The Thinking 

‘Terrible is This Place’

December 15, 2009


1 OLMC Original 

The state of ecclesiastical architecture is abysmal and is not likely to become non-abysmal anytime soon. The most beautiful churches in America and Europe were created in places and times where entire communities were united behind a single building project, a collective monument to the sacred. Neither the cathedral at Chartres or the more austere white steepled churches of New England were the efforts of cafeteria-style Christians who had a choice where to devote their tithings.

Today church buildings do show some variety, including “strip mall classical” and “Disneyland Gothic,” but many overtly scorn the divine, a concerted rejection of historic European Christianity. There are soaring rafters suited to ski lodges; over-sized crucifixes bearing angular, non-human Christs; blank walls without statuary, stained glass or other iconography;  and altars-in-the-round lit by skylights and surrounded by potted ferns and pews with padded kneelers. These churches are accommodating, but so are convention halls and firehouses. For Catholics, Vatican II brought in an era when secular modernism was embraced and churches were redefined as meeting places. Many threw out treasured artifacts.

Architecture isn’t everything. But it isn’t nothing either.

Fortunately, there is hope in a small but growing movement for traditional architecture. Here and there congregations resist the trend. They either tirelessly preserve old buildings or attempt to bring to new life the highest principles of sacred architecture. One exemplar of this is Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Littleton, Colorado, a church attempting its own architectural revolution, hoping to convert its current building, above, into the structure below. 

I don’t mean to be unkind and truthfully I’ve never seen it in person, but the structure above looks like the check-in building for a middlebrow ski resort, a place where you sip hot chocolate and coffee before retiring to your room. Architecture isn’t everything and a congregation can conjure flying buttresses, gargoyles and rose windows. I’m sure Our Lady of Mount Carmel has seen the heights, but human beings are weak and it’s hard to conceive of the transcendent in an ersatz chalet.

New View



Our Lady of Mount Carmel was established in 1996 by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the clerical society devoted to the traditional Roman rite, or Latin Mass. The pastor is the Rev. James Jackson, who has written an engaging series in the church’s bulletin on liturgy and the tenets of sacred architecture. The series can be viewed in the bulletin inserts here. Father Jackson does not hide his prejudices against contemporary individualistic, self-expressive worship and it makes for illuminating reading.

A church should be a place of  “terrible beauty.” Father Jackson quotes the Introit of the Mass of the Dedication of a Church:

   ‘Terrible is this place: it is the house of God, and the gate of heaven; and it shall be called the court of God.”

“The very appearance of our churches should call this great truth to mind,” Father Jackson writes. He notes the work of St. Charles Borromeo and the three natural laws of Church architecture: permanence, verticality and iconography. His meditations on verticality are an important reminder:  Horizontality alone is a dead-end, as any resident of modern-day strip-mall America can tell you. He writes:

   “[Verticality] enables a man to look up. If there is no height, there is no physical lifting of the head and the eyes toward heaven. If there is no lifting of the eyes and head, the formation of transcendence in the worshipper is very hard to accomplish. This can be seen also in forms of music which are especially earthbound and stuck in some period of time like the 60s. Therefore everything in the church ought to be firmly rooted here, but point to there – to what is beyond this world. The altar rails, the Stations of the Cross, the candlesticks…everything should point to heaven.”

“Especially earthbound” is a charitable way to describe 1960s’ church music and the general trend in sacred architecture. Best of luck to this brave, iconoclastic congregation, laying the stones of its own Mont St. Michel. They can’t do it alone and would appreciate your prayers.


                                                                                —— Comments —–

Hannon writes:

I greatly enjoyed this entry, seemingly an ideal subject for your site. I was not really brought up going to church but I have always felt veneration for those, usually older buildings, that command attention. After seeing Cantebury Cathedral and some very old cathedrals in the U.S. and Latin America I wonder why they bother with the newer designs. The new “crystal cathedral” thing for the Los Angeles Archdiocese is a paean to post-modern secularism. As if we needed a new vision of God and got tired of dusting off the old.

One can understand how many modern churches may lack sufficient funding, but how do the aesthetic and traditional religious qualifiers disappear?

Here is one of my favorite images of a beautiful little church at Grytviken, in one of the most remote localities on earth:

Laura writes:

That is very beautiful in its mountain niche.

It seems there are a number of factors in the decline of Christian architecture, but the rejection of a transcendent God and the resulting conversion of churches into community centers  are foremost. A competitive and democratic religious sphere makes it hard to summon the resources and also leads to the tendency to pander to seekers.

One of the worst developments is the overuse of natural light. There are no shadows and dappled spaces in these modernist interiors. If people had no buildings and they were forced to worship outside, would they choose spaces in the blazing sun or would they naturally seek the forest and the cave?

Paul writes:

“Architecture isn’t everything. But it isn’t nothing either.” 

Perfectly stated.

Paul adds:

I was so enamored with the proposed church and satisfied by its departure from the “chalet” version, that I neglected the surface parking lot in its foreground. 

I suppose this is one of the perils of great architecture. It compensates us so well and is such a welcome relief that we quickly ignore the planning impositions that isolate it from everything else and dilute its physical presence in the community. Parking lot requirements, buffers and setbacks take up so much darned space, oftentimes three-fourths of a site. And with such requirements imposed on all other uses, there is little hope that a church can relate physically to other civic and commercial buildings, much less to the homes of the parishioners served by it. And the same goes for schools. 

