Why we need to design (and pay for) beautiful churches
Duncan G. Stroik is an architect, author and professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame. His completed work includes the Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel in Santa Paula, Calif.; the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in LaCrosse, Wis.; the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Sioux Falls, S.D.; and most recently the Chapel of the Holy Cross at Jesuit High School Tampa, Fla.
Professor Stroik is the author of The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence and the Eternaland the founding editor of Sacred Architecture Journal. In 2016, he received the Arthur Ross Award for classical architecture. I interviewed Professor Stroik by telephone about his work. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for style and length.
How would you describe the state of sacred architecture in U.S. Catholicism today?
I would say it’s improving, and it’s a very exciting time to be involved in sacred architecture in the U.S.
What positive trends do you see happening in sacred architecture?
I notice the younger priests and bishops, probably 60 years and under but also some older priests and bishops, have grown up with churches built in the 1960s and remodeled in the 1980s. And I think there’s now a general appreciation for some things that were ignored for decades, including a greater emphasis on the Eucharist, resulting in a stronger desire for beauty in the sanctuary and especially the tabernacle. We didn’t see that as much 25 years ago.
It’s a very exciting time to be involved in sacred architecture in the U.S.
What concerns do you have about sacred architecture?
I’m very invested in promoting a Traditional with a capital “T” Catholic architecture, which means not the 1950s, 1650s, or 1250s, but to look at the whole tradition of sacred architecture. We want to have beautiful buildings, but often we’re not spending the money. While architects have good intentions, they’re not trained to do classical or Gothic churches. They strive to do beautiful things, but many of them end up doing them wrong or badly. So there’s a danger that we’re building lots of things that are “traditional” with a small “t” and not very good. We’re too easily pleased by mediocrity as long as it seems theologically and liturgically correct.
How do you define sacred architecture?
Sacred architecture is the buildings meant to honor God and serve his people. That’s not just chapels, churches and monasteries. It’s also school buildings, hospitals and other places which have some religious purpose.
People often have a strong reaction to beautiful Catholic buildings. How do you understand beauty in sacred architecture?
I think for about five decades we lacked an appreciation of some principles of sacred architecture. Beauty is a big part of it. But I focus on what I see as the five principles: verticality, directionality, iconography, geometrical order and durability. If we do those five things right, we have a basis for creating a sacred building that can also be beautiful.
As we try to do what’s liturgically and financially correct, we build a lot of structures that don’t age well.
People also react strongly to sacred architecture that seems ugly or dated. What common mistakes do you see American Catholics making in sacred architecture?
Dated styles have been a huge problem for architecture especially in the late 20th century. As we try to do what’s liturgically and financially correct, we build a lot of structures that don’t age well. Some things which felt cutting edge at the time don’t look that way today.
In more successful sacred spaces, a unique blending of old and new seems operative, especially with beloved structures like Chartres cathedral and the South American missions. As an architect, how do you balance the old and new in a way that doesn’t merely produce a bad copy of the past or become instantly dated?
I think it’s natural and good that we continue to live in, worship in and beautify our buildings. As a classicist, I’m not interested in keeping a historic building untouched without any additions. I’m interested in keeping it free of ugliness, keeping it free of additions which look out of place or of noticeably lower quality than the rest of the space. We see that a lot in historic buildings, for example when they place a free-standing altar that’s not up to the same level as the rest of the church in front of the old high altar. When I do something new in renovating an old space, I want it to look like it’s always been there or even nicer than the original elements. Adding to the past is a good thing; adding to the past badly can be worse than doing nothing at all.
As one of the intellectual founders of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, you train architects to build sacred spaces in neoclassical style. What do you say to Catholic institutions who want to build something beautiful but can’t afford the high sticker prices to create something in this style?
I’m very sympathetic to that. It is kind of ironic because our great-grandparents, most of them immigrants, sometimes had to begin with simple structures. They tended, though, to rebuild or replace with something more beautiful once they could afford it. It’s ironic for us as wealthy Americans to be thinking about simplicity, but we do and I accept that. So I’d like to propose that we consider building beauty on a budget. My short answer is we have to prioritize where to focus our resources to make the biggest impact. In my work that usually means the face of the building, the front facade and its heart, the sanctuary.
