Why Is Interior Liturgical Architecture So Poor?

Why is interior parish church architecture so crummy from a liturgical standpoint?

It’s my strong belief that a parish church should be designed around the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. More specifically churches should be primarily designed to best facilitate the faithful’s exposure (of all five senses) to the sacrifice taking place atop the altar – the best representation of Calvary as possible. Sadly I have never been in a church that did this – or at least as well as today’s architecture and engineering allows.

On the one hand who have those who feel all churches must look like most did in the past when there was a dearth of advanced design/engineering and available materials. If it’s not long and skinny with transepts it’s not good to these people.

The problem is that such structures typically have horrible sight lines, the acoustics are horrible and most of all, there is no feeling of unity. People in the front are enraptured (or they just want to be seen), people mid way back are looking at their watches and struggling with kids and people in the back are nodding off. Micro-conversations are taking place here and there. There is no unity. While I can certainly understand why most churches once were designed this way, I have no idea why anyone would build such a structure today.

On the other hand we have the common square box/utilitarian church structures that are common today. They have ground away most of the positive aspects of the older designs while rarely adding back anything that is positive. Often they incorporate good designs which are badly executed.

The reason I ask is that I was sitting in a world renowned concert hall a few nights ago and I was stunned at how intimate it felt. It felt like it might have held 400 people. I was stunned to learn it held 2,300. As I was waiting for the program to begin I thought "block-off 300 seats (so now one would be behind the sanctuary), add some furnishings and figure out an orderly way to distribute communion and you’d have the finest church of its size I have ever been in. Even with pews/kneelers it would have held 2,000 people with a very intimate feel. Even more intriguing was the thought of a parish church in this design holding about 1,200 people.

Why aren’t churches designed like that? Is it a matter of past prejudices and politics? Is architectural expertise in concert hall design simply that far ahead of churches? While the interior of this building was by no means fancy or opulent, it is a very expensive structure so perhaps budgets are to blame? I find this to be a very interesting subject.

I cannot help but point out that these churches in the round aren’t being built much anymore because, perhaps, they weren’t a good idea in the first place. In the United States they were faddish for a while, but I do not know of any that are currently being constructed. Now, I do recall one recent example of a church in the round for a diocesan cathedral in Canada, which rather looks like the interior of a Sams Club in a different shape. It must be asked why the concept was largely given up. Perhaps it just wasn’t a good idea.

You say:

I would say that sitting where one sits is a self-selecting decision and that people who sit near the back habitually are perhaps not interested in what is happening in the first place. Forcing them to sit closer, as a circular church would do, would not make them cease their chatter and watch glancing and sleeping. A circular church cannot solve these problems. A passionate and dedicated priest can by convincing them that what they are there for is worth it.

Perhaps to reinforce your position you could search for an extant example and share it with us. Are there any examples of magnificent Catholic (I do insist an example be Catholic) churches in the round? If there are none, might that be because it is impossible to separate such an architectural form from all the ideological baggage that it comes with? Might it be because the requirements of a concert hall are so enormously different from the requirements of a church? Perhaps also the close association of churches in the round to Protestantism makes it scandalous to build a Catholic church in the round, I don’t know.

Personally speaking, I’d rather have a hodgepodge of mediocre “traditional” designs in a church than any church in the round I’ve seen.

Can you find a stock photo of this concert hall? I would love to see its layout.

Church architecture should reflect the theology of our faith. It is sacred space and everything about its design should reflect “the heavenly reality.” An intimate feeling is great, however, a church is more than a concert hall.

I highly recommend the book “Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy” by Denis McNamara.

This man is extremely knowledgable, and he has a series of video clips
in which he explains some of the ideas in his book.

He talks about Catholic church architecture and how it should contribute to the liturgy, and how we have gotten away from that in recent years in building our churches. The videos are extremely interesting and instructive and he is well-spoken. The first video is only 6 minutes long and I believe the others are of similar length as well. Check it out, you will be glad you did!

My answer to the OP’s query is “money.”

You can do anything you like if you have enough money.

I’m guessing that when a new Catholic church is designed, often a large chunk of the money has been donated, and the patron and his/her family may have certain preferences in the design which the architects are bound by. Or the pastor or the “Building Committee” has a preference for a certain architectural style.

I disagree with the OP that the acoustics in the older churches are bad. This isn’t always true. One of the oldest Catholic churches in our city is over a century old, and the acoustics are amazing. You can be sitting the balcony and clearly hear a whisper from the front row main floor. One of the oldest Lutheran churches in our city (built in 1962) has wonderful acoustics, too–lots of wood in the interior, which makes a lovely “warm” sound for all the music.