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it is the curse of unintentional entropy vis-à-vis our dogged devotion to automobiles and accommodating them at every juncture. Everything ends up isolated, buffered, sheltered and paved and stripped over, with nothing relating to anything else on a human scale. And with all this imposed separation, it is impossible to define meaningful spaces between buildings in the form of plazas, green, squares, etc. — neutral, secular ground that unobtrusively stitches all the disparate elements together; that makes them integral parts of a whole; elevates churches and schools and libraries and offices, etc. as essential components of a place; a place that is identifiable and worthy of a name, and, over time, worthy of admiration and affection. 

Just as with architecture. Decent urban form isn’t everything, but it isn’t nothing either.

Laura writes:

That’s very true. A church like this makes such a difference to a town, but the lack of aesthetic values in zoning and the requirement to accomodate cars on the site of each building lessens its effect.

Fitzgerald writes:

The ascendency of the horizontal in architecture is the intentional product of a small group of progressive radicals in the late 19th to mid 20th century to break down society, it’s morals and traditions and foist their barren and wretched bohemian lifestyles and nihilistic cynicism on an unsuspecting public. Architecture is enormously important. It shapes the space in which we inhabit, and influences how we interact with each other and our outlook on the world around us. Good architecture reinforces those elements within mankind that resonate with the transcendent. Traditional building designs are crowned with a pitched roof that rises to a peak, steeples are all the more powerful symbols as they rise to a point, coalescing and drawing our gaze heavenward. Modernist architecture pulls our gaze away from the focused transcendent down to the temporal realm, spreading it horizontality and emphasizing a purely humanistic outlook that rejects the spiritual reality of our existence. As I have so forcefully asserted, this was intentional. 

The emergence of the Bauhaus school and it’s demonic spawn in the internationalist and other modern “architectural” and “design” schools begat the monstrosities that blight the urban cores of most cities, and Eastern Europe in particular. Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Mendelsohn and small cadre of other lesser know bohemians left Germany in the 30’s and ensconced themselves in the flank of American academia and architectural circles, using their influence to advance their decadent lifestyles and deconstructionist outlook on the rest of us. It would be generous to say they developed a completely rationalistic architecture, focused on function over form. In reality, their soul crushing designs were calculated to break down the structure of Christian civilization, dehumanizing it and making “Living Machines” as Gropius referred to his designs throughout his lifetime. Gropius was particularly candid largely within the confines of academia and to various powerful people who viewed him as some latter day prophet how the goal of his architecture was to break down the tradition bound bonds between people by destroying privacy and asserting true beauty was to be found in barren simplicity. This was and is an assault on the fundamental building block of Christian civilization, the family, and a quick study of his life demonstrates a wretched existence not unlike those of powerful moguls, sport stars (Tiger Woods, for a most recent example) and other leading persons in popular culture. Family life is intimate, it is fragile and it must be protected from undue intrusion by neighbors, well meaning associates and most importantly, the state. Home must be a sanctuary from public life. Gropius and his fellow travelers designed buildings and homes in direct opposition to our most precious traditions. Just look at the towering apartment blocks built by housing authorities across the world and how the interior space was barren and sparse and designed to squelch intimacy and privacy. The exteriors of these monstrosities are devoid of life conveying a cold, mechanized and dehumanized outlook on life. College dormitories at Harvard and other “leading” institutions carried this to an extreme. Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House radically embodies both the horizontal while also making family intimacy impossible within it’s aquarium like glass walls laying bare the actions of the unfortunate inhabitants. Even more extreme is it’s complete rejection of any sense of connectedness with the earth as it floats on stilts creating a ghastly and hellish place disconnected from the life nurturing earth and devoid of a symbolically transcendent relationship with the sky via a pitched roof being completely flat. These are but a few, more extreme examples of their radical agenda encased in glass and metal to be found in every city in the world today. 

Sadly, these themes crossed over into Church architecture as well in the mid 20th century transforming what was supposed to be sacred space focused on the transcendent to a humanistic, temporal reality. Gothic architecture with it soaring vaults was designed to draw our attention heavenward while also communicating the awesomeness of God and our place in the cosmos. The interiors of these sacred places were adorned with beautiful and potent symbols in harmony with the structure and the traditions that gave rise to it with the overarching goal of creating a taste of heaven on earth. The modern “Church” building, most often in the round or auditorium style, is a barren place, full of dissonance and does not draw us heavenward, but towards our fellow man. It is humanistic and self-referential by design, detached almost completely from tradition with only vestigial remnants thrown in for effect. Tabernacles in Catholic churches once adorned in beautiful splendor, floating above the altar at end of the nave have been displaced to the side and deconstructed to minimalistic sarcophagi potently communicating the reality that God has been displaced and cast aside, often shunted entirely out of view. The services that are performed in these monstrous abominations have themselves even been stripped to the bone to avoid clashing with the surroundings. The sacred has become profane and ordinary. 

It is essential traditional architecture be revived both in our sacred structures as well as our homes. Note how the homes the wealthy and powerful today inhabit are barren and cold, empty of life and progeny. The bohemian radicals that transformed architecture have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They ripped architecture from it’s traditional moorings and erected soul-crushing living machines to foist their radically selfish and self-serving lifestyles, lived in opposition to the family and the traditions designed to nourish and support it, upon the unwitting and unfortunate inhabitants of the very structures they produced.



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