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Church Builders

by Edwin Heathcote and Iona Spens, Academy Editions, 1998. 224pp. £45

We may not be slouching towards Bethlehem to be born, as W B Yeats had it, but just walking there backwards, writes Alan Powers. The accusation that the late twentieth century is an age of unparalleled materialism often sounds convincing, and that is the prospect we see as we journey towards the millennium, but the evidence of architecture is that something quite opposite is actually happening. It is not that we are building so many churches, but that architects, almost without knowing it, have decided to make almost every building into a form of religious structure, with top-lighting, enclosure, symbolism and, of course, austere monastic minimalism throughout.

The implication of this backing into spirituality is that architects don't know where they're going. There is no conflict of intention between architectural Modernism and the church, for both aspire to a spiritual condition, but there is a problem of language which Edwin Heathcote's otherwise useful overview of two centuries of church building fails to identify. The church, however much it modernises, remains fixed to a body of words which claim divine authority. Many interpreters have made a similar claim for authenticity on behalf of the traditional visual language of the church, but Modernism cannot accept it, because it demands the possibility of continual re-invention.

A purified traditional language, unifying church and Modern architecture, occurred at certain moments in mid-century (in Rudolf Schwartz and later, in England, in the work of Maguire & Murray and Francis Pollen), but the tendency of famous architects when offered a church commission is to overplay the dramatic quality. Too many of the churches of the last 20 years described by Iona Spens are individualistic and lack a sense of scale and ordinariness. In common with most expressions of Modernism, their aesthetic is relentlessly sublime (it photographs well) rather than attempting the more traditional pathway to the beautiful.

Alan Powers is an architectural historian

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