After a break for the Christmas holiday (spent, amongst other things, visiting some of the oldest churches in Tuscany), I am glad to be back and continue writing on 1900s modern ecclesiastical architecture, this week discussing a church as impactful on 20th century church design as it is unknown.
Far less famous than its predecessor St. Leopold am Steinhof, the church of the Holy Spirit in Ottakring, Vienna, designed by Otto Wagner’s pupil, Jože Plečnik, is one of the most revolutionary buildings of its time.The dawn of the century brought in Western Europe a reinterpretation of church designs around the idea of shared religious experience rather than around dogma or the performance of rites in which the priest and not the lay believer has a dominant role. This collegial understanding of ecclesiastical authority is first reflected openly in Jože Plečnik’s Catholic church of the Holy Spirit commissioned in 1908 by Franz Unterhofer, priest in Ottakring.
As the building was intended to serve one of the most neglected Viennese working class districts, the architect intended here to find a solution to the problem of a community hall with speaker’s platform for workers. He transformed the traditional greek cross plan into an approximate square, thus trying to accomplish what he thought would be the best possible link between the congregation and the altar. To achieve better acoustics and improved visibility, he abandoned the usual division of volume with columns and used the strength of reinforced concrete to create a vast open plan, thus giving the internal space the feeling of a meeting hall. The side walls have choir lofts with a span of 20.7 m, creating the impression of a longitudinal space directed towards the altar. Here we can see for the first time the introduction of a completely secular element of bridge construction into sacred architecture.
Church of the Holy Spirit, reinforced concrete internal structure detail Photo: courtesy of Pleuntje
The emphasis is placed on the altar which is raised simply for better visibility. The present altar wall is adorned in mosaics and although beautiful, it is in sharp contrast with the austere white nave and different from the abstract art the architect originally intended for it. Industrial aesthetics are evident throughout the church as well as in the metal window frames of the crypt and the secular appearance of the wired glass at the entrance, thus reflecting an artistic vision influenced by social concern.
Church of the Holy Spirit, altar wall detail Photo: courtesy of Pleuntje
The crypt follows more faithfully the design of the architect. Slender pillars of reinforced concrete end in stylised capitals octagonal in section, creating a sensual transition from vertical to horizontal beams supporting the mushroom ceiling. Red powder from crushed bricks interrupts the grey of the concrete.
Church of the Holy Spirit, crypt, Photo: courtesy of Thomas Winwood
When in 1911 the plans were sent to the Crown Prince of Bohemia for approval, they came back with this verdict: “a mishmash of the Russian bath + stables (…) + a temple to Venus”. However, the building construction went ahead with little interruption but minor alterations were made. The narthex was replaced with an extended organ loft at the entrance and the facade was also altered to a more conservative design consisting of a neoclassical portico with proto-Doric columns and a stylised pediment.
Church of the Holy Spirit, organ loft Photo: courtesy of Pleuntje
The church of the Holy Spirit represents a milestone in modern sacred architecture, paving the way for the use of reinforced concrete in monumental buildings, a more pronounced use of secular elements in church buildings and a blurred hierarchy between laity and clergy.
1. Norman, E. (1990). The house of God- church architecture, style and history. London: Thames and Hudson
2. Prelovsek, D. (1997). Jože Plečnik 1872-1957 Architectura Perennis (P. Crampton, E. Martin, Trans.). London: Yale University Press. (Original work published 1992)
You can find more photos of the building’s exterior as well as interior here.