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Sacred Modernity: An Exploration of the Modernist Movement in Mid-Century Holy Architecture [Retrospective]

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Church of the Holy Cross, Vienna, Austria - Hannes Lintl - 1975. | Image © Jamie McGregor Smith

If one were asked to picture a Catholic Church, the first image to come to mind would probably resemble a medieval gothic cathedral with buttresses, pointed arches, and a spire pointing toward the sky. On second thought, many more styles could easily be identified as catholic architecture: the simple yet grandiose structures of the Romanesque or maybe the ornate styles of Baroque and Rococo. An image more difficult to associate with sacred architecture is that of Modernism. The Roman Catholic Church is a particularly conservative establishment. Modernism, on the other hand, is revolutionary; it is rational, functional, and technical; it rejects ornaments and embraces innovation. Surprisingly, in the years after the end of the Second World War, places of worship defied expectations. Blocks of concrete, raw materials, angular shapes, and exposed structures have all been employed to break from tradition and create churches that barely resemble a church. This article will explore Modernist mid-century Church architecture with the support of images from Jamie McGregor Smith.

During the 1950s, modern architecture had become generally accepted across Europe. The shift is partly due to the urgent building needs after the war and the constraints of limited access to materials. Modernism was particularly adept at responding to these constraints. The establishment of modernism in church architecture was, however, slower. Church architecture was predominantly eclectic during the first half of the century, favoring historicist styles like Gothic, Romanesque revival, or the uncontroversial modern style typical of the 1930s. New ideas were permitted only when tempered by tradition and when remaining recognizably sacred. This mentality was challenged during the post-war years.

The underlying motive behind the Church’s acceptance of modernism was anxiety to show the modern world a socially acceptable face, that the Church belonged in the modern world and was relevant to it, 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 favored a contemporary image that reflected the age in which the church was built.

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Metropolitan Cathedral Liverpool - England - Sir Frederick Gibberd - 1967. | Image © Jamie McGregor Smith

The Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool, UK, represented a turning point in endorsing modernist styles. In 1960, the commission was given to Sir Frederick Gibberd, a well-established non-Catholic modern architect, following a worldwide design competition. Traditional architects had previously lost the commission on the grounds of costs. The building was finalized in 1967, just five years after construction began.

The encouragement to develop an appropriate language of modern architecture for the Church was also underlined by financial constraints. Even though by the 1950s, there was an easing of post-war austerity measures, the moral of austerity remained an important consideration. A reassuring image of simplicity, almost poverty, was desired by both clergy and the people. Modern architects could use simple materials, new building technologies, and an absence of ornament to meet financial constraints without aesthetic compromise.

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Council Memorial Church - Vienna, Austria - Joseph Lackner - 1968. | Image © Jamie McGregor Smith

The Wotruba Church in Vienna, Austria, is an exercise in constraint in terms of costs and a performance in terms of expressivity. Comprised of 152 asymmetrically arranged concrete blocks, it has no intentional front side. The use of concrete was generally preferred due to its availability and the formal freedom it granted architects. The church, formally known as the Church of the Most Holy Trinity, was built between 1974 and 1976 on the basis of a model by Friz Wotruba, a sculptor. Architect Fritz Gerhard Mayer drew the plans for this striking building.
I wanted to design something that shows that poverty does not have to be ugly, that renunciation can be in an environment that, in spite of its simplicity, is both beautiful and happy.

    — Fritz Wotruba, designer of Church of the Most Holy Trinity, also known as Wotruba Church
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Wotruba Kirche - Vienna, Austria - Fritz Wotruba - 1976. | Image © Jamie McGregor Smith

Financial difficulties delayed the construction of Clifton Cathedral, in Bristol, UK, led by architect Ronald Weeks. After much delay, a dialogue was set up between priests, lay people, and architects, and the building was finalized in 1973. The design brief was also adapted to respond to an important event in the Roman Catholic world. In 1965 the Second Council of the Vatican adopted official documents that redefined the relationship between the Catholic Church and the modern world. As a result, the liturgical act became more open to the congregation and the public at large. Clifton Cathedral embodies the new liturgical rituals and confronts visitors with spaces that accentuate movement and meaning. An ample sanctuary with broad altars was desired, surrounded by seats for 1000 people. The absence of decoration made the occupants focus their attention on the sanctuary and the rituals performed.

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Clifton Cathedral - Bristol, England - Ron Weeks - 1973. | Image © Jamie McGregor Smith

At first glance, the interior spaces of modernist churches may seem like exercises in pure form. While the church program does not have many functional constraints, Clifton Cathedral is an example of collaboration in which functionality played a central role. During the preliminary discussions, the cathedral committee began educating their architects about the liturgy. Architects searched to embody the gestures, movements and pauses within the architecture.

