Baptistery by Philadelphia’s most illustrious potter, Bill Daley. Font now located at St. Martin de Porres Church, North Philadelphia. As depicted, at the font’s original place of installation, Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament (formerly Our Lady of the Rosary,) both now suppressed. Photo by author.
Building a Catholic parish or any other Christian church is a serious undertaking. The community of faith needs to consider many points prior to embarking on a renovation of existing worship space or building a new church entirely from scratch. The first thing communities of faith need to remember is simple: Form (ever) follows function, a phrase developed by the American architect Louis Sullivan. In most cases the phrase is incorrectly quoted and is rendered, Form follows function, as an expression of design. Nonetheless, the philosophical considerations of the phrase should always determine the proper architectural development of new churches regardless of their denomination. Often faith communities don’t always solicit the assistance of a company or an individual with expertise in the rituals of Christian prayer when building or renovating a new place of worship. Church architecture presents requirements for celebration of liturgies that incorporate the ritual needs of the Church’s community of faith. A new church that doesn’t facilitate the Christian community’s called to sacred prayer and worship as a communal celebration of faith doesn’t quite live up to their needs or the anticipated expectations of the Church community.
The role of architecture is to provide the Christian community not just with four walls, and a properly installed roof. Architecture, in this example, a new church should be developed with the theological and aesthetic requirements of faith as the main design element around with the entire new structure will revolve. Churches, regardless of denomination are sacred spaces intended to glorify God through both our prayers and our lives in liturgical celebration as the Body of Christ. If indeed, the architectural development and planning of a new structure doesn’t accommodate these most elementary requirements the community should demand to review, revise and develop a new schema that reflects the needs of the parish or congregation’s manner of worship. This is where the adage of, Form follows function as the primary consideration when building a new church for the celebration of both the Word of God, and the celebration of the Eucharist.
Church buildings reflect the living faith of a local community. While the bricks and mortar of the local church make up the shell of the building, people too are living stones determined to effectively function within the confines of the architecture that gives life to the building. Compatibility between the living stones, the People of God, and the architectural stones that designate the building we call a church both have the same purpose. Giving glory to God through prayer, through our communal celebration of our faith. The People of God are indeed the functioning component that determines the various forms in which our churches should be built. Any attempt to forget that the people and their religious expressions of religious faith are the determinates for the size, shape and form of the new structure called the parish, the local church or the assembly needs to be vilified and expelled. Architectural forms that resist Christian celebrations of faith are an oxymoron which disregard the sacred purposes for which Christians assemble.
The architecture itself is not what is sacred. The actions performed within the architecture are most appropriately designated as sacred. Regardless of denomination or creed, the structure within which we celebrate faith is an integral part of highlighting the prayerful assembly. However, it is not the essential part, the faithful assembled hold that esteemed role. Faithful Catholics, Christian, Jews and Muslims all rely on the accessory of architecture to provide the temporal platform from which the prayers and rituals are offered to our many conceptualizations of the Deity. The rituals and prayers transform the mundane renderings of the architecture into a transcendent representation of anticipated eschatological life, revolving around the temporal spiritual needs of anyone that proclaims faith. Architecture indeed has a central role in all faiths, simply because it permits us to transform ordinary space into an earthly retreat that provides us a glimpse of what life with God, whatever his Face, will reveal when we reach that place in our individual and collective lives as believers.
Despite the allocution that, Form follows function, architecture that is intended to house sacred rituals reflects other appropriate descriptions. In his book, De Architectura, the Roman architect, Marcus Vetrivius Pollio proclaimed that a structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas – that is, it must be solid, useful, beautiful.
In an age that celebrates disposability notions of solidity, are often neglected and deference is often given to building sacred spaces that embrace versatility and multi-purpose attributes. This is a mistake. Architecture intended as a temporal repose for celebration of the divine presence should be exclusively devoted towards that purpose. Solidity in this aspect should represent the aspect of exclusive. Sacred spaces shouldn’t be architecturally designed as pragmatic examples of modality, used for many purposes and modified at whim in the same manner as architectural Legos. The sacred space once designated as such, should always, solidly be a place of prayer, adoration and supplication and above all thanksgiving.
Marcus Vetrivius Pollio in his description of what a structure should be, makes no distinction for the design and building of churches or sacred spaces. However, the notion of useful is indeed important for our considerations when planning and implementing construction of sacred places. It indeed must be useful, simply because it should accommodate all of the needs that are intrinsically necessary for celebration of faith. The rituals and actions of the worshiping community are the key elements that use the architectural space, now designed for transcendent purposes and that space should be useful as a vehicle that promotes the communities’ transcendence as they witness their faith and offer their gifts to God.
The notion of beauty is of course subjective. What is beautiful for Roman Catholicism might be offensive for Islamic sensitivities. Christian denominations might prefer a sacred space that defines beauty in a different manner than Anglicans. Regardless of the denominations expectation of beauty, the importance of beauty should never be forgotten. Architectural beauty should naturally be pleasing to the sensibilities of those that worship in the sacred space. It should be representative of the faith communities’ celebration of life and the magnificence of Creation, which is a narrative shared by all of the world’s uniquely distinctive religions. Despite their theological differences, the magnificent glory of God’s Creation is a topic on which, Christianity, Islam and Judaism all concur. God created the heavens and the earth, and it was good. If as faithful believers we use architecture as a methodology of expressing our celebration of humanity’s collective past, it’s contemporary needs and the future anticipations of the community of faith, beauty will indeed make itself evident in the architectural undertaking.
Architecture is humanities attempt to express its most sacred beliefs regarding God and our relationship with Him, here and now and in the future. In designing our sacred places through architecture we attempt to close the space between our humanity and the life of God. As a people of faith, we utilize our churches, synagogues and mosques as gathering spaces where we express our most seminal needs and desires to achieve personal and collective eternal life. Regardless of what the call to prayer sounds like in all of our communities of faith, it is architecture that makes these places sacred. Collectively, the supplications directed to אבא Abba, יהוהYahweh orالله Allah are made with humanities voice in places made most sacred through the sanctification of human architecture and all of the magnificent sacred places that the discipline of architecture has realized throughout the ages.