WOW! Just WOW! :eek:
Nothing like reading the hearts & minds of nearly half the people who go to Mass every week!!

This may be*** YOUR ***perception YTC, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. That’s quite a brush you are painting with. :frowning: :mad: :frowning:

I think you are being a bit harsh in your assessment of people who sit in the back of the nave. Often, these are the elderly, and that Long Walk down to the front of the nave is simply too much for them. Watch–you’ll see that the priests or the EMHC bring Holy Communion back to these dear ones.

Some of these same elderly people, as well as many young people, have “elimination” disorders, and may need to make a quick dash for the bathroom–that’s a very common reason for sitting near the back of the nave.

Also, handicapped people tend to sit in the back, or people with injuries. When I had my foot surgeries. I sat in the back to save my energy for the walk to the front to receive Holy Communion.

Another likely possibility is that families with rambunctious young children sit in the back so that they can make repeated trips out to the narthex when the children become restless.

Another possibility is that people who need to leave Mass immediately after it’s completed will sit near the back . Yes, some of these people are just eager to get home to the game. But many have legitimiate reasons for leaving early–a family dinner (if you’re the woman, you may be COOKING that dinner), a job, caring for a loved one who is ill or disabled, providing music for another parish, an appointment, etc. Yes, it would be lovely to have the free time to sit quietly and pray after the Mass, but many people just don’t have that luxury.

Finally, a lot of shy people sit in the back because they don’t want to call attention to themselves by walking down an aisle.

I hope some of my post helps you to see others in a good way.

One of the things that people who are hard of hearing can do is ask the ushers if ear phones or headphones are available. We have a box full of these in our parish, and they make it so much easier to hear the Mass. :slight_smile:

Well said, Cat. We ought to be promoting a more loving attitude toward our sisters and brothers in Christ.

I am not making a determination of anyone’s intent in sitting in such a place. I am going off what the OP said. Please do not take it that way. I am just responding to what the OP said here:

I am not assessing anyone who sits in the back! In fact I, myself, sometimes sit in the back. I do not particularly care where anyone sits, and I do not believe it is a determination of anyone’s faith, belief, etc., etc. It was not intended that way. The purpose of my statement was that building a church in the round does not solve “micro-conversations,” lack of “unity,” or anything else. Please take the whole of my post. I am sorry if I didn’t make it clearer. I sometimes have the habit of not making much nuance, or of making assumptions (which I am often not wedded to) and testing them in conversation/posts and they can get me in trouble.

My post is about church architecture and absolutely nothing else. I am not painting anyone with a brush, nor did I intend to. Again, I was responding to the OP. Please understand what I said in context. It was a response to something that was already said.

Again, my statement was not intended the way it was taken.

I don’t buy the lack of money conjecture as being the exclusive reason why architecture is poor in a number of increasing modern Catholic Churches.

Over a decade ago I purchased a book entitled “Ugly As Sin” by Catholic journalist Micheal S. Rose. Granted he doesn’t give all the answers but you get a good depiction of how aspects of sacredness in architecture have gradually diminished and watered down from the former beauty of traditional Catholic Churches.

Part of this IMHO comes from an overall lack of Faith itself. A sense of architectural reverence, awe and sacredness has faded or all together vanished.

I got that, YTC. Lots of people like to sit in the back. Or they find it convenient. It’s a self-selecting thing, like you said; few people *have *to sit in the back if they don’t want to, unless they’re late for Mass (that’s the group I usually fall into).

Ergo, eliminating the “back rows” is not necessarily doing anyone a favor. I saw your point.

To answer the OP…

it’s because the 70’s happened.
and the 80’s.

Well, modernism over all.

Consider that the first Real Presence was, by His own choice, in a poor, crummy and dirty cave or stable, amid animal dung and donkey slobber.

How do you see heresy in church architecture, blessed by bishops?

I’m not sure I accept that the concept has been largely given up. I have seen recently constructed churches that are at least semicircular. To the extent that rectangular churches have become resurgent, I would suggest it is largely due to activism by Catholics of your own persuasion, who are better connected now and able to lobby more effectively against offensive architecture in their parishes.

[quote=YoungTradCath]I would say that sitting where one sits is a self-selecting decision and that people who sit near the back habitually are perhaps not interested in what is happening in the first place. Forcing them to sit closer, as a circular church would do, would not make them cease their chatter and watch glancing and sleeping. A circular church cannot solve these problems. A passionate and dedicated priest can by convincing them that what they are there for is worth it.

