The architects betrayed us

27 May 2009

By The Record

La Trahison des Architectes


The exterior of the Anglican English gothic Cathedral of St Mary’s in Salisbury, England, which St Mary’s in Perth is believed to be based on.


By Tony Evans

The phrase from which this title is borrowed, first appeared as the title of a book by the French writer, Julien Benda (1867-1956),  In English the correct title is not architects but intellectuals; The Treason of the Intellectuals.  So popular has the French phrase become, that it is now freely quoted by elite journalists and commentators to indict those with special knowledge and position in society who are thought to have betrayed us by their silence, or by their collaboration with an enemy.  In other words, because they were intellectually gifted they should have known better.
Although architects may not be accused of betraying us by their silence – their works are, after all, only too public and difficult to ignore – it can be argued that the once greatly-revered profession of artist-engineers has betrayed its ancient craft by becoming corrupted by twin ideologies – Modernism and the demands of accountants.  
As a result public and commercial buildings of the last 50 years, with a few noble exceptions, are mostly soul-less glass towers, or pre-formed concrete boxes. As Roger Scruton argues: ‘Architectural modernism rejected all attempts to adapt the old language of the city.  It rejected classical orders, columns, architraves and mouldings.  It rejected the Greek and Gothic revivals.  It rejected every written and unwritten rule that has shaped the growth of our towns.’ 
He suggests that Modernism rejected those things not because it had any well thought-out alternative, but because it was intent on over-throwing the social order that they represented – ‘the order of the bourgeois city, as a place of faith, festivity, commerce and spontaneous hierarchical life.’  
Surely no age has been so dispirited nor out of sympathy with its contemporary urban environment as ours, with the result that when our business is finished for the day we hurry away, there being no reason for us to stand and admire as we would do in older European city centres. 
It is in this sense that we have been betrayed by architects. They should have known better. Scruton goes on to explain that modernism ‘was a crusade to rid architecture of any past ideals since no one believed these ideals any more.’
The modern age was ‘an age without heroes, without faith,’ and so architecture must ‘reflect a classless society from which all hierarchies had disappeared.’
Given this definition it is surprising that these revolutionary modernist ideas also infected church architecture.  The liturgical reforms which followed Vatican II – although not always sanctioned in Counciliar documents – provided ready encouragement for sweeping changes in church design. 
No longer would the sanctuary and the tabernacle be an exclusive space guarded by altar rails. Statues, paintings and symbolic decoration were excluded as being too reminiscent of pre-Vatican II liturgy. 
In many modern churches, including those built today, the pews are placed in a semi-circle around the altar and the priest faces his ‘audience’, in the mistaken belief that this was how the early Church celebrated the Eucharist. (A quick glance at a reproduction of Leonardo Da Vinci’s  Last Supper should be sufficient to dispel this myth). 
If Scruton is only half right in stating that modernist architecture reflects a moral vision of ‘a society from which all hierarchies had disappeared, a society with no absolutes and only relative values,’ it is surely legitimate to ask to what extent the revolution in church architecture, so warmly embraced by Church leaders and their architects, has contributed to the decline in church attendance, the lack of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament, and the indisputable ignorance of their Faith by young Catholics. 
There are many good reasons cited for this decline but seldom is modernist church design apportioned any of the blame; rather it is expected that modern design creates an informality, breaks down barriers, and encourages community friendship and togetherness – all supposedly more attractive to young people.
Worthy concepts perhaps, so long as one can ignore the negative and more iconoclastic agenda implicit in modernist architecture and those who adhere to it.
Buildings have a far greater affect on our morale, and on our attitudes to authority and learning, than will be admitted generally. This has long been recognised by those responsible for the mid-twentieth century wastelands, the high-rise slums on the edge of European cities where lawlessness, drugs and despair have made them into no-go areas. 
Alternatively, buildings of great beauty arouse feelings of joy, awe and well-being and can influence behaviour.  Beauty and tradition in church design can and often do elevate our spirits and suggest the Divine presence.
