Catholic Professor Calls for a New Reformation—In Architecture
Many church buildings—meant to be houses of God—have become icons of humanity. Reforms in architectural style and vision, emphasizing the role of man over God, have caused this change. A new counter-reformation has been called to fight these reforms and reestablish traditional church architecture.
Architectural modernism has waged its war for over a century in public spaces, from clusters of practical skyscrapers adorning urban skylines to “avant-garde” museums such as the massive upside-down staircase known as the MET Breuer.
Unless one lives in Florence, or Baden-Baden, this architecture is unavoidable.
Architects practicing within the Classical building tradition are at odds with this change, favoring a more hierarchical and beautiful architecture over a novel one. Duncan G. Stroik, architect and architecture professor at University of Notre Dame, takes this view, and blames modernism for the architectural reforms that have transformed the faces of many cities.
“We have had multiple reformations in the history of the world, multiple iconoclasms—this new one has been in the last 60 years, and I call it the modernist reformation, ” Stroik said after a presentation hosted by the Catholic Artists Society in New York University’s Catholic Center.
A builder of several award winning churches, Stroik’s chief issue concerning modernism is in the area of sacred architecture.
Modernist architects have extended their campaign into the field of Catholic architecture by reforming centuries of church architectural tradition based upon the constructions of Classical Athens. One of the major characteristics belonging to the modernist church building, Stroik said, is replacement of the traditional focal point of the church interior, the altar, with a new focal point, the community.
To combat these reforms, Stroik proposes a solution entitled “a new counter-reformation,” which recaptures key elements of 16th-century art and architecture.
Ultimately, for Stroik, the goal of the new counter-reformation is one of evangelization, cultural transformation, and undoing the damage done to the Church’s image by architectural modernism.
“I believe that by proposing an alternative, this new counter-reformation will draw back people to Mother Church, it will strengthen the mission and identity of the church, and it will modify our culture,” he said, suggesting the current need for an architecture “that can symbolize the antiquity, the universality, and the beauty of the Church.”
According to Stroik, the modernist reformation introduces the modernist point of view and aesthetic into Catholic architecture by rejecting Classical architectural principles in favor of new ones such as functionality, innovation, and personal expression.
Modernist churches often contain pews or seats arranged in a sloping, curved, or polygonal fashion around a table-like altar rather than the traditional vertical arrangement of horizontal pews, emphasizing equality and fellowship over hierarchy and reverence.
Surprisingly, the Roman Church has played its part in the modernist reformation, laying foundation for it in the Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963) by mandating the construction of churches designed primarily to furnish “the active participation of the faithful,” during the “celebration of liturgical services.”
"I’d rather have one good painting by a contemporary artist than to have five copies in a church.”
Given their architecture, Stroik said these churches become “meeting houses rather than sacred places, intimate rather than awesome.”
This New Counter-Reformation finds its secular counterpart in the “Rebuild Penn Station Movement” which strives, according to professor of art Michael J. Lewis of New Criterion, to return the “subterranean warren huddled under Madison Square Garden” to its former neo-Classical glory.
The original Counter-Reformation (1545-1648), Stroik said, is the source of inspiration for the new one.
As an architect, Stroik has utilized and reinterpreted key techniques and traits of the Baroque architectural style on the churches he has built over the years.
One of those reinterpretations is returning to the style of church architecture used during the early periods of Christianity as inspiration. Stroik said that Giulio Romano, a 16th century Roman architect, did this during the Counter-Reformation by rebuilding the interior of the Mantua Cathedral, aiming to recapture the rectangular interior of the early Christian basilica (see photo).
With the same intentions as Romano, Stroik built Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel— an icon of the new counter-reformation—for Thomas Aquinas College in southern California.
Stroik recommends the historical practice of commissioning custom works of art to accompany church buildings. He finds the process of manufacturing numerous copies of original works, rather than the creation of new ones, to be distasteful.
“We need new paintings, new sculptures, mosaics and murals, ornamentation and symbolism, to bring out the best of the artist by pushing them to develop new and authentic ways of expressing the timeless truths,” Stroik said. “We don’t need any more copies or regurgitation, no off the shelf statues—I’d rather have one good painting by a contemporary artist than to have five copies in a church.”
Stroik has commissioned contemporary artists to create works for churches either built or renovated by him, such as, a painter named Leonard Porter, who painted an altarpiece of the Assumption for St. Mary’s Church in Norwalk Conn., reviving the old painter-patron relationship present in art for centuries.
Perhaps the words of English philosopher Roger Scruton best describe the state of church architecture in the modern era. His solution goes hand in hand with the new counter-reformation in fighting against modernism.
“The modern age was an age without heroes, without glory, without public tribute to anything higher or more dignified than the common man… What is needed, in short, is not a postmodernist but a pre-modernist architecture. And here and there this architecture is beginning to emerge.”