Spare Holy Spaces

Published by Chris Engler on

The Matter of Devotion Art, Liturgy, and the Stuff of Worship

In his elegant book Testimony, Thomas G. Long speaks of public worship as a “soundtrack for the rest of life,” in which “the words and music and actions of worship inside the sanctuary play in the background as we live our lives outside, in the world.” It is a metaphor that generates provocative questions about what we do in worship. How can we, the church, discover a soundtrack with the maturity and richness we need to sustain us through times of joy and sorrow? And what role does liturgical art—the sounds, objects, motions, and matter we use to worship—have to play as we seek that richness and maturity?

With the generous support of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Image has asked a group of liturgists, scholars, writers, musicians, and visual artists to discuss the role of art in worship. We wanted to find out about how art best inspires, enables, and enacts prayer and proclamation in Christian assemblies, about how the communal nature of Christian worship changed the way they thought about the kind of art that is fitting, and about how art functions in the interplay of liturgy and life.

The person who first helped make the Christian faith intelligible to me once said—in response to some question about what conditions were necessary to commune with God—“you can lie in a pile of shit and pray.” If this is true, it seems fair to conclude that the physical requirements for worship must be pretty minimal. Evidently the coordinates for worshipping “in spirit and in truth” run through the human heart well before they run through the spaces we make for worship, and the patterns of our behavior within those spaces.

I’ve been a member of a variety of churches, from very traditional ones heavy with liturgy to both rural and inner-city Bible churches, to what a friend calls “suburban white-bread churches.” As one might guess, I vacillate about what constitute the necessary patterns for and accoutrements to good worship. The congregation I now belong to is a little maverick Presbyterian church, seeking a place in and a ministry to the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

For the past three years we met in the city’s only art cinema. It was fun to tell people that I worshipped in a movie theater, but the reality of cramped seats, black walls and ceiling, a long, luminous screen bereft of any image except of its own empty presence, and the occasional crushed Coke cups and candy wrappers all conspired against the sense that we were engaging the holy. Being in the theater wasn’t like lying in a pile of excrement, but we were glad enough to leave it behind a few months ago and settle into the dining and social room of a nearby senior citizens’ center.

The center is clean, has a fair amount of natural light, and allows us to fold up the rows of cafeteria tables and set up their pinkish, plastic chairs in a fan pattern for our service. Its aesthetic sensibility is probably best described as “social services minimalism.” With linoleum floors, a drop ceiling, and virtually no decoration, its ambience is relentlessly utilitarian.

The most arresting visual image is a seasonal accident. Someone had hung a red and gold Merry Christmas made of jointed, bulbous metallic letters from the top of the large service opening between the kitchen and dining room, along with a string of small gold glass beads. The letters were hung in a double garland, taped up in the middle and at the ends. But the tape on the right side hadn’t held, and the word Christmas had fallen down and dangled in low-luster isolation against the dark atmosphere of the unlit kitchen behind. The light reflected from the letters and beads and the mysterious space of the dark kitchen are visual elements common in liturgical space. Here, however, they seemed to create an icon about the failure of Christmas to stay Merry, a wry commentary on the center’s utilitarian heart.

One of the results of my sojourn with our nomadic fellowship is the strengthening of my conviction that while worship is possible in any setting, a space designed for worship is essential to the wellbeing of the corporate body. Any space will do in a pinch, but the anonymous and utilitarian flex spaces so popular with parts of the contemporary church movement exact a price, because they propose that the spirit is detached from or indifferent to its life in matter. If embodiment is central to the Christian narrative, it seems problematic to let utility or lack of imagination organize the matter of the church.

Should our little congregation ever find its own home, its embodiment would have to be inexpensive, because our resources are so limited. There is a general perception—not altogether baseless—that there is a direct relationship between the quality of the aesthetic and the cost of a building project. In this view, a church like ours is doomed to social services minimalism or its liturgical equivalent. But, as the example of Yancey Chapel demonstrates, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Yancey Chapel was a project of Rural Studio, an educational and community outreach program within the School of Architecture at Auburn University. Founded in 1993 by Samuel Mockbee and Dennis K. Ruth, the studio brings architecture students to live and work with the rural poor of Hale County, Alabama, so that they may viscerally understand people’s needs before they begin to design and build—or rehabilitate existing structures—for their clients. They have built residences, community centers, playgrounds, a farmer’s market, a Baptist church, and Yancey Chapel.

