[excerpt from Sacred Revival by Colette Arredondo – City Journal.]
A devout Catholic, Stroik is also a professor of classical architecture at the University of Notre Dame and principal at an architectural firm bearing his name in South Bend, Indiana. He is one of a select few architects that the Catholic Church calls when it seeks to build a church that “looks like a church.” His knowledge of sacred architecture informs his charge that the church buildings of the past 50 years have failed to serve the faithful well either as structures for spiritual nourishment or as houses of God. The Church’s alignment with the architectural movements of our age, he says, has “unwittingly undercut its own theological agenda.”
To Stroik, the villain isn’t Vatican II, but the Church’s dependence on a secular modernist architectural movement. Modernism, by nature, is dismissive of history—Tom Wolfe described this as “starting from zero.” It’s a philosophy at odds with a Church premised on continuity. The modernist emphasis on self-expression has led to a breakdown of building typology. Architects trained to see architecture as a medium for self-expression have difficulty embracing the “noble ministry” of church design. So we see churches that do not look like churches.
Stroik seeks an architecture that is inherently Catholic. For him, the “form follows function” concept is at odds with the purpose of a church building, which needs to do more than just serve the programmatic function of the liturgy. Catholicism is a religion of the senses, he explains. The architecture of its buildings should contribute to an atmosphere of transcendence. There should be a verticality of space—pointing heavenward—instead of the horizontality seen in many churches today, and natural light should be used to create a sense of the mystical. The sanctuary should enframe a stone altar placed at the center of the church; the sanctuary should be ornamented, elevated, and preferably covered with a dome or vault. He suggests altar rails, stating that they are “the most misunderstood parts of the church.”
Stroik’s preferred brand of sacred architecture is based on the classical concept of firmitas, utilitas, and venustas, or firmness, utility, and beauty. “Firmness” refers to buildings of quality that are meant to last and are of a timeless nature, which Stroik relates to the religious idea of the eternal. Whereas the modernist evaluates function alone when deeming a building beautiful or successful, the classicist also considers a building’s actual beauty, which, according to classical philosophy, is expressed through proportion, ornament, craft, and color. Even St. Francis of Assisi, who devoted his life to apostolic poverty, proclaimed on his deathbed, “Above everything else, I want this most holy Sacrament to be honored and venerated and reserved in places which are richly ornamented.” The modernist taboo against ornament has roots in the anti-bourgeois sentiments of the Bauhaus school and suggests European social movements more than Catholic doctrine.
Throughout history, man has used ornament to depict reverence. Out of a desire to curb ostentatious design, however, the Church has in recent decades redefined its association with ornament. The General Instruction on the Roman Missal uses the phrase “noble simplicity” as a design goal for new churches. Stroik notes that the term originally came from art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–68) and was used to describe the beauty he found in Classical Greek art. The term “noble simplicity,” Stroik declares, should not “be confused with mere functionalism, abstract minimalism, or crude banality.” Material beauty is necessary to connect us with something greater than ourselves. Stroik references Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists: “In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God . . . it must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is ineffable.”
Why does the Church and why does Christianity need artists? While we have artists because they have the ability to see the greater reality, we need artists because… we can’t understand truth without art.