Two Controversial Churches in the Context of Twentieth Century Modernism

Religious architecture has an apparent decline because of the socio-economic and technological changes, which affected the religious sense of human. In the past, architects expressed their faith in their religious buildings, including the Byzantine archit

A large number of architects worldwide believe that the traditional forms of religious buildings were affected by modern architecture. Nowadays, religious architecture has an apparent decline because of the socio-economic and technological changes, which affected the religious sense of human. In the past, architects expressed their faith in their religious buildings, including the Byzantine architect in the design of the basilica. In basilicas, like any other religious buildings such as mosques, the hemispheric form or dome was employed as a symbol of the sky, and the square to indicate the earth. However, sacred art and architecture cannot be articulated and presented through profane elements because every element and measurement should have a meaning and a role to play within the whole architectural composition regardless of its physical or aesthetic property.

In much of medieval Europe, the sacred craft-guilds with their preserved craft secrets usually held a higher position than the profane guilds. Therefore, building a city in the past depended upon its religious buildings and the progress and development of its architecture were judged by its temples, cathedrals and mosques. However, every action, including the sitting and the orientation of the building was a sacred action that should be deliberately performed according to esoteric laws. This can be detected, for example, in the layout of the Pharaohs’ temples of Egypt, as well as the buildings of the Acropolis of Athens. The monumental religious buildings such as cathedrals and mosques also dominated cities by their scale, style and features such as towers and minarets which were completely different from those of the houses around, yet part of the same culture of the place.

In twentieth century, many modern architects regarded the design of a church as a platform to display their remarkable architectural creations like Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp or Oscar Niemeyer’s church in Brazil. Although, these two churches were considered as a remarkable production of modern architecture, they were criticised harshly from architects from both the East and the West. The late Hassan Fathy criticised Oscar Niemeyer who, in his Saint Francis of Assisi (1943), Pampulha, State of Minas Gerais, “has made a downwards tapering tower that points the eye towards the Underworld instead of up towards Heaven”. Saint Francis church was a controversial building and its forms were seen as unrepresentative and did not celebrate the “Glory of God” which was the main role of the Gothic cathedral. It was also suggested that the church of Saint Francis should be demolished and replaced by a replica from the colonial town of Ouro Preto. This controversial church was not consecrated by the Catholic powers until 1959.

Image credit: Saint Francis of Assisi (1943), Pampulha, State of Minas Gerais, by Oscar Niemeyer

Image credit: Saint Francis of Assisi (1943), Pampulha, State of Minas Gerais, by Oscar Niemeyer

Although Notre Dame du Haut chapel ‘Ronchamp’ (1954) has been acclaimed as one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century architecture, it had been believed that it has nothing to do with masses or with the clergy. Fathy argued that Le Corbusier “broke up the rose-window of the normal church and stuck it in bits all about the wall, thus making nonsense of its symbolism of unity”. He described the ceiling in Ronchamp as “sagging and slanting downwards at the same time”, which gives the visitor a feeling that the roof is caving in”. Fathy argued that Le Corbusier was “heedless” of the religion as well as of the canons of the sacred art of architecture, which was evident in the lack of the symbols of a church. Le Corbusier himself wrote; “I have not experienced the miracle of faith but I have often known the miracle of inexpressible space, the apotheosis of plastic emotion”.

Image credit: Front view: Dame du Haut chapel ‘Ronchamp’ (1954), by Le Corbusier

In his Modern Architecture since 1900, William Curtis believed that at Ronchamp, Le Corbusier “sought to evoke religious emotions through the play of form, space, and light, and without recourse to any obvious church typology”. Curtis’ view supports Fathy’s analysis of the building, although it is not presented as a criticism of the Swiss architect’s work. The Chapel at Ronchamp was also criticised by architects from the West, whose concerns tended to focus on issues of form rather than symbolism. For example, the renowned architect, James Stirling (1926-1994) explained that “the forms which have developed from the rational and the initial ideology of the modern movement are being mannerized and changed into a conscious imperfectionism”. Although, Stirling believed that Le Corbusier produced a masterpiece of a unique order, he questioned, “whether this building should influence the course of modern architecture”.

Image credit: Back view: Dame du Haut chapel ‘Ronchamp’ (1954), by Le Corbusier

The preceding discussion revealed the critical views of architects, who are concerned not only with reviving the religious forms but also with the modern interpretation of these forms. In fact, if one looked beyond the traditional forms of any religious building, one would find out that they were the result of faith. However, architects should not have the attitude of a stage-designer making a set for a religious play, rather than of a sacred craftsman. They should not replace their faith with modern technical and experimental issues, and design religious buildings without fully understanding both the traditional language of forms as well as their symbolic meaning.

Bibliography

1. Martin Frishman and Hassan-Uddin Khan, The Mosque. London, 1994, pp. 242-243.

2. Curtis, William J. R., Modern Architecture Since 1900. Oxford, 1987.

3. James Stirling , Ronchamp: Le Corbusier’s Chapel and the Crisis of Rationalism. The Architectural Review, v. cxix, no. 711, March 1956, p. 161.

4. Stamo Papadaki, Oscar Niemeyer. London, 1960, p. 24.

5. Manuscript of Fathy in the American University of Cairo. FAAUC, no. 47, p. 3.

6. Blumenfeld, Yorick, Beyond the Human Scale. Architectural Association Quarterly, v. 6, nos. 3-4, 1974, p. 55.

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