Church architecture today

America, the Jesuit magazine, has a brief slideshow featuring some outstanding contemporary worship spaces. Have a look, and then come back and tell us what you think of these churches and chapels.

The photos accompany an essay in which Roberto Chiotti and Richard S. Vosko, an architect and a sacred space planner, discuss the three important attributes of contemporary church design:

The first and most important thing about church design is that it must help worshipers to become re-enchanted with the glory of God’s creation. Our primary life values have been human-centered, yet survival in the 21st century depends on an ability to place the needs of the planet before our own. .... Church design must not only be beautiful but also must draw attention to the beauty and diversity of creation.

Second, church buildings, whether already standing or still in the planning stages, must become more sustainable. .... Saving energy and the responsible stewardship of the earth’s resources also lead to good stewardship of parish financial resources.

Third, church design today should reflect a deep sense of place and a reverence for local context. The design of a church in a southern desert environment should be quite different than that of a church in the northwest mountains or an eastern coastal environment. ... Using local natural materials harvested or extracted in a sustainable way and orienting a building to capture a natural vista are just two of many ways in which church design can resonate with a local faith community.

Comments (5)

I can only speak as one who has sung a nuptial Mass in San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio.

The space, as presently configured, invites the very worst excesses of "versus populum" celebration as the "Priest Show" or "Autocrat of the Holy Table." All eyes are directed to the Priest; there is no invitation to look beyond the bartender.

Still, one *may* sing polyphony in that space, and have it resonate. If they'll let you.

I can only speak as one who has sung a nuptial Mass in San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio.

The space, as presently configured, invites the very worst excesses of "versus populum" celebration as the "Priest Show" or "Autocrat of the Holy Table." All eyes are directed to the Priest; there is no invitation to look beyond the bartender.

Still, one *may* sing polyphony in that space, and have it resonate. If they'll let you.

Truly, the most "contemporary" looking one is probably the San Fernando Cathedral interior,(which really does seem to have the problem Mr. Burkett stated) while the other ones would honestly be better put to use as airport terminals from the 1960's.

The most exciting thing about the churches shown is that their congregations obviously began with theology rather than style then were bold enough to give it expression.

Perhaps the most telling detail of the San Fernando Cathedral cannot be fond here, but appears instead on a panoramic picture of the interior on their website: the altar platform is surrounded by a fence of the sort of barriers used to herd people at the TSA checkpoint at the airport. They may not be allowed to have an altar rail during services, but it is obviously wanted the rest of the time.

It's really about time that owners of long, tripartite buildings quit fighting them. My high school chapel has been ruined even more effectively than that cathedral, and for pretty much the same reason: it's a relentlessly elongated, transcendent space that directs one outward toward God, and we can't have that. So the old choir was abolished, the altar pulled forward, and the reredos left irrelevantly on the east wall. It's awkward and emphasizes the rejection of the past, not to mention the temptation of versus pop performance Burkett points out. Likewise, I can appreciate the problems presented by the National Cathedral's original arrangement, but I think the better solution would have been to summon up the nerve to remove Frohman's authentic but irrelevant-to-Anglican-practice screen.

As for the other two, the chapel looks institutional in the extreme, and as one can see from St. Gabriel's website, it's the sort of modernist interior that can only be attractive with the lights turned off.

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