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Catholic Taste: Building the Modern Church

Interweaving religious and architectural debate, a study of the modern church charts the changing expression of Roman Catholic identity

What does a church look like? How might holiness be signalled in wood, concrete and glass? What language and rituals best communicate the grandeur of God and the particular character of Roman Catholicism? In the 1960s, buildings became expressive statements of theological and architectural change on an unprecedented scale. Robert Proctor’s Building the Modern Church is the latest in a set of strong publications emerging from the Ashgate Studies in Architecture series edited by Eamonn Canniffe. At nearly 400 well-illustrated pages, Proctor’s volume constitutes a major contribution to a growing interest in 20th-century sacred architecture. Including diverse case studies like Gillespie, Kidd & Coia’s groundbreaking Scottish Brutalism and Frederick Gibberd & Partners’ ecumenical chapel for Heathrow Airport, Proctor charts two decades of radical change in British church architecture.

These were all players in a complex and nuanced dialogue across Britain from the ’50s through to the ’70s in which it must have seemed at times as though anything were possible in Catholic architecture

FX Velarde’s St Alexander, Bootle with its uncompromising yet playful geometry and Adam Kossowski’s monumental, continuous ceramic frieze depicting the Stations of the Cross at St Francis of Assisi in Cardiff are highlights in a book dedicated to bringing some of Britain’s most experimental, colourful and contemplative architecture out of the shadows. The Smithsons, Maguire & Murray, Patrick Reyntiens, Willi Soukop, Ralph Beyer, Auguste Perret and Le Corbusier are all players in a complex and nuanced dialogue across Britain from the ’50s through to the ’70s in which it must have seemed at times as though anything were possible in Catholic architecture.

Proctor’s perspective on architecture as culturally constructed space draws on Henry Lefebvre’s ideas in The Production of  Space and Proctor deftly works interpretations from theology, sociology and geography into a thoroughly architectural historical viewpoint. Proctor’s study builds on a corpus of material explored in books including The Twentieth Century Church, edited by Elain Harwood and published by the Twentieth Century Society in 1998, Richard Kieckhefer’s Theology in Stone and Karla Britton’s Constructing the Ineffable, a collection of essays by modern and contemporary architects and historians exploring recent sacred architecture. New research by Victoria Young on Marcel Breuer and Gerald Adler on Maguire & Murray is supported and complemented by Proctor’s wide-ranging study, which combines focused attention on a single religious denomination’s practices and experiences with a wide array of in-depth analyses of architects and ideas.

Gillespie

Gillespie, Kidd & Coia’s groundbreaking Scottish Brutalism is an example of the radical changes in British church architecture

Proctor is less interested in architects’ biographical histories than in the impactful phenomenon of Modernism in British religious spaces, tapping into a wider potential to connect British architecture with a rich international network of religious and architectural phenomena. To that end, Proctor’s chapter on Modernism and the Liturgical Movement is one of the best published explications of how the New Churches Research Group, Peter Hammond’s Liturgy and Architecture, and the Catholic press were integrally linked with a far broader and genuinely revolutionary circulation of ideas, art and architecture that aimed, as Gilbert Cope and Giles Blomfield put it, to ‘remind us what a church is really for … the place where the community meets to offer worship’.

Building the Modern Church opens not in some grand holy space at the culmination of Vatican II, but in the late 1950s in south Ruislip, an outer London suburb. The parish priest, Philip Dayer, spoke passionately to his congregation about the people he saw around him as ‘a social unit, a family with a Father’. Like so many priests and parish committees in this period of radical change, he asserted that ‘Until we have built our own Church we will not have reached our highest goal.’ Proctor’s investigations are underpinned by key questions regarding how communities understood and nurtured new ways of expressing Roman Catholic identity, and the book’s primary strength is its consistent and compelling interweaving of architectural and religious debates into a cohesive yet diverse and sometimes contradictory whole. Changes in materials, aesthetics and plans are symbiotically and flexibly connected with developments in theology and liturgy at the international, national and regional level. Proctor is as interested in traditional styles, small firms and obscure churches as he is in famed Modernist projects and immediately recognisable spaces, and readers are given a fresh and informed understanding of what was at stake for Roman Catholics choosing to claim new spaces in new ways.

Proctor’s architectural acumen and his incisive scholarship drawn from extensive attention to archival sources demonstrates the power of these sites as agents that communicate about the past while holding religious communities together in the present. A huge number of parish churches are discussed and illustrated within a thematic framework that is deeply engaged with ritual, community, devotion and collaborative synergies across the arts. Modernism’s role within the delicate dynamic of many mid-century Roman Catholic communities, their leaders and their architects is intelligently challenged and expertly described.

James Crichton, a parish priest at Pershore in Worcestershire and a significant voice within the Liturgical Movement in Britain, produced a stimulating summary of how architecture and theology could be reconfigured in relation to one another for the modern world. In his 1943 essay ‘A Dream-Church’, he explained that: ‘A church is a miniature of the Mystical Body, a concrete realisation of the heavenly Jerusalem … It is a cell of the Catholic Body, it is the ecclesia, the meeting place of the people …’ Building the Modern Church invites readers to sympathise with that dream, and to go off the beaten track in pursuit of unexpected architectural discoveries. If you’ve never been to Crabtree & Jarosz’s St Anne, Fawley Court in Buckinghamshire or to St Andrew, Slough, designed by Michael Hattrell, Proctor’s writing demonstrates what a fruitful pilgrimage they and many other mid-century churches can be for those in search of diverse and divine architecture.

Building the Modern Church: Roman Catholic Church Architecture in Britain, 1955 to 1975

Author: Robert Proctor

Publisher: Ashgate

Price: £60

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