Modern architecture was slow in moving into religious buildings, and the first important modernist churches only appeared in Europe and South America in the 1920s and 1930s. Some of them were designed by the most famous architects of the time, including Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier, and were remarkably innovative. Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamps in eastern France, for instance, looks from some angles like a nun’s headdress.

In America, churches and synagogues were designed by famous modern architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen, and Mies van der Rohe. These structures were always visually impressive, if occasionally impractical. (Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, built in 1904, looks from outside like an almost windowless pre-Columbian tomb in gray concrete, and the benches in its interior, though handsome, are as square and uncomfortable as most of his early furniture.) Many other architects followed this lead. Some, intoxicated by the possibilities of reinforced concrete, produced buildings that resembled fish, shells, flowers, breadboxes, and A-frame ski lodges. At first there was often resistance from congregations: people complained that the new structures “just did not look like churches.” Occasionally parishioners were persuaded by the argument that, as the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Walnut Creek, California (one of the breadboxes), put it, “contemporary design costs less.” Eventually some people became reconciled to this particular breadbox or even began to admire it; others, especially the older members of the congregation, left the church.

Today religious architecture takes many forms. A few traditional neocolonial, neofederalist, and neo-Gothic churches continue to be built; but most new churches, and almost all new synagogues, look modern—or, more often, postmodern, combining elements from many different traditions. Corinthian columns may support the semiclassical pediment of a church that otherwise resembles a big-box superstore, and pointed Gothic doors may appear on the flat end of a shingled A-frame building. Nowadays many of these structures are more readily identified as churches from the outside, though some still appear to be disguised as schools or corporation headquarters or medical clinics. Like the neomedieval churches, they match their environment. They are almost always consciously simple and functional, with an emphasis on natural materials—stone, plaster, wood, and brick—and pale natural colors—gray, white, tan, and faded red. The interiors tend to look rather empty, with high bare walls and windows that (unless the church is located in a landscape of considerable beauty) do not allow a view of the world outside.

The floors are usually no longer sloped as in a theater, and the pulpit and altar or communion table stand only a few steps above the rest of the room. It is not always possible to instantly identify the space as having a religious purpose, especially in the case of nonliturgical Protestant denominations. Usually there is a large plain cross somewhere, but it may be high on the wall or off to one side. At first glance, these church interiors often look like expensive concert auditoriums, or the lecture halls of a well-endowed university or a successful nonprofit foundation.

In some ways, the designers of these new churches appear to have gone back to the Middle Ages for inspiration: not to the Gothic cathedral or the medieval fortress, but to the simplicity and use of light characteristic of the abbeys and nunneries of the late Middle Ages, particularly those of the Cistercians. These buildings, now much admired by architects, are currently celebrated in one of those handsome coffee-table books that need only legs to serve as an actual coffee table, Cistercian Europe, by Terryl N. Kinder. Many of the buildings pictured in it are now in ruins, but they remain impressive. It is no wonder that contemporary architects should try to reproduce this look—at times fairly successfully. Some of their churches give the same impression of bare pale walls and echoing corridors, minimal but elegant benches and pulpits and altars, and empty peaceful space. Often this space, as in the Cistercian abbeys, is flooded with light pouring down from above into the shadowy darkness below, in a religious metaphor given material substance.

Several interesting books have been devoted to the celebration of America’s religious architecture; in fact this is the title of Marilyn J. Chiat’s sur-vey of over a hundred churches and synagogues, with a Zen temple or two thrown in. Though her most recent entry is Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1949– 1951 Unitarian Meeting House in Shorewood Hills, Wisconsin, she covers all fifty states, and all her exam-ples are of architectural or historical interest. She includes classic versions of many styles, and also some fascinating freaks. I especially liked two churches in the northern Midwest with obvious faces: Immaculate Heart of Mary in Windthorst, Kansas, has the look of a prim and disapproving pioneer aunt, while St. Boniface in Menominee, Nebraska, strongly resembles a frightened puppy. (Marilyn Chiat either failed to see these faces or, more likely, discreetly omits to mention them.) She also includes a neo–Tudor Revival church in Atlanta that might be a set for a Shakespearean comedy, and a wildly extravagant Egyptian temple in Nashville—both of them Presbyterian.


Peter W. Williams’s Houses of God covers similar ground but includes more historical information and many more recent buildings, including three churches that strongly resemble Hollywood versions of a small space ship: La Ermita in Miami; Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana (see illustration on next page); and, my favorite, the Tower of Prayer at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which looks as if it were about to take off at any minute. God, they irresistibly suggest, is a being from outer space.

All three of these spaceships, like many fundamentalist churches today, have what might be called a lightning-rod spire. The steeple or tower has always been one of the distinguishing marks of a church, its visible connection with the divine. The solid steeples and bell towers of colonial, neo-Gothic, and neomedieval churches are bridges between heaven and earth. The very slim, sharp, lightning-rod spire, on the other hand, seems designed to transmit a kind of electrical or spiritual power, perhaps of the sort that strikes worshipers inside the building and causes them to sway and cry out to Jesus.