The Church of Santa Maria Immacolata in Longarone, Italy, consecrated in 1983, also shows a strong adherence to the guidelines established by the Second Vatican Council. Its structure is composed of two superimposed theaters, one inside and one on the terrace above, overlooking the valley of Vajont. According to architect Giovanni Michelucci, the elliptical spiral that defines the structure is a commemorative gesture, reminiscent of the wave of mud, earth, and water that swept away the town of Longarone and the neighboring villages in 1963.

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Church of Santa Maria Immacolata - Longarone, Italy. Giovanni Michelucci - 1963-1982. | Image © Jamie McGregor Smith

The expressive gestures of these buildings have been met with mixed responses from the larger public. The case of the Easter Church in Oberwart, Austria, finalized in 1969, was so well received by the local community, that it has surprised even the architects, Günther Domenig and Eilfried Huth. Other Churches, like the Wotruba Church, have been delayed due to the objections from residents.

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Easter Church, Oberwart, Austria - Günther Domenig and Eilfried Huth - 1969. | Image © Jamie McGregor Smith

The new language of sanctity is diverse and at times surprising. Ecclesiastical architecture of the high modern years takes many forms: brutalist, “concrete Baroque”, structural expressionism, and even what Robert Proctor calls Municipal Modernism. The expression of these buildings still retains some characteristics of Gothic architecture: they are spaces that inspire awe, grandiose in scale, often with their structures clearly exposed and their building materials left uncovered. Regardless of their architectural language, these are spaces that inspire contemplation, meditation, and introspection.

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Santuario Monte Grisa - Ing. Kramreiter - Trieste, Italy - 1958. | Image © Jamie McGregor Smith

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St Theresia Kirche - Linz, Austria - Rudolf Schwarz - 1962. | Image © Jamie McGregor Smith

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Eglise Saint-Nicolas - Heremence, Switzerland, Walter Maria Förderer - 1971. | Image © Jamie McGregor Smith

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The unconventional yet powerful examples of 20th-century religious architecture are further explored in the upcoming book Sacred Modernity by British photographer Jamie McGregor Smith. The book is the result of a photographic journey exploring little-known Modernist and Brutalist churches in Europe. It also features 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 edition of Sacred Modernity.
Last edited by Wosbald on 19 Jan 2023, 22:54, edited 1 time in total.
 
 
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Post by Sir Moose »

In case anyone cares, we seem to be lacking a puking smilie...which really would be appropriate after viewing that architecture.
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Sir Moose wrote: 19 Jan 2023, 15:17 In case anyone cares, we seem to be lacking a puking smilie...which really would be appropriate after viewing that architecture.
Well, there are always the OldCPS originals.
  • The Barf Bros.
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  • The Rubber Chicken
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"It is not enough to point the finger or attack those who do not think like us. That is a wretched tactic in today's political and cultural wars, but it cannot be the method of the Church."
    — Pope Francis, Meeting, Sept. 17, 2016
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Sir Moose wrote: 19 Jan 2023, 15:17 In case anyone cares, we seem to be lacking a puking smilie...which really would be appropriate after viewing that architecture.
You said it before I could. Those were some very nice community centers with auditoriums, but I wouldn't want to worship there.
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Post by Del »

The student parish church on the University of Wisconsin campus was poured in 1968. The exterior was nondescript, to blend in with the university architecture. They didn't want it to look like a church. The interior was bare, unfinished concrete in the architectural style of brutalism. Even the tabernacle was nothing more than a poured concrete box (although in recent years it was covered over in a way that was beautiful and sacred, thus appearing absurdly out-of-place.

The whole thing was utterly Soviet-looking.

But if that wasn't weird enough... the sanctuary and nave were curiously arranged like something from an MC Escher painting. It was impossible to celebrate Mass ad oreintem. It was impossible to celebrate Mass versus populum. It was impossible to process in an orderly way to receive Holy Communion and return to one's place.... just a cluster free-for-all. Honest-to-God, it was impossible to genuflect before entering a pew. Worshippers would genuflect upon entering the church, and then maze their way to find a seat.

Yes, the pew/benches were made of poured concrete.

There were concrete glyphs of some sort along the walls. We were told that they represented the Stations of the Cross.

I kinda wish that we could have kept it as a sort of museum, to remember what happened when times were crazy. But times have just gotten crazier since, so we decided that it would be better forgotten.

