Writing at NewGeography.com, Dallas architect Julien Meyrat explains why modern architecture fails to connect with the sense of sacredness that religious institutions have customarily tried to convey in their structures:
Outside a few rare examples such as Ronchamp, I sense that Modernism has failed to deliver an architecture that connects with most Catholics and other traditional Christians. Much of this has to do with fact that Modernism as a cultural movement is inherently atheistic as it is based on a secular materialist philosophy. Even Renzo Piano admits as much, describing his client from the convent: “She has a profound love of architecture, of landscape, of sacred space – and even of people without religion, like me. She wanted a place of silence and prayer. I said: ‘I can’t help you with prayer, but perhaps I can help with silence and a little joy.”
And therein lies the crux of the problem: When one has done away with symbols, theology, and the act of worship, there’s little else to inspire a credible work of sacred art or architecture. Piano, like any committed Modernist, is left with little more than a preference for abstraction, technology and some vague nostrums about nature and space. For a Modernist, the point of architecture is to convey an image of maximum clarity, in which all elements are related by function and little else. As long as a space is adequately sheltered and functions for the use of its occupants, there is no need for decorative flourish. Piano is reduced to checking off boxes for the client’s wish list, from the number of rooms, to furnishings, and to achieving a quality of ‘silence’. There’s nothing all that particular about an architecture of silence–maybe a dark room secluded from more socially active spaces. Given the right palette of materials and details, any space can be turned into something contemplative. But can this generic approach to design evoke much meaning beyond mere emotional states such as peace?
The answer, Meyrat says, is decidedly no:
Sacred spaces achieve much of [their] effect by emphasizing mystery. This is at the core of any religion, in which divine truth is revealed beyond any logical or rational framework. As is often said, God is revealed in mysterious ways, and the purpose of any sacred space is to embody this reality. It is inherent that a secular space is completely counter to this and thus adopts an architectural language devoid of mystery or even ambiguity. Secular spaces instead embrace the language of the engineer, someone who works outside the world of art, poetry, and indeed of mystery, by solving problems with the most rational tools of math and science. There is a lot of work that goes into making successful settings for secular activities, much of it having to do with the science of building, such as lighting, acoustics, and visibility. There is also a tendency for generating phenomenological effect through technology, such as making walls highly transparent or reflective, surfaces either smooth or deliberately rough. To the Modernist who puts its faith in technological progress, the more an effect can exceed what can be done by the human hand, the better.
Such attention to a material’s effects point to [the effect of] Modernism’s essentially materialist philosophy on architecture. In sacred architecture, the building and the spaces within serve to connect users to a deeper reality that transcends its walls.They function as a gateway from the material world to a spiritual realm–the focus is on the eternal, not the object that portends to represent it. In a secular context like Modernism, the object is the thing itself, and all meaning is tied directly to that object.
This architecture is part and parcel of a larger trend in society and within the church in particular, in which the human elements are emphasized and overwhelm any sense of connection to transcendent values:
This probably explains why many Catholics feel a certain frustration with the role played by modern music, art and design in today’s church. The music uses irregular folk beats, vulgar melodies and harmonies, and seem composed to bring attention to the songs themselves rather than acquainting singers to a more transcendent reality. In contemporary Christian art, Christ is portrayed as a nondescript figure, and often times and rendered in an abstracted archaic style that is flat and lacks feeling. The cross is abstracted to emphasize its iconic nature as a symbol, detached from any literal representation of what actually happened on the cross. In most modern churches, seating is arranged as a theater in the round, focusing the parishioners’ attention to the the priest, or the choir, rather than to God as manifested in an elaborately decorated apse wall or a ceiling pointed to heaven. This was vividly brought to my attention when watching the broadcast of Christmas mass from the Vatican–most of the camera shots showed details of the sanctuary’s glorious interior and symbolic art, with the occasional view of the Pope. Catholic worship is not about the mere men (priests) who help conduct its rituals but is instead is about how God is revealed in them by means of humanity’s most outward expression of what lies within its soul: Art. When there is nothing meaningful or moving to look at, one is resigned to paying attention to a charismatic individual standing on a stage, transcendent beauty is loss, and the Christian message takes on a banal delivery.
As an example of a rare effective and compelling modern worship space, Meyrat cites the Cistercian Chapel in Irving, Texas, designed by Gary Cunningham:
People who seek the church want their souls nourished by the church’s message in as many forms as possible. When many of these forms are abstracted or simplified to an incomprehensible level, it leaves such people feeling unfulfilled, and causes many of them to leave the church for a place that offers a richer, more visually arresting environment of the older historic sanctuaries.
Meyrat brings up many interesting thoughts about modern ideas of art and the assumptions behind it, and the full article is well worth reading.