I completely agree that seating location is a self-selecting decision, and that one is more likely to find those less interested in the mass in more distant seats. But the effect goes both ways. Those in the back, even those who would typically be more attentive to mass, are likely to feel less involved, and more easily distracted when they can’t see what is going on, and when the noises of doors closing and feet shuffling and babies crying begin to predominate over the sounds of the mass itself. A parishioner seated in the back is more likely to feel he is singing by himself because the sounds of the choir and the rest of the congregation mainly go forward, and a passionate and dedicated priest will be less effective when a parishioner’s view is obstructed by a pillar.

These have been my own personal perceptions as I’ve sat in various locations within churches over the years. It is also been my observation that those who fidget and converse tend to be limited to those much further back in the congregation in semicircular or round churches, perhaps because people are less distracted in such settings, or if you prefer a cynical view, because they feel most of the congregation can see what they’re doing.

So I think we are doing people a favor by forcing them to be closer to the action, without the crutch of a side wall to huddle near, where the voices of the rest of the congregation are present during hymns and prayers.

Whether this is well-executed is another matter, just as a church being rectangular doesn’t automatically make it a great worship space.

[quote=YoungTradCath]Perhaps also the close association of churches in the round to Protestantism makes it scandalous to build a Catholic church in the round, I don’t know.

I defer to your assertion that there is such an association, but it comes as a surprise to me. I have found round or semicircular churches more commonly in Catholic parishes than Protestant communities.

Please give a citation as to the official source of your supposition that it was God’s Choice that He Jesus our Saviour should be born in the way you describe.

As I recall in scripture He was rejected when He entered this world.

In the words of the late Archbishop Sheen: Life of Christ concerning Christ Birth.

Mary is now with child, awaiting birth, and Joseph is full of expectancy as he enters the city of his own family. He searched for a place for the birth of him to whom heaven and earth belonged. Could it be that the Creator would not find room in his own creation? Certainly, thought Joseph, there would be room in the village inn. There was room for the rich; there was room for those who were clothed in soft garments; there was room for everyone who had a tip to give to the innkeeper.

But when finally the scrolls of history are completed down to the last word of time, the saddest line of all will be: “There was no room in the inn.” No room in the inn, but there was room in the stable. The inn was the gathering place of public opinion, the focal point of the world’s moods, the rendezvous of the worldly, the rallying place of the popular and the successful. But there’s no room in the place where the world gathers. The stable is a place for outcasts, the ignored and the forgotten. The world might have expected the Son of God to be born in an inn; a stable would certainly be the last place in the world where one would look for him. The lesson is: divinity is always where you least expect to find it. So the Son of God made man is invited to enter into his own world through a back door.

I could post a photo of concert hall but it would be ridiculed by some here. It’s one of those many, many places where one has to visit and actually sit through some sort of musical program to understand its significance. I will give one hint. There are not many interior photos of it available because interior photos are not allowed per the original design agreement.

I have read the book you referenced. While there is good information in it, it’s very much a rehash of what is already being done, and what has been done for a very long time. It’s my belief that church architecture needs to take a quantum leap forward with respect to supporting the liturgy where resources exist.

New Camaldoli Hermitage, Big Sur, CA:




Coming from a Protestant background, yes, I would say that I strongly associate circular or semicircular churches with the Evangelical megachurch movement. I recall images of my childhood church which, while not hideous, was nevertheless rather homely and more like an auditorium than a church. I think when a Catholic is an ex-Protestant, he sometimes is very offended when Catholic things “seem” Protestant. I am thankful for my Protestant experience inasmuch as I was brought up with the Christian God. If you have been Catholic all your life and don’t have much experience in Protestant worship spaces, I suggest this might be the reason for your experiences. However, I in no way presume to be an expert on Protestant church architecture; there are many examples which put Catholic churches to shame.

Can you give examples of circular or semicircular churches constructed in the last century that would rival the quality and beauty of a church constructed in a more traditional shape and style? For that matter, can anyone? I am not convinced that there is no example, but I imagine it is hard to build such a structure.

I agree that a rectangular church does not necessarily make a great worship space, but I also think churches in the round generally have much baggage that is difficult to overcome without making an antitradition statement. I do not know of a single example of circular church done in a way that respects the architectural tradition of the Church and is well-conformed to the liturgical traditions and rubrics of the Church.

In Catholic church architecture, I would say the ideas behind forms are often just as important as the end product.

Money and politics are certainly big parts of it. You bring up a good point. I suspect that many people who make the choices have never actually visited other world class structures nor do they have the vision to see how so many design qualities apply to Catholic churches.

I have been to Mass many times here. Given its setting and the spirituality of the New Camaldoli, its design is very appropriate.

While my idea church is not a “church in the round”, to universally denigrate them as being necessarily bad is simply a display of childish ignorance. Particularly the belief that they make attendees and not Jesus Christ the focus. Pure rubbish.

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