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Looking to Old Cathedrals for Inspiration to Beautify Churches Today

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Here's one thing I learned in architecture school: You don't appropriate someone else's work, or even their style or method. You respond to it. The architecture must respond too, to the context in which it is built. A Gothic cathedral next to a modern office complex, for example, might seem just as ridiculous as a proposed addition of a glorified accordion-with-glass-enclosure to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Michael S. Rose went to architecture school too. His book, "Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces—and How We Can Change Them Back Again," offers a useful index of architectural elements and their spiritual significance. Despite sounding like a book for specialists only, it has a pleasingly accessible narrative shape and a logical design, making for easy reference for specialists. Taking the form of a tour through a modern worship experience, the narrative stops at various points to contrast the experience of the pilgrim with that of a medieval traveler nearing Notre Dame in Paris. Each chapter has a title and a humorous alterna-title: "Why modern architects secularized our churches" or "Bad theology has done more damage than bad taste."

But Rose doesn't seem to try to reconcile the principles of church design—what makes a space sacred and worthy of worship—with modern ideas and forms. Instead, he eulogizes everything before 1900 and condemns everything after, unless it looks as if it came before.

Through his study of Notre Dame, "arguably the most famous of Christendom's great cathedral churches," Rose arrives at three basic characteristics of church architecture: The structure must have permanence, it must be vertical in some way (directing the eye upward) and it must be iconographic, containing symbols that bring the worshiper back to contemplation of spiritual truths. The theme of symbolism is a constant thread throughout the book; he makes the argument that lack of iconography is theologically unsound, leading Catholics to worship "a false god." Indeed, in our culture, multitasking is applauded, and the establishment of a sacred place is almost a dead idea for those bent on making things useful. Equally rejected is the notion of clear physical reminders of the spiritual realm that surrounds us.

In his rhapsodizing about Notre Dame, however, Rose seems to get carried away, implying that the ornamental, lush styles of Gothic and Romanesque are the only ways in which these principles can be realized. Granted, a lot of modern architecture is uninspiring and generic, but "common" architecture has always been that way. Maybe the solution is not to revert to classical styles, but rather to take the principles so effectively used by those architects and find a way to use them that reflects postmodern cultural struggles and passions. The elements he extols—bells, domes, sculpture—could be used in the context of the clean lines and stripped-down feel of modern architecture. Perhaps the main problem is our American practicality, which won't let us spend time, energy and money toward creating a place dedicated exclusively to worship when we have so many other things to do.

His descriptions of modern scenarios are realistic and humorous: His "pilgrim" can't find a parking spot, doesn't know the music, hates the ugly carpeting and is taken aback by the overall casual attitudes of everyone around him. One photograph will make readers laugh out loud because of its austerity—a shot of a "gathering space" where people chat and drink coffee after Mass. Two-thirds of the photo is empty floor space; the only decorations are some plants, probably artificial, clustered in a corner. "It's brightly lit and often quite barren," the caption says. "People are considered the furnishings here." But Rose refrains from cynicism, citing social mores as a large reason for the difference between the experience of a medieval pilgrim and a modern one.

Rose's observation of modern culture is keen: for instance, the way in which the equal-armed Greek cross motif has been misused as a geometric design. Because of its eye-catching symmetry, it has been used as a logo for skateboarding gear as well as in churches, where Rose thinks that it is "doubtful that the frequent [nonbelieving] passerby will be offended by such inconspicuous Christian symbolism."

The last chapter of "Ugly as Sin" is devoted to a number of before-after stories, including photos of churches that were stripped bare in the 1960s and recently restored to their original richness. Rose offers suggestions for how to improve church worship space, along with references to theological and architectural treatises and a list of registered, recommended architects. Readers are left with the encouraging feeling that change is possible for modern church designs, and, of course, we are the ones responsible for making it happen.

Emily Oren Is a Freelance Writer Studying Classical Civilizations at the Catholic University of America. Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times.

Photo: Wayfarers’ Chapel - Los Angeles, June 2006

Copyright © 2009 Emily Jorjorian Lowe. All rights reserved.

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