Last decade, a huge capital campaign was launched to somehow take the bunker apart. The thriving campus ministry at UW now has a stunningly beautiful church, full of marble and art. It looks like a church on the outside too, with a giant mural of Christ the King with Mary overlooking the campus Library Mall.

Cigarson was married in the beautiful new church.

Do a google image search for "St Pauls Madison." Images of the old church and the new.

The old concrete altar:
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What part of "HOC EST ENIM CORPUS MEUM" do you not understand?
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I posted this before on the old forum:

In the middle of the night I was in a chapel at Eucharistic Adoration when some poor soul committed suicide in his car in the parking lot.
It raised a question in my mind, why didn't he enter the church to give God a chance?
The answer was obvious, from the outside the building looks like a post office.
Most people, even irrational ones, don't seek God in post offices.
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Post by Hugo Drax »

Hovannes wrote: 20 Jan 2023, 10:11 I posted this before on the old forum:

In the middle of the night I was in a chapel at Eucharistic Adoration when some poor soul committed suicide in his car in the parking lot.
It raised a question in my mind, why didn't he enter the church to give God a chance?
The answer was obvious, from the outside the building looks like a post office.
Most people, even irrational ones, don't seek God in post offices.
I don't know. I mean, yeah, nobody likes ugly. I get it.

But that suicide seems more like the sin of Judas. Judas knew who Jesus was. He'd seen him forgive horrible things. Judas couldn't see that he, too, could ask for forgiveness and so he never asked for it.

That fundamental misunderstanding of Christ's mercy cannot be blamed on an architect.

But what do I know? Not much, i can tell you that.
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Post by Hovannes »

Hugo Drax wrote: 21 Jan 2023, 19:45
Hovannes wrote: 20 Jan 2023, 10:11 I posted this before on the old forum:

In the middle of the night I was in a chapel at Eucharistic Adoration when some poor soul committed suicide in his car in the parking lot.
It raised a question in my mind, why didn't he enter the church to give God a chance?
The answer was obvious, from the outside the building looks like a post office.
Most people, even irrational ones, don't seek God in post offices.
I don't know. I mean, yeah, nobody likes ugly. I get it.

But that suicide seems more like the sin of Judas. Judas knew who Jesus was. He'd seen him forgive horrible things. Judas couldn't see that he, too, could ask for forgiveness and so he never asked for it.

That fundamental misunderstanding of Christ's mercy cannot be blamed on an architect.

But what do I know? Not much, i can tell you that.
You're right of course.
The point I wanted to make is that for buildings to function, people on the outside need to know what their purpose is.
Traditional designs permit that
A firehouse I think should give the observer visual clues that it is indeed a firehouse. The same with hospitals, train stations, libraries, zoos, post offices etc... and especially churches.
The suicide victim probably knew that. Churches apparently are popular for suicides one of the cops told me, however a church that looks like a post office doesn't outwardly suggest that it is a house of God, so maybe someone in search of a house of God will miss out.
This suggests to a simpleton like me that the designer is likely ashamed of the end use. I'd also think that the building committee would want to make things easy for searchers, no?
Then again,
imagine the confusion of a person entering a church with a package they were intending to send to Elmhurst, IL?
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Ecological Materials: Towards a New Economy

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© Toa Heftiba

The world’s most primitive building materials are being used to create the most advanced buildings. In light of an environmental crisis, architects have shifted their efforts to better design built environments for people and the planet. The results may often seem ‘greenwashed’, failing to address the root of ecological distress. Environmentally responsible architecture must aim not to reverse the effects of the ecological crisis, but instigate a revolution in buildings and how we inhabit them. Essays from the book The Art of Earth Architecture: Past, Present, Future envision a shift that will be a philosophical, moral, technological and political leap into a future of environmental resilience.

The construction industry appears to have its head in the past, the effects of the industrial revolution still playing out. Often under the pretext of rationality, industrialized building materials continue to be used excessively, inching society towards climate change. The manufacturing of industrial materials is an agent of environmental pollution. Some materials, even if marketed as sustainable, require lots of energy to create or maintain them. Waste production may also vary among building materials, the environmental impact of which can be substantial.

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© Haiting Sun

Public health is also threatened by industrial materials and their manufacturing processes. Even “natural” materials may inherently be unsafe to use. Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral and an identified carcinogen, is responsible for deaths of thousands across the world. Building materials impact health during various phases of the Building Life Cycle — from manufacturing and occupation to demolition and disposal. Unfortunately, most building products with harmful chemicals are cheap, flexible and easy to apply and maintain. The industry is heavily subsidized, thus sustaining the use of such materials.

