March 6, 2015

Judge It by Its Own Standard

If you had walked down the aisle of Holy Name of Jesus in Brooklyn just a few years ago, a peculiar sight would have greeted you in the chancel. Arranged in a semi-circle behind the altar was a grouping of seven post-like objects. The inside face of each object arched toward the altar, and terminated in a recessed light fixture at the top of the arc. The monolithic slabs of drywall gave the impression of a 1980s Stonehenge, if Stonehenge had been painted "Pepto-Bismal pink." The pillars were known to the parish as "the upside down hockey sticks."Aside from a solitary crucifix and plush red carpet, the rest of the church was white and bare.

If you’ve followed my Facebook page for the last couple of years, you’ll notice I’ve begun paying much closer attention to church renovation projects. Everyone loves a good makeover story. But as a liturgical artist, it interests me for a number of other reasons. First, because it shows how others of my trade have been putting their God-given gifts to use, and second, because the renewal projects often come as a result of bad architectural choices made in the past century.

And as much as the transformations interest me, I’m just as interested in the responses of people who categorically disapprove of such renovations—especially if the finished design smacks of historical architecture. As far as I can tell, these renewal projects are born from a desire to beautify an otherwise ugly or drab worship space (as opposed to “modernizing” one)—and many that I have seen appear to have succeeded. But nonetheless, you can find plenty of people consistently making the same defenses for bad architecture. This is what they often say:

“Like all churches, this one was just a product of its time. You have to judge it by its own standard.”

Okay, I get that you can’t judge everything by the same standard. A Ming Dynasty Chinese tapestry obviously can’t be judged by the same principles that created a marble sculpture during the Italian Renaissance. But they’ve taken a valid point and run so far with it as to make it utterly useless. If architectural aesthetic standards can’t even carry over from one decade to the next in the same geographical region, or even from one building to the next built in the same year, then there is no point in saying there is such a thing as a “standard.”

Besides, how convenient is it for an architect who makes ugly buildings that we cannot contrast their shortcomings with more beautiful buildings built at a different time? Terribly convenient. And this is why I have so little regard for the architecture that Modernism has pushed on our culture for almost a century. It may be a product of its time, but so is a landfill. Every work of Modernist art came with its own unwritten set of instructions as to how it should be judged. You can see how easy it would be for a long jumper to win the meet if he’s allowed to bring his own tape measure.

“It’s thoughtless and dishonest to go around applying a Gothic veneer to everything, in spite of the original style and intent.”

In this view, everything that isn’t created in a self-consciously “modern” style is viewed as backward looking and therefore unoriginal. It observes Christian architecture only through the lens of Modernism, which values originality above beauty. But judging a church to be unoriginal simply because it incorporates Gothic visual elements is inconsistent with the insistence that every work be judged by its own standard. If we were to actually do that, then a neo-Gothic church should really be judged as an excellent homage to the Gothic. It isn’t intended to make a statement of originality or modernity; it expresses continuity with the church of ages past—and the theology that inspired it.

So even though we could ostensibly avoid criticism by creating our own rules, I think we ought to steer clear of that viewpoint. For those who are “in the world, but not of it,” there is a better way. Christians have historically had standards of holiness, beauty, and excellence instead of the vapid, self-styled standards of Modernism. It isn’t valid to say that a high altar with Gothic pinnacles is somehow dishonest. The Gothic style has been absorbed into the visual culture of the church in the same way that pillars and arches have been absorbed into the repertoire of secular architecture. While I don’t advocate that we all build neo-Gothic churches, I can’t find fault with parishes that have done so in the past. In response to the ugliness of the Industrial Revolution (and later, Modernism), they withdrew to a perfectly valid and beautiful style in the repertoire of Christian architecture.

Now, there are certainly examples of church renovations that are regretful, at least for art historical reasons. It’s a shame that we’ll never know what the church of San Vitale looked like in its original, Byzantine glory, because gaudy frescos in the Rococo style replaced many of its mosaics. And we know that the more radical personalities of the Reformation did more harm than good with the systematic removal or destruction of artwork and the whitewashing of church walls. Not all changes were for the better. Holy Name of Jesus found that out the hard way. The church was originally built in the 1800s; someone had tried to “improve” on it in the 1980s with disastrous results.

But when the changes are made thoughtfully and for the right reasons, a great deal of good can result. Thankfully, the parishioners of Holy Name were so fed up with the pink hockey sticks that they decided to undergo a dramatic renewal of their worship space. With the leadership of a new priest, they hired a company that has an established track record of beautiful transformations in the tradition of the Christian church. The resulting space was truly a remarkable change.


  1. The video has a telling clip in which parishioners applaud the collapse of the "upside down hockey sticks". Beautiful transformation! Also, "a worship space that is conducive to prayer".
    Is it possible, in your opinion, for modernism to create a good, beautiful, useful structure? And then the opposite...can Gothic or other historical methods be misapplied so as to be inappropriate?

    1. I would like to say that a beautiful Modernist church is possible, if only to give the benefit of the doubt. I have yet to see an example. If such a building does exist, I would question whether it actually is Modernist. It would seem to be a felicitous inconsistency, if so.

      I do believe that the art of the church is not meant to be a static pattern to be copied century after century. I think the organic changes that happened in church architecture over the centuries were natural and fitting, and I'd like to see that continue. But I find it difficult to blame churches for a lack of vision or artistic integrity if they go for a strict historical approach. Given the grim alternatives available in the 60s and 70s, erring on the side of "tried and true" seems wise to me.