Sacred Modernism: An Examination of the Modernist Movement in Sacred Architecture of the Mid-Century
If one were to imagine a Catholic church, the first image that springs to mind would probably resemble a medieval Gothic cathedral with buttresses, pointed arches and a spire pointing skyward. Upon reflection, many other styles could easily be identified as Catholic architecture: the simple but grandiose structures of the Romanesque, or perhaps the elaborate styles of the Baroque and Rococo. An image that is more difficult to associate with sacred architecture is that of modernism. The Roman Catholic Church is a particularly conservative institution. Modernity, on the other hand, is revolutionary; it is rational, functional and technical; it rejects ornament and embraces innovation. Surprisingly, in the years following the end of World War II, places of worship defied expectations. Concrete blocks, raw materials, angular shapes and exposed structures have all been used to break with tradition and create churches that hardly resemble a church. This article examines mid-century modernist church architecture, aided by imagery by Jamie McGregor Smith.
By the 1950s, modern architecture had caught on across Europe. The shift is partly due to urgent post-war construction needs and restrictions on limited access to materials. Modernity reacted particularly cleverly to these constraints. However, the establishment of modernism in church architecture was slower. Church architecture was predominantly eclectic in the first half of the century, favoring historicist styles such as Gothic, Romanesque Revival, or the undisputed modern style typical of the 1930s. New ideas were permitted only if they were tempered by tradition and remained recognizable as sacred. This mentality was challenged in the post-war years.
The underlying motive behind the Church’s acceptance of modernity was a desire to present a socially acceptable face to the modern world, that the Church belongs in and is relevant to the modern world, according to Robert Proctor in his book Building the Modern Church: Roman Catholic Church Architecture in Britain.” The movement was initially supported by local priests and bishops, who preferred a contemporary appearance that reflected the age in which the church was built.
Space for prayer: design for spirituality and refuge
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool, UK, marked a turning point in the appreciation of modernist styles. In 1960, following a worldwide design competition, the commission was awarded to Sir Frederick Gibberd, an established non-Catholic modernist architect. Traditional architects had previously lost the contract for cost reasons. The building was completed in 1967, just five years after construction began.
The encouragement to develop an appropriate language of modern architecture for the Church was also underscored by financial constraints. Although the 1950s eased post-war austerity, the morale of austerity remained an important consideration. A soothing image of simplicity, almost poverty, was desired by both the clergy and the people. Modern architects could use simple materials, new building technologies and the absence of ornament to meet financial constraints without aesthetic compromises.
The Wotruba Church in Vienna, Austria is an exercise in constraint on cost and a feat on expressiveness. It consists of 152 concrete blocks arranged asymmetrically and has no intended front. The use of concrete was generally favored because of its availability and the formal freedom it afforded architects. The church, originally called Trinity Church, was built between 1974 and 1976 based on a model by the sculptor Friz Wotruba. Architect Fritz Gerhard Mayer drew the plans for this striking building.
I wanted to design something that shows that poverty doesn’t have to be ugly, that renunciation can be in an environment that, despite its simplicity, is both beautiful and happy at the same time – also Fritz Wotruba, designer of the Church of the Most Holy Trinity known as the Wotruba Church.
Financial difficulties delayed the construction of Clifton Cathedral in Bristol, UK, under the direction of architect Ronald Weeks. After a long delay, a dialogue was established between priests, lay people and architects and the building was completed in 1973. The design brief was also adjusted to respond to an important event in the Roman Catholic world. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council adopted official documents that redefined the relationship between the Catholic Church and the modern world. This made the liturgical act more accessible to the congregation and the general public. Embodying the new liturgical rituals, Clifton Cathedral presents visitors with spaces that emphasize movement and meaning. A spacious sanctuary with wide altars surrounded by seating for 1000 people was desired. The lack of decorations caused the residents to turn their attention to the sanctuary and the rituals being performed.
At first glance, the interiors of modernist churches may seem like exercises in their purest form. While the church program does not have many functional limitations, Clifton Cathedral is an example of a collaboration where functionality played a key role. During the preliminary talks, the cathedral committee began to explain the liturgy to its architects. Architects tried to embody the gestures, movements and pauses in architecture.
The Church of Santa Maria Immacolata in Longarone, Italy, consecrated in 1983, also shows a strong adherence to the guidelines of the Second Vatican Council. Its structure consists of two theaters placed one on top of the other, one inside and one on the terrace above, overlooking the Vajont valley. According to architect Giovanni Michelucci, the elliptical spiral that defines the building is a commemorative gesture that evokes the wave of mud, earth and water that swept away the city of Longarone and neighboring villages in 1963.
The expressive gestures of these buildings have met with mixed reactions from the general public. The case of the Easter Church in Oberwart, Austria, completed in 1969, was so well received by the local community that it even surprised architects Günther Domenig and Eilfried Huth. Other churches, such as Wotruba Church, were delayed due to objections from local residents.
The new language of holiness is diverse and sometimes surprising. High Modernist ecclesiastical architecture takes many forms: Brutalism, “Concrete Baroque”, Structural Expressionism, and even what Robert Proctor calls communal modernism. The expression of these buildings still preserves some characteristics of Gothic architecture: they are awe-inspiring spaces, grandiose in their proportions, often with clearly visible structures and bare building materials. Regardless of their architectural language, these are spaces that inspire contemplation, meditation and introspection.
The unconventional but powerful examples of 20th-century religious architecture are further explored in British photographer Jamie McGregor Smith’s upcoming book Sacred Modernity. The book is the result of a photographic journey through little-known modernist and brutalist churches in Europe. It also includes essays by renowned architecture critics Jonathan Meades and Ivica Brnic. Fans of 20th-century architecture can support this project by donating to a crowdfunding campaign that will secure them a signed first copy of Sacred Modernity.