Moving Beyond the 'Yellow Armadillo'

October 2008

Tom Wolfe, in his seminal critique of modernist architecture, began his "From Bauhaus to Our House" essay by pointing out the obvious that so many people are unwilling to acknowledge. Writing in 1980, he observed that every child now goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse: "Not even the school commissioners, who commissioned it and approved the plans, can figure out how it happened. The main thing is to try to avoid having to explain it to the parents."

The same can be said about the missteps and blunders in Catholic church architecture over the past fifty years. Churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike often ask the same question: How and why did these god-awful structures get built in the first place? Boston's Cardinal O'Malley, speaking to the U.S. Catholic bishops at their national conference a few years ago, stated the problem well: "All of us [bishops] have heard the comments of our people frequently, 'this place does not look like a church.' One of the comments that is made is that there's a certain suburbanization of the heavenly Jerusalem that has taken place."

While many Church officials and patrons are still intent on erecting novelty churches that are little more than testaments to their own existence, some notable architects like Allan Greenburg and Thomas Gordon Smith in the U.S., and Jean Louis Pages, Giancarlo Priori, and Quinlin Terry in Europe, are asking an obvious question: How can a sense of the sacred be recovered in Catholic church buildings? Part of the answer, they respond, is a return to the emphasis on the "iconic" nature of building form. In layman's terms, that means the form of the church building has meaning beyond itself; it refers to God, to the Church, and to her Sacraments -- it is a building whose form has meaning. At the risk of putting it simplistically: The building looks like a church -- a domus Dei, a true house of God.

Unfortunately, this decade, both the Catholic and mainstream media have focused on novelty churches: three high-profile American cathedral building projects and one singular high-profile "oratory" underwritten by Catholic philanthropist Thomas Monaghan, founder of Ave Maria University near Naples, Florida.

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New Oxford Notes: October 2008

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Sheesh! Can we be a bit more antagonistic and radically judgmental please? <<< To be taken as sarcasm please.

I can understand the negativity regarding Los Angeles and Oakland, but to make such ugly comments about the chapel at Ave Maria University is crossing the line. That chapel is a study in tradition. It is extremely beautiful and majestic and a very fitting home for our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Mind you, I AM a traditionalist. Beautiful traditional churches do not have to be made of marble all the time if that's your point. I would suggest you go to the Ave Maria University website and see the images of the chapel for yourself. Don't just glance at them, but immerse yourself in the imagery and architecture and hopefully your ugly prejudice will wash away. I don't think I've ever been so horrified with something written in the NOR as I have while reading this piece!
Posted by: gespin3549
October 09, 2008 12:16 PM EDT
More than one critic has said the Ave Maria chapel looks like a horse's rear end. See for yourself:
Posted by: Jack_Straw
March 29, 2010 02:28 PM EDT
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