Moving Beyond the ‘Yellow Armadillo’
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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