A particularly lavish recent work is Michael J. Crosbie’s Architecture for the Gods, which is all in color and celebrates forty-three sophisticated modern and postmodern constructions. The plural title presumably refers to the fact that Crosbie includes several synagogues and the Islamic Center in New York City—but it is possibly also an unconscious recognition that these diverse buildings do suggest diverse divinities. The synagogues, for instance, make it clear that in Judaism the central and most sacred part of the building is the ark in which the scrolls of the Torah are kept. Modern designers recognize this priority, and have created many dramatic arks, which sometimes are almost the only decorative art visible.

According to Caroline Humphrey and Piers Vitebsky in Sacred Architecture, all religious buildings contain levels of sacred space. The most private, holy, and powerful space “is often so sacred that it can be reached only by degrees…. Individuals must be purified before entering this space and entry to the inner area is often permitted only to special categories of people.” The Orthodox church, even today, “usually shelters the altar behind a screen of icons, beyond which no unbaptized person is allowed.” For Roman Catholics the most holy part of the building is the tabernacle that contains the consecrated host. In modernist churches, where so many visual and psychological barriers between the clergy and the laity have been removed, the special sanctity of the tabernacle is sometimes preserved by moving it to a side chapel and bringing the bread and wine out only for communion services.

Recently there has been great disagreement about how Christian architecture should look. At the moment the controversy is hottest among Catholics and Episcopalians. Advocates of a new, simplified architecture such as Richard Giles believe that the traditional church building expresses “an extinct form of Christianity.” All too often, Giles complains in Re-Pitching the Tent, “Christians are to be found worshipping in long Gothic tunnels… cowering beneath balconies and lurking behind pillars…. The buildings erected to serve them…now subdue them.”

Supporters of the new church architecture trace the change back to Pope Pius XII’s 1947 encyclical letter Mediator Dei, which declared that the arts should “take into account more the needs of the Christian community than the personal taste and judgment of the artist.” This was often taken to mean “that the church should be shaped by the worship”; or, as Peter F. Anson puts it in The Building of Churches (1964), adapting Le Corbusier’s famous statement (“A house is a machine for living”) without achieving his laconic elegance, “Churches should be machines specially designed to make it easy for a number of people to worship in them.”

Once Catholic services began to be conducted in the vernacular rather than in Latin, it seemed important that what went on at the altar should be fully audible and visible to everyone. One way of achieving this was to unite in a single space the nave and the chancel, and move the altar out toward the worshipers on what was now called a “bema platform.” In many new Catholic and Episcopal churches this platform is surrounded on three sides with chairs or pews, so that during the service members of the congregation can see one another as well as the priest. This is considered desirable, since it maintains awareness that they are members of a “church community,” in one of the most favored phrases of books like Michael DeSanctis’s Building from Belief and Richard Giles’s Re-Pitching the Tent.


Michael DeSanctis, whose large and well-designed book is mainly addressed to Catholic congregations, believes that modern church buildings should strive for a noble simplicity and celebrate craftsmanship and artistic talent, while avoiding the grandiose and lavishly ornamented. He points out that the Catholic Church believes that God’s grace comes through physical means, and this gives the physical structure of the church great importance. In America, he complains, it is difficult to express faith through architecture: too many people and organizations are involved in the planning of any new church, and controversy is often intense. Some Catholics, DeSanctis remarks, with the air of a weary survivor of many committee meetings, believe that Vatican II and reforms in church design are “part of a demonic plan for the wholesale undoing of Catholic culture.” It does not surprise him that many first-rate architectural firms now decline religious commissions.

Richard Giles, who concentrates on Protestant denominations, is considerably more militant. He points out that the church is now a center of activity all week long:

a home, a worship workshop, a source of inspiration, an oasis of prayer, a community college, an advice center, a typing pool, a soup kitchen and an operational HQ for a missionary organisation.

To serve the new church community, he recommends the construction of a large gathering place or narthex just inside the entrance, equipped with chairs and tables, where members of the congregation can meet and mingle both before and after the service. He believes that churches “should demonstrate the corporate nature of our worship,” and also that they can learn from the experience of the supermarket chain, where goods “which have ceased to appeal to customers are promptly withdrawn.” For him, and many modern architects, it is not always important that a building look like a church from outside. Indeed, some prefer that it fit into its surroundings in a more unobtrusive way. If it resembles an elementary school or a library, perhaps it will seem more “welcoming”—another favorite word—to potential members. The church, in other words, should consider itself as part of contemporary, even of commercial, culture.

For defenders of the traditional Gothic church, the important words are “inspiration” and “reverence.” They are, if anything, even angrier than their opponents. Michael S. Rose’s polemic against modernist church building is titled, uncompromisingly, Ugly as Sin. Rose, who was trained as an architect and writes often on this subject, complains that these structures resemble conference centers and banks and nursing homes, and convey “a sense of ordinariness and cheapness.” No one who enters them is “awed or humbled.” Imaginative modernist designs are even worse; as he remarks, “What passerby could look at Oakland’s cathedral [completed in 2000] and think of anything but a giant clam?”