Carbon tax imposed on the building sector aims to financially persuade builders to move away from the use of harmful conventional materials. While there are merits to this approach, there remains an urgent need to promote more natural and ecological building materials, rather than materials that cause the worst pollution and affect public health. What the construction industry — and society at large — requires is a social and economical shift that puts the planet first.

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© Enrique Castro-Mendivil

In his book, Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth, environmental analyst Lester R. Brown highlights the necessity to design ‘a new materials economy’ using existing technologies on natural materials like earth, thatch, bamboo and wood. “Socialism collapsed because it did not allow prices to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it doesn't not allow prices to tell the ecological truth”, he states.

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© Petr Polák

Towards Green Capitalism

Green capitalism, or eco-capitalism, recognizes that capital and profits are equally dependent on environmental protection and sustainability. The construction industry can pave the way for green capitalism by adopting models that put people and the planet alongside profit. The use of ecological materials has a ripple effect on the design of buildings and cities, tackling environmental issues at the unit scale. Achieving all the benefits of green architecture along with functionality and profitability however, requires a strong level of design integration.

Green materials also have a crucial role to play in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) mission of reducing global CO2 emissions. Naturally sourced materials do not require energy-intensive manufacturing methods, unlike industrially produced ones. Their negligible carbon footprints help control energy consumption, develop renewable energies and build local circular economies.

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© Jeevan Jyot

For a shift towards green capitalism, a deep understanding of natural materials is required, especially in their local contexts. New materials are being supplemented by rediscovering ancient ones like rammed earth, straw bales, bamboo, and stone — all non-toxic, safe, durable and versatile. Alongside, the ancestral skill of generations of builders needs to be re-examined to provide a foundation for an appraisal of vernacular building practices.

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Courtesy of WASP

Towards a Circular Economy

Circular building is a trendy word — every material producer nowadays claims to be circular. However, in practice recycling rates worldwide are below 9%, with nowhere near enough secondary material to meet demand. A circular economy redefines the way the world consumes and produces goods and services. It’s an economic, but also a societal framework that seeks a shift from the consumption of finite resources and looks to eliminate waste and pollution. A transition to natural architecture has taken center stage in design conversations, emphasizing the reuse, repair and recycling of materials.

Environmental challenges are prompting research into the use of resources gathered locally and sustainability to encourage the reuse and recycling of materials. The inherent energy saving and respectful practices of natural architecture may also be hybridized using technology to optimize material properties. The potential of the latest generation of bio-based building materials will fuel transition to a carbon neutral, healthy and circular built environment.

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© Iwan Baan

Societies need to preserve and strengthen local architectural cultures, and promote a diverse range of building solutions that can be used in multiple contexts and scales. This requires an overhaul of our economic and social model, revising the relationship between humans and their environment. Natural materials not only demand an ecological way of building but also a new way of living.

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© Pedro Bravo, Sofia Hernández, Francisco Martínez

Towards a Social Paradigm Shift

The present-day ethos of ‘green’ architecture is narrow, manifesting as technological attempts to enhance a building's energy efficiency. This social paradigm, especially in architecture, seems fixated on the modernist movement that built decontextualized structures detached from the environment. The bygone harmony between humans and nature remains a relic of the past, when it could navigate a societal shift into an ecologically balanced world.

A coherent vision for the future of civilization guides thinkers like earth architect Romain Anger, and green architecture plays a strong role in it. Anger stresses a need to return to our older worldviews of humans as an integrated whole of the biosphere. “Buildings of the future must be alive, made from earth — the product of a circular economy, consuming its own waste and refuse just like any living ecosystem”, he writes.

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© Kashef Chowdhury

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© Hasan Çalışlar, PAAF, Metin Çavuş, Dilara Demiralp, Aram Tufan

The role of architecture in the fight against climate change goes beyond controlling building emissions or using sustainable materials. As Winston Churchill famously quoted, ‘We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us’. Architecture forms a framework around how we live, our actions, our health and our social relationships. To stimulate a shift in societal values, it becomes vital to change the architecture that determines our everyday behavior.

The green revolution will see a change in economic and social structures, and thereby influence the built environment. Ecological architecture is not a single miracle, but one element in a broad range of strategies. A truly green form of architecture can and must contribute to the upcoming paradigm of environmental transition.
 
 
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Post by Del »

Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the message."

Apparently, any medium must now send the message of loudly signaled virtue regarding the latest thing.


We used to build beautiful churches for inspiring virtue. But that was a different kind of virtue... it was normal for the human condition then.
What part of "HOC EST ENIM CORPUS MEUM" do you not understand?
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