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Religious education

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European Church Architecture 1950-2000 Edited by Wolfgang Jean Stock. Prestel, 2002. 320pp. £42

We are so used to the historic churches that form the canon of Western architecture and the physical centres of communities from villages to cities, that it is hard to believe the most prolific ever era of church building was immediately after the Second World War. The destruction caused by the war, the need for memorialisation and reconciliation, and radical changes in liturgy led to an ecclesiastical explosion throughout Europe.

This coincided with Modernism's eclectic period, and the result was an extraordinary array of buildings, embracing the minimal, the maximal and the purely whacky. The two dominant avant-garde traits were (and essentially still are) the functional and the expressive, and this new book illustrates how clearly most examples fall into one of these two generalised camps.

There has been very little serious writing of late about Modern ecclesiastical architecture. Architects and theorists still seem to have a problem with the church as a building type. It wasn't always this way.Auguste Perret, Otto Bartning, Dominikus Böhm and other Modernist pioneers all designed churches that were important in the development of Modern architecture. Rudolf Schwarz, the most serious-minded and intellectual architect to tackle the subject, wrote an extraordinary book, The Church Incarnate, in 1938. The introduction was by none other than Mies van der Rohe. (But when Mies came to build a chapel himself, at the Illinois Institute of Technology, the story goes that it looked so much like all the other buildings on the campus that the college had to put up a 'Chapel' sign. ) There is a certain (lazy) way of reviewing a book, that involves a quick flick through to see what's been left out and writing on that basis. I tried this - and I failed. Corb to Utzon, Maguire & Murray to MacCormac, Schwarz to Siza: they are all here. If the book has a fault, it is in what falls outside its scope.

Europe means Western Europe - important works from Hungary, Poland and the Baltic states are omitted. Then there are the buildings under construction. Some of the most significant churches of recent years, at least in size and celebrity - Moneo's new cathedral in LA, Meier's Jubilee Church in Rome, Piano's Padre Pio Basilica in San Giovanni di Rotondo - are not here.

Although this makes the book appear incomplete and out of date, none of these churches are doing anything really new. A more serious problem is the way the essays are divided. It may be extremely hard to write an overview of the subject but the approach taken here, where essays are allocated by country, sometimes split between Catholic and Protestant, is positively unhelpful; the tones differing to such an extent that the book becomes difficult to read and - despite the deep and fascinating ideas being discussed - turgid, in an all too humourless translation.

Another criticism is that the period the authors have chosen is, by a few years, wrong.

The extraordinarily radical churches of Schwartz, Böhm and others cannot be read purely as post-war architecture, for they stem from the liturgical and architectural ideas of the 1920s; and the most important architects of the period were building magnificent churches in the 1920s and 1930s, which have not yet been superceded.Moreover, in covering so prolific an era of church construction, the authors have a huge amount to address, so, inevitably, the treatment sometimes seems sketchy. Post-war Italian, German and Scandinavian church architecture would each merit a book in their own right.

Church architecture seems to frighten critics and publishers. When a book does occasionally appear, it tends to be about one building by an established figure - Corb, Siza, Lewerentz - where the images are everything. Contemporary churches, like houses for the rich, can be so photogenic. The current lack of sympathy for, and understanding of, what goes on inside a church - in effect, what the building is for - seems to preclude intelligent criticism, other than a vague, sentimental yearning for some kind of mystical or spiritual quality, or a pragmatic appreciation of physical form.

This book does begin to seriously address issues of liturgical reform (Albert Gerhards' essay in particular is concise and informative), the changing nature of worship, and the pivotal involvement of architects in redefining the relationship of the congregation, the clergy and God. It is a serious attempt to consider the building type that has perhaps been the most undervalued and least understood in the Modern period. Excellent photos and succinct, erudite (if sometimes painful) dual-language texts make this a book worth having. But more interesting ones are still there to be written.

Edwin Heathcote is architectural correspondent for the Financial Times

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