[Excerpt from 2002 essay by Daniel Lee at Regenerator]
What I sense and see in my own involvement in the religious community, and in my reading, is that most Christians cannot begin a conversation on architecture. Several years ago I met a highly regarded Christian poet, who in response to a similar question I posed, answered, “I really don´t know, architecture is such an esoteric art form.” Her comments surprised me but illustrate well the current state of affairs.
The architecture that churches are building today is as confused as the tastes, and faith, of building committee members. Building committees, or other deciding powers, want inexpensive construction that solves basic functional needs. As they select their architect, they are often most concerned with how many churches he has designed, or whether he is well known. It would be nice if he is a believer but they are looking, first, for a safe choice. They feel inadequate to assess philosophical or artistic aspects inherent in their task and simply hope for the best. The results we are seeing are disappointing, and the church is missing important opportunities to create significant new architecture.
During two thousand years of Christianity our most important buildings were houses of worship. However, after World War II the church no longer seems able to build churches that are beautiful, commodious, and durable.
After the war, new architectural ideas found receptive ground in Western culture. Contemporary beliefs that we were approaching a point in history where we could, by the use of reason, science, and technology, construct a new world, gave rise to an architectural style known as Modernism. It was utopian in its intent, and its minimalist abstract aesthetics expressed a “scientific” functionalism, glorifying technology´s promise of a mass-produced and consumed wealth. Lead proponents included the German architects Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the French architect Le Corbusier, and others like Philip Johnson here in the U.S.
The reductionist nature of their architecture was shocking, new, and appealed especially to the avant-garde. Corporate America adopted the architecture almost immediately, and following the war, used it as a symbol of their progressive visions for a new age of corporatism. Whole new cities sprung up in this “International Style,” the best example being Brasilia, in the jungles of Brazil.
But this architecture had liabilities. Its leaders, who had been trained as classicists, were able to develop striking signature buildings, but their followers were less adept and it spread like a cancer. Much of the initial power of this new architecture grew from its dramatic contrast to the existing older city fabrics around it. But as that surrounding fabric was replaced with a similar architecture, the power of Modernist buildings to hold interest quickly began to fail.
By the sixties and seventies, the oppression of the Marxist states, defeat in Vietnam, and social unrest in the U.S. began to undercut the Modernist ideology. We began to find ourselves in the Postmodern period, with many competing ideologies and the collapse of cultural consensus. Architecture turned to Postmodern ironic eclecticism in the eighties, and today, “cutting edge” architects have become consumed with the entirely subjective chaos architecture of Deconstruction. And so, in a fifty years span, we have witnessed the actual death of consensus, and therefore meaning in our culture.
But, it is important to remember that before the Modern period, works of art were often loaded with meaning as we expressed our understanding of the relationship between transcendent Truth and daily life, and this is the mindset Christians must reclaim. Most of the popular art and architecture we see produced in the market today is simply feeding market demand at the lowest, cheapest level. While some serious art and architecture is still being produced, churches and works commissioned by Christians rarely receive such attention or resources.