Sunday, September 20, 2009

Does the architecture of new churches still inspire?

Earlier this year a new Catholic church was completed that had a great deal of talk associated with it. Everything I read about it seemed to contradict every other thing. One source said it was “Bold and fascinating…Bravo!”, where another source said “I would be scared to go in” (these are actual quotes from a web site).

The exterior of The Church of Santa Monica in Rivas Spain.

The church in question is the Church of Santa Monica in Rivas Spain near Madrid. The church was designed by Vicens & Ramos Architects, a firm who is well respected and considered innovative. The firm designed the outside as sculpture, using materials that relate to the regional landscape, and the inside is designed as pure serenity.

The interior of the Church of Santa Monica in Rivas Spain.
Reading about this church and looking at the images got me to thinking about the role of religious architecture, specifically Catholic architecture as a means to inspire the faithful. I think new churches can be just as inspirational as their Thirteenth Century counterparts, but perhaps by way of different methods.

A sculpture of the Virgin Mary in the interior of the Church of Santa Monica.

As a student of art and architecture it’s impossible to avoid Catholic churches in one's studies. This is where one gains insight into significant movements of European architecture and the decorative arts, at least prior to Louis XIV. Catholic churches have always been a demonstration in physical inspiration, and of course this is by design. When churches were the center of culture they were designed to be awe inspiring miracles of structure, and literally a piece of heaven on earth. This was achieved, most notably in Gothic churches by baffling scale and the use of light in new and unimaginable ways.

The interior of Sainte Chapelle in Paris.

When going abroad from the time I was young, a stop at a local church or cathedral has always been a must as it provides additional understanding of the local culture and history. When I think of a church that has impressed me the most, I would have to say Sainte Chapelle in Paris (it would probably Sagrada Familia in Barcelona if the building were completed). I remember that it took my breath away and I can imagine how impressive it must have been at the time it was built. The windows at Sainte Chapelle are the most impressive of any church of its kind. You can see how it would be difficult to argue the power of a faith in God when observing such beauty and wonder.
Detail of the windows at Sainte Chapelle.
Fast forward about 800 years and the church of Santa Monica has a similar effect. The outside has a nearly “brutalist” quality, but the manner in which the windows have been designed give the interior a soft, peaceful quality. It seems this quality is exactly what’s called for in our present day. We are too jaded to be impressed by merely massive spaces. We feel like we’ve seen it all. We need the creation of an atmosphere as well.

The interior of the Metropolitan Brasilia Cathedral by Oscar Niemeyer.
Of course Gothic churches took multiple decades to build and were planned in collaboration with the local clergy and master builders. These structures were never going to be “trendy” as most people would never see them completed in their lifetime. Now churches are planned by architects, and congregations struggle to raise money to realize their dreams, but have the same goal as they did hundreds of years ago, to inspire faith and honor in their congregations. A good representation of the modern progression of inspirational churches is Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia Cathedral completed in Brazil in 1960.

The exterior of the Brasilia Cathedral by Oscar Niemeyer.

Although I do not consider myself Catholic, I attended a mass last Christmas Eve at a new cathedral in Oakland near Lake Merritt called the Cathedral of Christ the Light which was designed by the architecture firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill. The church has won many awards and accolades and is a perfect local example of how the Catholic Church has incorporated architecture as a way to perhaps appeal to a new audience. The church is beautiful on the inside and definitely inspiring, however I found the acoustics to be a major problem.

The Cathdral of Christ the Light in Oakland, California by Skidmore Owings & Merrill.
Barbara and I were both raised attending Episcopal Church, so the Catholic tradition is not that different, but Episcopal churches take on more of an (obviously) English tradition in their planning, design and approach.

The interior of the cathedral of Christ the Light.

I am happy to see that churches have been able to adapt at least their look to a changing population. I think people need a respite from their fast paced and connected lifestyles. I will continue to check out churches new and old as I believe they remain a connection to the community in which they exist.

David Hansen


Claudia Juestel said...

Great piece, especially appreciated by someone who grew up in a town with more than twenty churches. None of them look like these.

Are you familiar with Tadao Ando's "Church of Light"?

Ashfield Hansen Design Inc. said...

Yes Claudia I have seen (virtually) this church, and it was a consideration for the piece.
Thank you for reading