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BOOK

REVIEW

European Church Architecture 1900-1950: Towards Modernism By Wolfgang Jean Stock.Prestel, 2006. 224pp. £40.00

This book is the companion volume to the very good, very Germanic European Church Architecture 1950-2000, by the same author (AJ 01.05.03).

And like that book its faults are almost identical to its strengths.

It is dry, thorough and biased towards the German-speaking countries and central Europe.

Luckily, that also happens to be where the best churches were built during this period.

So, no great damage done.

This was a time when church building was absolutely at the forefront of progressive architectural thinking (there was an Expressionist cathedral on the cover of the Bauhaus manifesto), even if the examples can seem to be airbrushed out of conventional histories.

It is also, despite the apparently random and impossibly convenient dates of 1900-1950, a relatively coherent period which spans, very roughly, the retro-radicalism of the Arts and Crafts period to the sculptural wilfulness of Ronchamp, while en route embracing Secessionism, National Romanticism, Nordic Classicism, Expressionism, Rationalism and Functionalism.

It was a busy, busy time - and the selection here is admirably eclectic. Earlier histories have tended to concentrate on the rational buildings - mostly Germanic - which were closely allied to the functional tradition: the work of Rudolf Schwarz, Otto Bartning, Auguste Perret, Dominikus Bohm, Karl Moser. By contrast, Stock picks out (and, more importantly, treats equally) such central European eccentrics as Jo?e Plecnik, Pavel Janák and Ödön Lechner.

This makes for a far more interesting book to ick through, although it doesn't help to create any sense of owing narrative. While Plecnik was building a protoCubist concrete crypt in Vienna, and while his former master Otto Wagner was building a super-hygienic, whiter-than-white church for a mental asylum outside of the city, most of the rest of Europe was making do with subGothic stage sets. Then, within a decade, Functionalism emerged as the built expression of the liturgical avant garde, just as it emerged as the natural language of social housing and manufacturing.

Yet there was a point, around the late 1920s, when spiky Expressionism, nascent Functionalism and a curious blend of Cubism, Gothic, NeoClassical and Art Deco suddenly combined to make the church arguably the most interesting of architectural typologies.

It was a brief but wonderful moment which threw up some absolute gems, most of which are featured here: for instance, Bohm's spectacular St Johann Baptist in Neu-Ulm and St Engelbert in Cologne, and Plecnik's Church of the Sacred Heart in Prague. It seemed to promise an inclusive, pluralistic and regional Modernism which never fully emerged.

Despite the book's inclusivity there are some problematic gaps. Lethaby's proto-Expressionist, mystical church at Brockhampton is absent, as is the mad-Modernist Neo-Gothic of Paul Tournon's Saint-Thérèse-de-l'EnfantJésus, the polychromatic NeoGothic of Dom Bellot, and the Brobdignagian not-very-NeoGothic of Gilbert Scott's Liverpool Cathedral. Also missing are the extraordinary churches of Fascist Italy (although they at least are mentioned) - buildings which managed to create a strange and enchanting synthesis of the historical and the modern, which was generally not achieved elsewhere.

This would be unforgivable if it looked like part of some greater conspiracy to remove buildings which don't -t in to the bigger narrative. But it doesn't seem to be that. In fact, the book is such a delight to leaf through precisely because of its omnivorous appetite. The essays here are good, if brutally short and staccato, while the individual entries are as brief and functional as they could possibly be.

The author does touch on liturgical reform, politics and the differing approaches of Catholic and Protestant institutions, and what he says is solid and correct, but it is not enough. On the other hand the photographs, whether contemporary black-and-white ones or newly commissioned colour ones, are uniformly superb. It is these, as well as some of the most endlessly fascinating and unfamiliar buildings in the history of Modern architecture, that make this book a real (if not unqualified) pleasure.

Edwin Heathcote is architecture correspondent for the Financial Times. His book, Contemporary Church Architecture, will be published by Wiley later this month

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