The new church is a hybrid, public in the sense that it is open to everyone; but also ‘private’ in the sense that it is the home of a community
Originally published in AR March 1970, this piece was republished online in May 2016
During the last few years church design has embarked on a process of fundamental change. This began with the desire to make it easier for everyone to take part in cult. In itself this was no more than a rather belated architectural response to the Liturgical Movement, which itself had been stirring gently for fifty years and more. To this must be added a second, related desire to discover the relationship between cult and the other activities of the Christian community.
The first of these two influences on planning is usually called ‘participation’. The second might reasonably be called ‘domestication’, since its broad effect is to convert the Church into the home of a community. At first sight both ‘participation’ and ‘domestication’ might be considered the private concern of Christians; but in fact they relate to man’s experience in general. Men want to feel that they are truly sharing in the actions of society, that they are not merely the passive witnesses of events. They also want to feel that the world in which they live and work is their home: that it is really theirs, that they are not chance strangers but are of real account.
‘Thawed out from the 1000-year deep-freeze of Christian culture, new churches - like this Anglican/RC one at Cippenham - become architectural innovators once more’
In seeking these two things the church therefore joins the school in being one of the interpretative building types in our society, concerned to unravel what human life is about. The physical sign of the first of these two objectives is the adoption of a plan for the worship room which is nearly as wide as it is long. Suddenly - after eighteen hundred years or so - the term ‘nave’ has ceased to apply. The great unsolved question is how many people can share in cult in one space? At what stage does a ‘congregation’ necessarily become a crowd? There are strong administrative reasons for hoping that this number may be as many as 400: but the number tends to reduce with the kind of experience which is intended: 200 the more complex and strenuous the idea of ‘participation’, the fewer the maximum number of people who can share in it; and it is this, rather than diminishing congregations, which causes the average church size to get smaller.
The first stage in the move towards domestication is marked by a greater intimacy between ‘social space’ and ‘cult space’, by the tendency for social space to take up a significant proportion of the whole and by the move to put the cult space, or part of it, to dual use. To the change in planning must be added the change in architectural style and tone. ‘Modern architecture’ regarded simply as a stylistic language has been accepted for churches for thirty years and more, but it has always been interpreted in a peculiar, aggressive way. Church designers have felt a duty to express violent emotions. This it was that gave churches of the ‘fifties and early’ sixties an air of social anguish: as though they were attempting to recover by force the easy majesty of the mediaeval situation.
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The discovery of a legitimate social role is putting a stop to this. Gone - or nearly gone - is that anguish of spirit, that tortured malformity and assertiveness. In its place we have calm and modesty. There are several different components in this important stylistic reversal. There is, for instance, secularization: the desire to assimilate churches to other ambiances. This goal is sought, not so much because secular environments are considered ‘better’ in themselves, but to emphasize a continuity between cult and non-cult and to stamp out all traces of a separate ‘ecclesiastical culture’. Another component is the desire to transfer emphasis from enclosure to people. The square plan tends to do this automatically by moving the focus well away from the enclosing structure. But some architects clearly want to carry this further, eg by using spotlights which make the enclosing structure to disappear altogether at night. This is probably unnecessary and undesirable since it tends to make the enclosure itself anonymous. But at this stage we must see this move in positive terms as a desire to emphasize the fact that ‘church’ means people, not plant. A third component is the desire for domesticity. Multi-use itself tends in this direction, for the home is above all a place where many things are done: and therefore the spontaneous sight of many mildly incongruous objects is a part of the home atmosphere.
But the urge towards the domestic is also seen in the section and in the choice of finishes. The traditional church was every inch a public building. By contrast, the new church is an interesting hybrid. It is public in the sense that it is open to everyone; but it is also ‘private’ in the sense that it is the home of a community. It is thus, in ideal, a revelation of intimacy, the beginning of an attempt to make the public world more human. Once more the square plan helps in this, for the chances are that the surrounding walls will be relatively low, and it is eaves’ height more than anything which determines a building’s position on the public/private scale. The related switch to softer, warmer finishes is slower in coming: bare brickwork and beton brut- the Modern Movement’s dubious legacy from the Gothic Revival - still persist. Nevertheless there is one discreet innovation which must be noticed, namely, the insertion in two of the smaller churches of a cloakroom for hanging up outdoor clothes. What does this mean? That churchgoers must expect to be more active? Or that the building is more snug? Or that a better community sense permits unattended coats to pass unstolen? Perhaps something of all of these.
St. Jan’s Roman Catholic church at Eindhoven, Netherlands
St. Antonius Roman Catholic church at Wildegg, Switzerland
St.Antonius Anglican church of St.Joseph the worker at Northolt
St. Gregory the Great Roman Catholic church at Alresford
Meeting House for the Society of Friends at Wanstead
Baptist church at Waterlooville, Hants
Small church at Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire
St.Margaret’s Roman Catholic church, Twickenham
Anglican church of St Philip and St James, Hodge Hill, Birmingham
Anglican/Roman Catholic church at Cippenham
Newman-Rensselaer Foundation at Troy in New York
Roman Catholic Church at Chico, California
Protestan Chapel of the Atonement, Dachau
Church in via Parea, Milan
Church at Schafftlach, Western Germany
Sacro Cuore church at Casalecchio
The church of St Paul, Waterloo