For Mockbee, who had a successful practice as an architect before returning to teach at his alma mater, the vision of an “architecture of decency” amounted to a calling. He wrote in 1998 that he wanted to “avoid being so stunned by the power of modern technology and economic affluence that one loses sight of the fact that people and place matter….” The small Rural Studio projects served, he said, “to remind us that we can be as awed by the simple as by the complex, and that if we pay attention this will offer us a glimpse into what is essential to the future of American architecture: Its honesty.”

Yancey Chapel was built in 1995 by students on donated private land that had been part of a dairy farm. Like most Rural Studio projects, it uses recycled materials, which helps hold down costs, eases the burden on landfills, and gives the work an unmistakable character. The walls have an oblique resonance with historic rusticated stone work, but were in fact made from old tires packed with earth, and then stuccoed. Serendipitously, they were donated by a nearby tire dealer who had been ordered by a court to remove them from his lot. The beams that hold up the chapel roof are recycled from older structures, as are the eighteen-inch squares of rusted tin on the roof. The total cost of materials was fifteen thousand dollars.

The natural light inside comes from a narrow opening along the ridge of the roof and under the deep overhang of the eaves. The floors are made of slate quarried by the students, and a small stream spills into the chapel at the rear, then runs in a trough along one wall. This is a spare, sheltering enclosure that combines interiority with rugged materiality. It was designed with sensitivity to its site and locale, which are present in it as well as around it. Though not designed to meet the needs of a congregation, Yancey Chapel is suggestive of ways that a church might create distinctive spaces without great expense. It also seems to me that recycled materials have the potential for rich associations with the Christian story.

The look of Yancey Chapel is rustic, with a few visible modernist touches like the roof line, the deep eaves, and the honest, direct use of materials. Its relationship to more mainstream and upscale modernist structures, like Marcel Breuer’s Saint Francis de Sales Church in Muskegon, Michigan, is not immediately obvious. Breuer (1902-1981) was a celebrated architect whose vast body of work includes the Whitney Museum in New York and UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris. The Saint Francis Church, built between 1961 and 1968, is crisp and impressively geometric, with trapezoidal front, rear, and roof planes framing dramatic and gestural paraboloid sides. From the outside it appears to depart from traditional church architecture. The muscular plainness of its form is underscored by the seven thousand cubic yards of concrete it took to build it.

But Yancey Chapel and Saint Francis Church are related, because they stand in one tradition of Christian worship spaces. In the broadest and simplest of terms, they share aesthetics of what I’d call emptiness. By this I do not mean that they are literally empty, or that the worship that they frame is contentless. Rather, their presence is largely structural rather than decorative. In them, images and objects—the utensils of liturgy—exist within the space but in no way crowd it or overwhelm its character. It is the materiality of the building itself and the atmosphere of the space it houses that command our attention. In the structures I call empty, we have the sense that we grasp the whole form even if we cannot see it all, because an awareness of the structure and its light-inflected space is stronger than our sense of things within the space. In an interview in 1977, Breuer said that “any space which is larger than necessary and higher than necessary, and in which the structure and the whole building of the space is visible…is simply automatically religious…. [A]ny large space which is built so that the process of construction is visible on the inside is a religious space.”

The interior of Saint Francis de Sales is a stunning realization of Breuer’s belief. A series of rigid concrete arches reinforce the trapezoidal walls and roof, rising from the front of the church and crossing the ceiling to descend down the rear wall. While their form and dynamics are different from Gothic vaulting, they evoke the architectural ribs in Gothic churches. Continuity with older stone structures is also suggested by the concrete, which here has a visual sensibility somewhat like limestone. By the standards of the great cathedrals, Saint Francis de Sales is not large, measuring only seventy-five feet high and seating fewer than one thousand people on the ground floor. The sense of grandeur it evokes is not a function of size, but rather of the interaction between the form and material, the volume of space enclosed, and the active, varied presence of light. If my memory serves me correctly, a similar sense of awe was evoked by very different means in another small gem of modernity, Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel.

What I am describing as “empty” liturgical space can be understood by contrasting it with another approach, the impulse toward fullness. This too is a broad generalization, but can be seen in the baroque churches of the Counter- Reformation and their rococo descendents. “Full” space is not literally full anymore than “empty” space is empty. But in full spaces the quantity and variety of visual imagery—or just visual stimulation—demand our attention, sometimes in ordered harmony, sometimes with visual cacophony. The beautiful Benedictine Abbey Church of Ottobeuren, Germany, designed by Johan Fischer in the 1730s, is an example of a radiant, harmonious fullness. The small Saint John Nepomuk Church in Munich, designed by the Asam Brothers during the same period, provided me with an intense visual experience, but the clamor for attention of so many parts and so many encrusted, gilded surfaces was more curious than moving. It was difficult to imagine worshipping there on a regular basis.

