was succinctly explained by Aristotle who wrote that “art imitates nature.” Now the Philosopher did not mean that art is just the drawing of what we call natural, such as bunnies or mountains or trees, but that art imitates the true nature of things, such as when we refer to our human nature. Art, therefore, is concerned with the truth about the nature of things: it imitates nature in order to teach us to know and love the truth. Aristotle states that human beings delight in knowing, and what in art is not concerned with delight?
What then is left for the artist to imitate if truth does not exist? If there is nothing of nature that is truly knowable then there is nothing to be learned from beauty, and art has little value over the enjoyment taken in its consumption. When there is no truth, only the new and different and shocking are the things in art that can be enjoyed.
But this enjoyment lasts only for a short time, because since there is nothing to be learned from these works of art, they lack the depth and weight to be a truly satisfying meal for the soul. If one looks at what passes for art today, it has become very thin gruel indeed. The insatiable desire of novelty has led to such abandonment of traditional forms and ideas of art that a pile of cigarette butts or the preserved corpse of a shark is considered the height of art. That such art is highly prized because it is “of its time” only shows how much art has devolved from valuing beauty, order and truth to merely a fashion or fad.
Previous generations of artists always relied upon the wisdom of their forbearers, building upon their techniques and their brilliance to find ever new ways to make beauty. Progress for architects in the past always was a fuller understanding of their craft, looking at precedent to create more beautiful buildings than the generations before. But today progress has little to do with precedent, discovering a fuller understanding of the truth and principles and working towards the end of wisdom. But again because modernists posit that those principles cannot be known, real progress towards wisdom is impossible, leaving behind only an insatiable lust for that new. Instead, the modern artist sees progress itself as the end, and calls novelty true architecture and dismisses all architecture based on tradition as worthless kitsch.
The philosophy of the classical mind stands in stark contrast with the modernist, believing that truth is real and it is a knowable thing. The classical architect embraces this idea and believes that truth is made manifest through beauty, for it is in beauty that we can come to know God. St. Thomas Aquinas says this in part when he says we know God through the order of the universe.
In architecture we only need to look to the examples of the past before the middle of the 20th century to see this beauty. By studying the great architecture of the past, especially the work of the Church, we can come to better understand the principles of beauty: order, proportion and magnitude. The more we study it the better we come to understand our own world and God’s ordering of it. Indeed, this is the true purpose of all art, to shed light on the reality of being through the beautiful, to make radiant the truth. Now to best understand these truths, such as the truths of the faith, we must look to the lessons of the past and emulate them. Not simply copy or parrot the works of past masters, but by practice learn the true principles of the art.
Understanding and emulating the beauty to be found in traditional architecture is key to the creation of true Catholic art. Through the principles of proportion and order, an architect can create sacred architecture that is entirely grounded in the principles of beauty that is found in tradition and that sheds new light on truth, and especially the truths of the faith. This is the amazing property of a beautiful church, it is at once ancient and new, just as beautiful today as it always has been, still speaking with clarity of the truth through beauty it possesses.
This is why the Second Vatican Council declared “the church has not adopted any particular style of art as her own,” because throughout the centuries of Catholic architecture, the lessons and principles of sacred architecture cannot be irrelevant in our or any other time, but are infinite, because they are from God. Indeed, our architecture should reflect the faith that God is the infinite and eternal principle of all things. Just as our theology teaches us, the truths of God are not exhausted or made irrelevant in any time, but have become better understood; our fuller understanding of the truth has made our past discoveries even more radiant.
So too the styles of architecture change, not by massive revolutions or by wholesale rejection of the past (such as how Walter Gropius famously threw all of Harvard’s architectural history books on the trash heap when he became Dean of the architecture school in the 1930s) but by slow degrees corresponding to the revelation of the truth through philosophy and art and the work of centuries of artists.
This is the future of a true Catholic architecture, one that embraces our human capacity to know and to experience the truth, both through our intellect and through the beauty of art. That we can create such beauty and that we ought to create this is evident from the teachings of the Church. We, however, must in many ways undo the damage done to the classical world by the march of modernism, both as a philosophy and in the practice of art and architecture. Philosophy and architecture need each other when it comes to this, for philosophy to define and defend the idea that there is truth and beauty, and for architecture to create beautiful works of art, informed by truth.
There have been signs of progress towards this ideal, where new developments in architecture are striving towards a fuller understanding of truth through the beautiful, such as at my own alma mater, Thomas Aquinas College. Here where the Great Books are studied not for their historic value, but as books that are critical to understanding ourselves, the world around us and God himself, a grand new chapel has been built to the glory of God. The Chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity is not simply a replica of a Church, but a lesson in brick and stone of how ancient principles of beauty come to life in new and creative ways.
Inspired by both the high renaissance churches of Palladio in Italy and the local vernacular Mission churches of California, the chapel shows perfectly how this growth of wisdom happens. By blending together these different styles without an inordinate desire for novelty, a truly original piece of art is created. Here the architect Duncan Stroik rejected the notion that one must pursue the novel and embraced the beautiful forms that will endure for generations. This is the choice that all architects must make to create a true Catholic architecture.
When it comes to a choice between novelty for novelty’s sake and the beautiful, in our Catholic churches the beautiful and the true must always be chosen. We can create something new, a new way to see the beautiful, but not create a new beauty according to our own image. In this way we can create what is both ancient and new. Truth is as infinite as God is, to seek after it in our architecture is to create something worthy of God and our Church.
This resource is provided in collaboration with The Foundation for Sacred Arts.