Our great-grandparents had to begin with simple structures. They tended to rebuild or replace with something more beautiful once they could afford it.
What concerns do Catholics most commonly share when they approach you about consulting on a job?
The people who come to me usually have seen what we do and they’re interested to have us do that. If they don’t know what we do or how we do it, we’re probably not the firm for them. So our clients’ concerns are normal ones like cost and inclusion of traditional elements. I believe one of my goals in working with the them is to find what works for them in their particular city or religious institution. I don’t have a formula that fits all cases. I’m really trying to come up with something that meets the needs of the particular community, school or religious order.
Your recent work on the Chapel of the Holy Cross at Jesuit High School in Tampa, where a decaying structure built in 1962 to fit the whole school needed overhauling, has drawn a lot of attention. What can you share with us about the challenges of working on that job?
Well, the first challenge was that Tampa Jesuit had the impression they had to add onto the original chapel for cost reasons and nostalgia for the existing building. But the building was 16-sided and it’s hard to add onto that kind of structure. We came up with a design to add onto this very low-ceilinged building, but it became apparent the cost would be high. So we came up with a second simple design, appropriate to the Jesuit tradition, for replacing it. The new structure proved to be cost effective.
So challenge number one was doing away with the idea of renovating a building that wasn’t in good shape. Number two was Father Hermes, the president of Tampa Jesuit, and others wanting to include things that had been in the old chapel. That chapel was centralized, with some large abstract stained glass and multiple doorways for students to enter. We studied a number of centralized Jesuit churches to reproduce that feeling, though we couldn’t include everything they wanted. I never thought we’d do a Jesuit centralized church, but we did it and had a blast doing it. I had been waiting 25 years for a client to hire us to do a centralized church with the requisite height.
Our churches are one of the ways the universal church speaks to humanity, to the unbeliever, to the marginalized and to the poor.
Where do you find God in your work teaching and creating sacred architecture?
It’s my hope that we serve the church and, in our little way, that we help the faithful draw closer to Christ through these buildings. I say that realizing that architecture is only one small part of our experience of the church. But architecture, and art, are a very expensive part of Catholicism that can last a long time. It is always a high point of my life to attend a dedication Mass, like the one at the Chapel of the Holy Cross at Jesuit High School Tampa last August, and to see the bishop anoint the altar and walls to set apart as holy something the firm designed.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about sacred architecture, what would it be?
I would say our churches are one of the ways the universal church speaks to humanity, to the unbeliever, to the marginalized and to the poor. So it’s one of the things the Catholic Church has always invested in. We need to continue doing so, whether it’s restoring the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or building new churches in poor regions of the world. I think one of the tangible and long-term ways we serve people in need, on the peripheries, is through sacred architecture.
What are your hopes for the future of sacred architecture?
I hope we’ll find more talented architects doing beautiful things—and not just trying to learn from our forebears, but developing the work to a new level. I hope for artists who will learn to sculpt and paint at a very high level so our churches will once again be places of great artistic quality that elevate people’s spirits.
What do you want people to take away from your work?
What I’ve tried to do for 25 years, and continue to try to do, is to contradict what we’ve been told for 40 years: “You can’t do that anymore. We can’t build things the way we used to build them. We don’t have the craftsmen we used to have.” That’s been my goal, to contradict that “common wisdom” which has really been P.R. to support the modernist architectural agenda. To contradict this iconoclastic agenda, I want to demonstrate the vitality of the church’s tradition through sacred architecture.
Any final thoughts?
Now that I’ve done one Jesuit chapel, I hope I can do others—because there’s a very rich Jesuit tradition, not just architecturally, but also for our urban areas. I love the marriage of art and architecture in Jesuit buildings, whether it be the Gesu in Rome or the mission churches of South America. The high interest in a sophisticated theology can inspire us to do a sophisticated architecture and art. I believe that happened at the Chapel of the Holy Cross at Jesuit High School in Tampa because the Jesuits there wanted it to happen. It was an honor to be part of it.