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Why Are There So Many Ugly Churches? | An interview with Moyra Doorly, author of No
Place For God | August 13, 2007
architect Moyra Doorly is the author of No Place For God: The Denial of the
Transcendent in Modern Church Architecture (Ignatius Press, 2007), a critique
and examination of the banality and ugliness that is evident in so many modern
Catholic parishes and cathedrals. In No Place For God, Doorly traces the
principles of modern architecture to the ideas of space that spread rapidly
during the twentieth century, seeing a parallel between the desacralization of
the heavens (and consequently of churches) and the mass inward search for a god
of one's own. Carl E. Olson, editor of IgnatiusInsight.com, recently
interviewed Doorly about her book and some its main points of emphasis.
have a background in architecture and are also a convert to the Catholic Faith.
Can you tell me a bit about your interest in architecture, your journey to
Catholicism, and the relationship, if any, between the two?
Doorly: Architecture is
interesting because of the power it has. Buildings can inspire wonder or dread,
and either enhance or diminish the lives of the people who use them. My journey
to Catholicism began as a flight from a series of nightmarish, New Age inspired
experiences. The only connection between the two I can think of is a visit,
during the first few months, to a Modernist-style parish church which made me
gasp with horror and ask 'What have they done?'
IgnatiusInsight.com: I suspect that some readers might think that No Place For God
a bit polemical. But it clearly
echoes and voices the frustrations felt by many Catholics. What has been the
reaction so far to the book?
Doorly: Some readers might think that. But
Relativist church buildings, which proclaim by their form and aesthetic that
they are no place for God, can provoke strong reactions. At any rate, it's too
soon to tell how it's been received. (For example, copies have only just
arrived in the UK.)
did "The Great Building Disaster", as you describe it, begin, and
what were its philosophical, theological, and cultural roots?
Doorly: The disaster began when the spirit of
Relativism, as embodied in Modernist architecture, met the 'spirit of Vatican
II'. Both share the desire to discard tradition and break radically from the
past, to dismantle the boundaries and dissolve the forms.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What are
some features of the "architecture of relativist space" and why
should ordinary Catholics be familiar with them?
Doorly: Ordinary Catholics must
already be aware of the changes that have taken place in church architecture
over recent decades. The architecture of Relativist space, like the universal
model it embodies, is homogenous, directionless and value-free. A Relativist
church building downplays or even denies the concept of sacred space, rejects
linear forms, and is designed so that every part of it appears to be of equal
importance. Outside it will resemble the local library or sports stadium, thereby
proclaiming 'nothing special here'. Inside the people 'gather round' the plain
and unadorned altar, having hardly noticed as they passed the Tabernacle, and
the message is the same.
Once gathered, there is
apparently nowhere 'beyond' to aim for because the circular or semi-circular
liturgical space cannot suggest this possibility. The subjectivism of the
Modern Age favours circular forms because in a Relativist universe there is no
truth 'out there'. The denial of the transcendent vision is inherent in the
form of the contemporary church building and the space it creates. This same
blocking of the route to the transcendent is also the result of sanctuary
re-orderings in traditional churches.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Who is E.A.
Sovik and why is he (a non-Catholic) so important to understanding why there
are so many ugly Catholic churches today?
Doorly: In 1773 the Lutheran architect
E.A. Sovik published Architecture for Worship in which he laid out his reasons
for dismantling the traditional form of the church building and replacing it
with the 'centrum' or worship space for 'the people'. Sadly his ideas where
widely adopted by many Bishops' Conferences as the model for new Catholic
churches at the time and since.
IgnatiusInsight.com: The recently
built Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles has been very
controversial here in the United States. In what ways does it give shape, so to
speak, to what you call the "Relativist Church Building"?
Doorly: The new cathedral is
designed to be more 'inclusive and universally appealing than specifically
Catholic' said one official of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. According to the
brochure, the cathedral is 'for people' and is 'a place for everything that
ennobles the human spirit; fine art, music, folk craft worship and more'.
One question must be
asked. Why build a Catholic cathedral that has as one of its central aims not
to be specifically Catholic? To aim for universal appeal is a Relativist
impulse borne of the belief that all religious traditions are equally valid,
that there's 'nothing special' about Catholicism and nothing special about God.
In Los Angeles Cathedral it seems that only Man is special.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Some modern
church architecture has been based on the premise that it reflects a more
accurate understanding of the worship of the early Christians. How did this
notion come about and how accurate is it?
Doorly: This notion is entirely
mistaken. Again it is a Modernist impulse to discard two millennia of tradition
in an attempt to return to the imagined simplicity and sense of community
enjoyed by an ancient age. In the early Church people gathered in houses
because church building was illegal. The early Church did not allow Catechumens
into the main body of the church and the entirely 20th century
novelty of Mass facing the people would have seemed an alien practice
IgnatiusInsight.com: Not a few
modern Catholic churches have been designed and then defended as having been
built for the benefit of "the people". Any truth to that claim?
Doorly: Never trust anyone who
claims that some entirely new and radical way of doing things is for the
benefit of 'the people'. They always mean that the benefit is for themselves.
final chapter of No Place for God is a plea for a return to ad orientum—the priest and people together facing East
in liturgical worship. How vital is facing liturgical east to a
re-appropriation of good church architecture?
Doorly: The return to ad orientum--the priest and people together facing East
in liturgical worship is vital if the transcendent vision is to be reclaimed.
Turn Again Father.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Any signs of hope when it comes to church architecture?
Doorly: There is definite hope. A new generation
of younger scholars and priests is beginning to ask these questions and draw on
the magnificent tradition of the Church both in writing and practice. Churches
are beginning to be re-re-ordered by reversing the stripping of the altars that
has taken place. Secular architects began abandoning the principles of
Relativist space thirty years ago. Church architects can do the same given the
lead by those who commission the designs.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Excerpts:
A Great Building Disaster |
Excerpt from No Place For God | Moyra Doorly
The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer |
Excerpt from The Spirit of the Liturgy | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
We Worship? | Preface to The Organic Development of the Liturgy
by Alcuin Reid, O.S.B. | by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
U.M. Lang's Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer
| Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Mass of Vatican
II | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
To Heaven Backward | Interview with Father Jonathan Robinson of the
Does Christianity Need A Liturgy? | Martin Mosebach |
From The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy
Music and Liturgy |
Excerpt from The Spirit of the Liturgy | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Rite and Liturgy
| Denis Crouan, STD
Lived: The Divinization of Man | Jean Corbon, OP
The Latin Mass: Old Rites and New Rites in Today's World | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
Worshipping at the Feet of the Lord: Pope Benedict XVI and the
Liturgy | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
Reflections On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly) |
Fr. James V. Schall, S. J.
and Conversion | Barbara Morgan
Moyra Doorly, an architect who lives in England, is also a Catholic journalist and writer in the UK. She has written for various
popular publications, including The Guardian, The New Statesman, and Tatler.
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