As the great mid-nineteenth century church architect, Pugin, wrote in defence of his Gothic designs: ‘The Mass, whether offered up in a garret, or a cathedral is essentially the same sacrifice, yet when surrounded by all the holy splendour of Catholic worship, those august mysteries appear ten times more overpowering and majestic…While the senses are rapt in ecstasy by outward beauty, the divine truths will penetrate the soul thus prepared for their reception.’
We can see most clearly the affect that modernist architecture has on the behaviour of church-goers at Sunday Mass, although the precise damage to their Faith is less apparent. Churches that resemble theatres or assembly halls, where the tabernacle is all but hidden from general view, will be treated by the public like theatres and assembly halls. 
There can be no blame attached to those who respond sincerely to the atmosphere of their surroundings.  Assembly halls are not approached with reverence and awe, but as friendly meeting places where greetings and gossip are exchanged. 
The blank and the unadorned walls and raked seating, positioned like an apron-stage theatre, and the auditorium, often lit with large windows which have the effect of bringing the mundane outside world with its distractions into the church, all add up to a denial of the transcendent.
In her book No Place for God, the architect Moyra Doorly, a critic of modernist church design, is uncompromising in her view that the modern age has witnessed the construction of the most banal and uninspiring churches in history: ‘Contemporary church buildings,’ she writes, ‘as well as being the ugliest ever built, are also the emptiest.’   She maintains, citing much supporting evidence that modernist churches deny the transcendent, that they neglect their original purpose which was as a place of worship, sacrifice and prayer.  In these churches, she says, ‘there is [now] no place for God.’
‘That’s all very well’ replies the modern, ambitious architect, ‘but would you have us reject all contemporary building techniques and materials, return to the past and merely reproduce ancient styles of architecture, denying the natural continuum of artistic creativity?’   It is difficult to counter this with a simple yes or no. 
One noted answer was given by Monsignor John Hawes, the architect-priest who worked in Western Australia from1915 to 1938 and who built the largely Renaissance-style Geraldton Cathedral: ‘In the design of modern buildings, the aim of the architect should be to avoid, on the one hand, any straining after originality but be reminiscent of the past without being fussy.’
Pugin would have answered that the Gothic style – the pointed style as he called it – was the perfect Catholic architecture which embodied and proclaimed the truths of the Faith as no other style could do, and therefore should be employed always. William Wilkinson Wardell agreed and employed this style for his two great cathedrals, St Mary’s in Sydney and St Patrick’s in Melbourne and in all his smaller churches elsewhere – although adapting and modifying his designs to suit Australian conditions and limited funds. 
Some inventions, styles and discoveries in the past have proved so satisfactory that no modification is ever thought necessary. 
The violin is one such example, so perfect in design and beauty that it has defied any but the most subtle changes since the 17th century.  An eighteenth century book looks exactly like a book published two-hundred years later. 
A similar case might be made for the Gothic style in church design.  It is certainly the best loved and longest surviving.  To those who argue that it is impossible to put the clock back, GK Chesterton has argued that, on the contrary, it is perfectly possible for us to do so, but the will to do so is wanting.
Whether or not a return to Gothic is the answer to improving church design is a contentious question and an unpopular one with architects. They want church architecture to move with the times.  But what seems like common sense is surely a requirement that the architect of a modern Catholic church should be a practising Catholic with a thorough knowledge of the Faith and a respect for its traditions.  Only in recent times has this seemed not to be a requirement. 
It was the crusading architect, Le Corbusier, a self-proclaimed agnostic, who wrote ‘Architecture is stifled by custom’ – and his disciples cried in support, ‘Down with the past!’ His futuristic chapel at Ronchamp (1950-54) subsequently became an exemplar, much praised, and a powerful influence on forward-thinking church architects since that time.  After its completion and the publication of Le Corbusier’s famous manifesto, church architects never looked back.
They should have done. They should have known better.
Tony Evans is a biographer of famous priest-architect Monsignor John Hawes with his book The Conscious Stone. Evans also formerly worked for Catholic Film Office in the United Kingdom and was director of ABC Radio Drama in Australia.