What Makes Architecture "Sacred"?

By Lang, Uwe Michael | Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

What Makes Architecture "Sacred"?


Lang, Uwe Michael, Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


DISCUSSIONS OF SACRED ARCHITECTURE often revolve around the concept of beauty and its theological dimension. However, in the context of modernity, the question of beauty has been reduced to a subjective judgment, on which one can reason only to a limited extent. For those who do not share the presuppositions of the classical philosophical tradition, the concept of beauty is elusive. (1) When it comes to church architecture, it will not carry us very far. We may not think that Renzo Piano's church of St. Pius of Pietrelcina in San Giovanni Rotondo works as a church (figure 1), but how do we respond to someone who finds its architectural forms, or the space it creates for the assembly, "beautiful"?

For these reasons I propose another concept that I believe will provide us with clearer categories for architecture in the service of the Church's mission: the concept of the "sacred." A reflection on the sacred also seems timely, because we customarily speak of "sacred" architecture, art, or music, without giving an account of what this attribute means. And yet for more than half a century theologians in the Catholic tradition have contested the Christian concept of the sacred. Ideas have consequences, and it seems evident to me that these theological positions are manifest in a style of buildings dedicated for worship that fail to express the sacred and hence are not adequate for the celebration of the liturgy. As a starting point for my argument, I should like to draw on the reflections of two well-known architects who designed important church buildings in the recent past.

1. Ideas of the Sacred in Contemporary Architecture

MASSIMILIANO FUKSAS: THERE IS NO "SACRED ARCHITECTURE" The internationally renowned Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas, in collaboration with his wife, Doriana Mandrelli, completed the church of San Paolo in Foligno, Umbria, in 2009. This church is one of the "pilot projects" (progetti pilota) of the Italian Bishops' Conference and has attracted much attention and controversy.

In a long interview given in April 2009, Fuksas discusses the ideas that guided him in this project. (2) As he makes clear at the beginning of the conversation, he does not believe "that you can do sacred architecture"; what is possible is "architecture that tends to spirituality." (3) This spirituality is diffusely articulated, above all with reference to the category of light, not only as an architectural element but also as a philosophical idea.

For Fuksas the relationship of a building with its exterior environment is of key importance. The particular character of a church is expressed in the fact that it stands out. Fuksas observes that most contemporary constructions, either for housing or other functional purposes, create urban spaces that lack a center or point of reference. With his church in Foligno, the architect wants to "return to a structure that is no longer horizontal," a structure that, interestingly, he associates with the Second Vatican Council, and he sees in his accent on the height of the building a reference to Gothic architecture. In the church at Foligno, this vertical dimension is in fact a striking feature that is realised by the sheer height of the interior space (figure 2). (4)

Particular attention is given to the facade and the entrance to the church. Fuksas rejects the practices of the "church of the Counter-Reformation," which he sees exemplified in the Church of the Gesu in Rome: "You enter after being attracted by a great staircase, a great facade, by the dynamism, by the majesty of the facade and by [its] great power. You enter because it is an act of faith. Once you enter inside, you understand that this faith is something extremely complex" (figure 3). (5) Fuksas's own concept of the facade could not be more different: in extreme abstraction, it presents itself as one side of the cube that is the shape of the building, in plain concrete and without any ornamentation or prominent Christian symbolism. …

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