In the past few weeks a number of recent churches garnered attention in the architectural press. In addition to the Val Notre-Dame Abbey, Saint-Jean-de-Matha and Good Shepherd, Ponferrada already featured, here are four contemporary churches of note.
Merit within the architectural community does not necessarily equate to merit in the ecclesiastical, and it is illuminating within this set of four churches to assess when design serves the church and when it answers only to itself. (This is not a problem unique to church buildings; much of what is published and critically acclaimed by the architecture culture fails to sufficiently address the inhabitational, social or practical requirements of buildings). In different ways these four projects highlight the potential dichotomy between architectural quality and ecclesiastical quality: whether they operate in opposition to each other as in St Anthony, Portalegre and the Sacred Heart of Jesus Motherhouse, Sherbooke; whether they are isolated from each other as in Holy Cross, Jylling; or whether they are more integrated as in Gethsemane Lutheran, Seattle.
I do not mean to say that church culture and architectural culture need to be antagonistic. But under the current conditions where architecture is increasingly aligned with finance and development, with the gratuitous in height or the extravagant in form, the values of architects and the church diverge to a degree that such an opposition constitutes a significant characteristic of contemporary building culture.
Photos and analysis after the break.
St Anthony (António), Portalegre, PortugalView in the Building Database
Our first building in this set comes from Portugal. Its overriding quality is of introspection: from its relationship to the surrounding town to the treatment of the courtyard to the unusual focal point of the nave. It is an entirely self-enclosed compound built around a long garth leading up to the main church. The imposing planes lend the courtyard a stark austerity suggesting a mode of contemplation more than one of gathering. The people awkwardly clustering around the edges in this photograph reveals this quality eloquently.
The emphasis on the contemplative aspects of spirituality continues on the interior. The most notable feature of the church interior is the wide expanse of clear glazing behind the sanctuary opening to an enclosed natural stone outcropping. Figural reredos are replaced with a dramatic textural surface whose depth allows for an evocative play of light.
The terminal or focal surface of a church is a perennial problem. Not only is there the question of what should be depicted or how it should be treated, but there is moreover the problem of having worship directed toward any image whatsoever based on the inherited Mosaic interdiction against idols. While the distinction between worshiping images and worship passing through to the archetype is clear, the focal plane of a Eucharistic church is a unique case where there is an expectation that this surface represent where or to whom the sacrifice of the mass is directed. But the equation with the terminal surface with the object or direction of worship assumes a celebration ad orientem. The prevalent celebration versus populum complicates the matter further in that it is still a dominant focal plane for the congregation (or at least experienced as the dominant backdrop) while not serving engaged by the celebrant’s part of the Eucharistic action.
All of this is brought to mind by the unique solution in this church, which provides further material for reflection on the status of the back wall of the church. How well it resolves these issues is unclear. On the one hand it relates to the speculations of Rudolf Schwarz that composing the focal plane either of light (which is impossible) or of the inside of a parabola might serve. On the other hand, it adds a language of individual meditative landscape of the kind seen in various Buddhist or Shinto traditions.
On the whole, it is the individual contemplative expressions which dominate the church, not only in this one aspect but in its entire aesthetic expression. It is very much in the vein of the dominant discourse in sacred architecture which deals primarily with subjective aspects of spirituality. To be sure, the devotional and contemplative are significant aspects of Christian spirituality, but when these provide the dominant character of a parish church, as is the case here, something vital is missing. In the end what makes this building attractive to architects detracts from its functions as a church.
For contrast, I would point to the compatriot St Mary, Marco de Canavezes designed by Alvaro Siza. While it shares the dominant abstract white planar surfaces, the difference in its posture (both in its interior and its place in the surrounding landscape) presents much of what is missing in St Anthony, Portalegre and balances between the subjective and objective or the individual and communal needs of a parish church.
Holy Cross, Jyllinge, DenmarkView in the Building Database
This small building, built as a second church to supplement the existing historic church in the village, also places its interior formal emphasis on the terminal plane. In this case the denomination is different and with that change comes different requirements for this part of the church. Greater emphasis on the spoken aspects of worship lead to more of a focal point expanding much like an auditorium.
The form of this auditorium wedge works perfectly within the overall angular geometry, which the architects claim originates in the fjord landscape surrounding. the continuity between the geometry of the plan and section is particularly admirable. The designers have found a sweet spot in the balance between the gratuitous geometry which overrides the spatial qualities and the insufficient variation reading simply as uncomfortable irregularity common to similarly buildings.
Most of the architectural activity occurs in the entry sequence and at the back of the nave, leaving a clean, but not bare, expression in the body of the church. This strategy is effective and results in what looks like a very nice space overall that I would very much like to see in action and in age. This is a case where the architectural qualities at least compliment the church function, and potentially serve it well.
Daughters of Charity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Motherhouse, Sherbooke, QuebecView in the Building Database
There is much to admire here from the point of view of the strictly formal internal contemporary architectural discourse (especially when photographed with a wide-angle lens). But from the photographs and descriptions alone it is difficult to tell how well it serves as a monastic foundation.
There are a number of ways to mediate between an existing historic building and an addition ranging from mimesis to contrast to camouflage. The strategy here, though, seems to be to ignore the existing entirely while connecting directly to the most prominent aspect of its most important component (that is, the altar end of the chapel). From the materials published, it is difficult to see how this transition works. Not only is it a formally significant joint, but is is also presumably a functionally vital one as the walk from the rooms to the chapel would be the primary experience of the sisters housed within.
I also wonder about these interiors and their appropriateness to residential spaces, let alone monastic ones.
Overall, the architecture dominates in this project. It may serve well in the end, but I think this would be in isolation of its design more than as a result of it.
Gethsemane Lutheran, Seattle, USView in the Building Database
The final project in this set is the renovation of one of the oldest churches in Seattle. Situated next to Greyhound bus terminal in a city with a very large transient population, the homeless outreach necessarily forms a major aspect of the church’s ministry. While a dominant ministry might not typically be part of the identity which registers in a church’s design, it does in this case.
Homelessness is in part a problem of architecture and therefore one which architecture must play a role in solving. Gethsemane Lutheran has taken this fact seriously and is providing for transitional and affordable housing to form a large part of their building program. This is a wonderful use of the site and of the church building program to turn the development and construction industries inside out. It makes the ministry of the church concrete and increases its relevance. Specialization in culture and in building types has played a role in the marginalization of the church and its building within the social context and projects like these show how she might expand her buildings to provide much needed services and spaces poorly met by the market.
The housing component defines the street presence of the building. It integrates into the surrounding neighborhood (now overrun with condos) and mediates between the larger structures and the smaller church which sits back from the main street. Much of the reording of the nave and the functional sequences takes its form from the addition of the housing and public meeting functions. So in some sense the architecture takes precedence over the interior concerns of the church. However, every aspect of the architecture–from space planning to material expression–derives from a decision of how the church community operates and serves.