Rose objects especially to the new custom of enlarging the baptismal font and locating it near the entrance; to him, this suggests hot-tub parties. He is appalled by the lack of religious paintings and sculptures, and remarks that without Christian imagery churches are like the temples to the goddess Reason established in the French Revolution. Rose even implies that those who want to alter or replace traditional churches are agents of the devil:

The fact is that ever since Christians have established holy places for sacred worship, there have been those who sought either to destroy these houses of God or to convert them for pagan or secular purposes.

His especial rage is directed at the Lutheran architect Edward Sövik, whose Architecture for Worship (1973) was one of the early texts of the modernist movement. The penultimate goal of Sövik and his followers, Rose believes, “was the elimination of the sacred from church architecture; their ultimate goal, the elimination of the church building.”

These sentiments are not confined to architects and the clergy. In the town where I live, there are two Catholic churches, one traditional and one very modern, and people who worship in each building have told me that nothing could induce them to set foot in the other. All over the country, scornful epithets are hurled: it is said that traditional churches exist in a state of “refined squalor,” while modernist churches of various denominations are known to their detractors as Saint Wendy’s or the First Congregational Bank.

Most established congregations, of course, do not have the resources to tear down a church that has served them for some time. The solution has often been to remodel, and as a result there is now an ironic situation in which some designers are making traditional churches modern as fast as they can, while others are making modern churches traditional. Modernists whitewash the walls and move the altar forward, they remove the reredos behind the altar and put religious paintings and statues in storage. Sometimes they substitute plain or abstract stained-glass windows for the existing ones, or conceal the organ behind a screen. Traditionalists reverse the process, restoring what has been eliminated, raising the pulpit platform and moving it back, and replacing the paintings and sculptures and tapestries. Both sides often publish Before and After photographs in which, just as in women’s magazines, the Before photo is ill-lit and dreary-looking, while the After glows with beauty and health.

The newest development in American religious architecture is the megachurch of the late twentieth century, with its huge congregations (between 2,000 and 15,000) and charismatic preachers. In a way this development seems logical, even inevitable: a hundred years ago, Americans attended smaller schools, shopped in smaller stores, and worked for smaller organizations; today we are used to megaschools, megastores, and megacorporations. Megachurches are now ap- pearing in increasing numbers, especially in the suburbs of large cities in the Midwest and South. As Jeanne Kilde points out in When Church Became Theatre, they are the direct descendants of the nineteenth-century neomedieval church, updated with lighting and sound systems, and with TV and video equipment. Their exteriors take many hybrid forms: they may look semicolonial or semi-Gothic or semimodern—a few even resemble sports arenas.

Sometimes the general effect is still that of a medieval fortress, as with the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. This is a looming edifice of tan concrete, with windows only at the very top. It has a huge separate bell tower, and intimidating twenty-five-ton bronze entrance gates set into a black wall. As with the neo-medieval churches, its interior is more welcoming. The nave is three hundred feet high and can seat three thousand worshipers, and is decorated with somewhat over-the-top contemporary art: the altar, for example, is a six-ton slab of rose-colored marble supported by four big gold neobaroque angels. Public reaction to the new cathedral has been mixed: some visitors find it gloriously impressive, while others have compared it to the headquarters of an international corporation.

Like the neomedieval churches of the nineteenth century, most megachurches provide comfortable seating and exciting entertainment. Video projection screens and microphones make it possible for huge congregations to see and hear everything in close-up, and this may include not only charismatic sermons but gospel choirs, organ music, Christian rock, and dramatic skits and films. Audience participa-tion is frequent and often intense. Services in these churches can suggest a political convention, with banners, singing, chanting, cheering, and inspiring speeches. A visitor from outer space might well conclude that the God who lives in a megachurch is a politician, public official, or rock star, and that he loves loud music and big crowds. Also, considering the fortress-like exterior of many of these churches, he may have dangerous enemies.

The megachurch, like the neo-medieval church, is both inclusive and exclusive. It presents itself as a place of sanctuary from the world outside, which is portrayed by implication as alien and hazardous. At the same time, it extends a welcome to all, emphasizes the nuclear family, and encourages total involvement. There are groups for parishioners of both sexes and all ages, nursery schools, counseling services, medical clinics, and sports teams—and sometimes even coffee bars and gift shops. Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston incorporates a McDonald’s restaurant, with golden arches and drive-in service. Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, was deliberately designed like a mall, with its auditorium in the place of the center court.

One scholar, Ira G. Zepp, in The New Religious Image, has actually compared the megachurch to the contemporary shopping mall, which also provides a safe, warm environment seven days a week, with multiple opportunities for social interaction, entertainment, and consumption—and is staffed with guards who can and do remove homeless people, political protesters, and unruly teenagers. In fact, both megachurch and mall, rather like America today, present themselves as welcoming to everyone, and still work to exclude aliens and potential troublemakers.

Any big, expensive public building has both a practical and a symbolic function. It provides space and equipment for some activity, and it proclaims the importance of this activity: education, justice, air travel, shopping, or whatever. As “visible religion,” churches go even further: they announce not only that the worship of God is important but that God exists. After all, when you see a very large, beautiful, well-appointed house, often full of people, how could you possibly doubt that someone lives there?

—This is the second of two articles.

This Issue

July 17, 2003