Architecture and morality

Church of light by Tadao Ando

Church of Light by Tadao Ando     Photo: Chris He

One of our basic human desires is to create order within chaos, which manifests itself in our efforts to place spatial boundaries into a limitless universe. We strive to give form to our understanding of the infinite by breaking it down into legible shapes. “To create architecture is to put in order”, Le Corbusier mentioned, but good architecture also requires a preoccupation for humans’ questions and society’s problems, bringing together our quest for the transcendental and the attempt to respond to social concerns.

Out of all arts, architecture has the privilege to act “the most slowly, but the most surely, on the soul” (Ernest Dimnet) and this is best seen in ecclesiastical buildings. For centuries, churches have not only been shaped by people’s belief in God but have also influenced the way in which the faithful prayed and worshiped. With its capacity to affect the human person deeply, ecclesiastical architecture carries therefore a moral duty to transmit eternal truths and reflect the doctrines of the faith it represents.

Liturgical design aims to initiate people into the divine mystery, leading their minds from the visible to the invisible. It should provide a place where Creation meets Creator and facilitate a spiritual connection between Earth and Heaven. But at the same time, churches should also respond to the practical needs of the act of worship itself, accommodating the gathering and participation of the faithful in the act of sacrifice commemorated in the liturgy.

It is paramount for ecclesiastical architecture to follow theology in order to stay true to its purpose. As challenging as this may be, there are countless examples of churches around the world successfully fulfilling this mission. But although the underlying theology has remained unchanged for centuries, it is impossible not to remark a radical turn in church designs particularly in the last 50 years. How do these new buildings transmit the same eternal truths? In their attempt to integrate sophisticated technology into modern designs, have contemporary architects lost the ability to address deeper moral questions?

Much has been said about the rigorous geometry of modern architecture, or its fluid, organic shapes or about the many other devices used by architects to incorporate personal emotions and influence people’s perception of form and space. However when it comes to church architecture, I believe these considerations should be balanced by views on how the building itself transcends space and time and allows a communion with the Divine.

This blog will attempt to reconcile those two viewpoints by looking at the way in which ecclesiastical buildings today respond (or not) to moral questions and to the theology of the faith they represent. I do not wish to hail or criticise a particular architect, I just want to point out certain aspects I personally think are overlooked in contemporary church architecture.

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