European churches are currently engaged in an architectural culture war.
Cardinal GianÂfranco RavÂasi declared the outbreak of hostilities in 2013 with a sweeping condemnation of many recently built churches in Italy, which, he said, were intended to win design prizes rather than to serve the needs of liturgy. Instead of seeking to create a suitable mood for celebration or meditation, architects have extolled abÂstract geometric form. IgÂnoring religious needs, they “tend instead to focus on space, lines, light and sound.”
Nonsense, replied those proÂgressive architects. ConÂcepts of the appropriate setting for Christian worship have changed enormously through the centuries. Throughout history reactionaries have condemned innovative buildings that over time come to be recognized as epochal masterpieces.
I can see both sides in this debate, although I do take Ravasi’s point that some recent structures seem deliberately intended to infuriate traditionalists. What is most startling is that such a debate is raging at a time when Europe’s mainstream churches have been so weakened by secularization and when the Roman Catholic Church in particular faces so many challenges. Yet, as in centuries past, these institutions are not only creating many new buildings but serving as key patrons of great architects.