Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Myth of the Domus Ecclesiae

 In my search to better understand Catholic architecture, one of the more interesting questions is 'why did churches change so much over the 20th century?'  In the course of just a few decades, how did we move from grand, formal, and noble edifices which were rich in material, decoration, sacred art, beautiful stained glass, devotional shrines, and layered symbolic meaning to austere, boxy, whitewashed, functionalistic churches bereft of all emotion, meaning and mystery?

Cathedral of St Helena; Helena Montana. (1908-1914)
One of the finest neo Gothic churches in America
Corpus Christi; Aachen, Germany. (1930) by Rudolf Schwarz
"The box the church came in"

The answers to this question are diverse and concern massive shifts in cultural values and technology: everything from the simple fact of new building materials such as ferrocement, steel, plate glass and forced air heating systems, to more arcane issues such as the supposedly spiritual properties of the crystal, the archeological investigations of pre Constantinian church architecture, and even 19th and early 20th century germ theory.

In 2010 I presented a paper on one aspect of this question at "A Living Presence" conference at Catholic University of America: namely, the place of the domus ecclesiae (the 'house church') in ancient Christian and mid-century modern church design. 

I am grateful that a version of that paper was recently published in Sacred Architecture Journal as Domus Dei, Quae Est Ecclesia Dei Vivi: The Myth of the Domus Ecclesiae

What recent examples of Catholic church architecture really move you to help pray the Mass better?  

Does your own parish church assist you in this, or does it need to be remodeled or improved? 

Do you like simpler, plainer, more community oriented, and more functional churches, or more beautiful, richer, symbolic, and traditional churches? 

Do churches really need to be one or the other, or can we find an architecture that speaks to both the contemporary world and the traditions of the Catholic faith?


  1. Congratulations on your new blog, and welcome to the blogosphere. (Is that even a word?)

    As you note, there are many complex reasons for why "they don't build 'em like they used to." One is surely the influence of modernism and ever-changing tastes in architecture. The old adage: what's "in style" quickly goes out of style.

    But architects and building committees don't deserve all the blame. First, roughly half the cost of building a church today pays for the actual structure (foundation, walls, floors, etc) while half of the cost pays for the technology inside the building (HVAC, lighting, fire alarms, security systems, sound systems, etc.) In the era of classical church architecture, nearly 100% of the funds raised could be applied to building monumental structures.

    Second, fiscal policies have changed for financing construction projects. Many dioceses require that 30%, even 50% of the cost be cash-in-hand before groundbreaking, plus guarantees made that the remaining amount can be paid off within just a few years. In previous times, churches were built over longer periods of time and open-ended loans were approved.

    Third, there is now an expectation that when a church is built and dedicated that it is "finished." In previous times, churches were built and furnished over centuries. The great cathedrals of Europe were built over generations: several generations might come and go worshipping in the nave with a temporary altar until the sanctuary could be built, plus transepts, towers, chapels, etc. Can you imagine a parish today starting to build a grand monumental church that they hope (not promise) will be complete in 100 years? On a smaller scale, I've heard of parishes who desired to have substantial commissioned artwork in their new church, but who had no choice but to buy mass-produced fiberglass statues because everything had to be in place quickly for the dedication.

    Finally, in previous times we built for the ages--substantial enough to last for hundreds of years. Today it's almost assumed that whatever we build today will be torn down in 50 years to build something new, or abandoned as the congregation moves ever further into the suburbs.

    All of this adds up to why "they don't build 'em like they used to!"

  2. Thanks, Scott -- I appreciate your comments. This is an area I am constantly grappling with. The economics are interesting, and I suspect it is more a question of will and value than actual costs. The great old East Coast church from the late 19th and early 29th centuries were largely built by low middle class immigrant populations. Consider the typical American, middle class suburban parish:

    Say 2000 families, which translates to 2000 cars parked each weekend. Even conservatively, 2000 cars x $15,000/ car = $30,000,000. (and most middle class families have more than 1 car).

    Now amortize that car over 5 years: $15,000 / 5 years / 52 weeks = $60 / week.

    So even if the typical middle class suburban family only gave $20/ week, we could easily build a $10,000,000 church. The money is there, it just remains in the parishioners' pockets or goes elsewhere.

    I agree with you about the general problem and the various complexities you mention. Perhaps one reason people don't give generously is that the buildings they are asked to support don't engage their hearts and minds and memory and imagination and capacity for perceiving beauty?