I love to look at art in liturgically full churches, which house so many of the great paintings and sculptures of the western tradition. But my awareness of the artistry and my awe of that achievement tend to compete with or become a substitute for what I find in empty churches. When I’ve worshipped in full churches, I’ve been very aware of the spectacle of my surroundings, and have usually ended up watching the service somewhat voyeuristically. Perhaps I would change if I returned week after week. I do not know what an ongoing worship experience in “full” is like.

The empty/full continuum is not the special province of the Christian faith; it’s universal. I reached that conclusion after visiting a variety of Buddhist temples in Japan, some as gaudy and cacophonous as anything the baroque has produced, and others—especially the Zen temples—as spare and silent as any Cistercian monastery. It seems today that the empty tradition provides a much stronger impulse in new ecclesiastical spaces, as it did during the twentieth century, when architectural modernism flourished. I cannot think of any notable full churches built recently, but perhaps some impressive revivalist buildings have slipped past my limited attention. Neither can I point to any postmodernist equivalents of “full” in church architecture; while the postmodern penchant to pile up historical references and visual dazzle seems to be a move toward fullness, that has primarily served commerce, not the church. Probably the best example of liturgical fullness today is televised worship, but I may be confusing theatrics with the space it occurs in.

Since the vocabulary of modernism has been so adaptable to the continuation of the tradition of emptiness in church architecture, it is important to ask how modernists understood what they were doing. That is a complex story, as there are many modernisms, with differing goals and conflicting ideas. For my purposes, it is enough to point out that modernism had both a reductivist impulse born of philosophic materialism, and a purifying impulse created by the desire to push towards spiritual essences. Roughly the same artistic vocabulary could be used by rationalists wanting to strip art of illusions and mystics seeking to give form to the ineffable barrenness of social services minimalism at our citizens’ center is certainly caused by a lack of money and human resources. But I suspect it is also the result of a lack of vision, or perhaps what you get when you start with materialism. Over time the effect of materialism on the human spirit is entropic. By contrast, the minimalism of essences can produce structures of amazing simplicity and suggestive beauty, with very different effects on the spirit.

A remarkable example of ecclesiastical minimalism is found in the new Cistercian monastery of Nový Dvůr in the Czech Republic. The British architect, John Pawson, is best known for his design of Calvin Klein’s flagship store on Madison Avenue and his 1996 book Minimum, in which he sought to “crystallize some thoughts about the notion of simplicity.” The monks at Nový Dvůr thought his finely tuned sense of form, space, and light would be well suited to the nine-hundred-year tradition of Cistercian architecture. So the abbot of Sept-Fons, the mother Abbey of the Cistercian order, approached Pawson, and in 1999 he was commissioned to design a new monastery around an existing dilapidated baroque building. The completed monastery includes a cloister, a dormitory, an infirmary, and a new church.

Pawson was well acquainted with Cistercian architecture, since he had been making annual pilgrimages to the twelfth-century abbey at Le Thoronet in Provence for the previous decade. He saw the commission as the “opportunity of a lifetime,” and even agreed to accept what the monks said they could afford. The monks were not easy clients. Pawson said the brief for the commission was as thick as a telephone directory and included many highly specific requests: the church should never be cooler than 53 degrees; the area where the monks kneel to pray should be wood; there should be stained glass but no color; the communal sleeping quarters required special provisions for the monks who snore; and so forth. To get a sense of his clients, Pawson spent a week at the abbey in Sept-Fons, where he lived with the monks and participated in their rituals, including rising at 3:30 AM for the first offices of the day. He came to understand that “monastic life takes everyday rituals…and formalizes them, harnessing the potential for gravitas in the simplest of actions.” But the gravitas he speaks of should be not confused with the mournful image of monasticism we inherited from Romantics like Caspar David Friedrich. Pawson characterized the monks as “happy as children anticipating a trip.” In his early designs, he had planned to avoid placing a window so that it overlooked the graveyard, but the monks told him they didn’t mind seeing the graves, and were in fact happy to be reminded of their deaths.

The primary materials in the monastery are plaster, wood, concrete, and glass. These are utilitarian and durable, and stand within the long tradition of Cistercian architecture. In their discussions leading up to the commission, the monks made it clear they did not want a historical pastiche. They wanted a facility shaped by the present. The finished monastery is a seamless fusion of historic forms with contemporary aesthetics. Typically, a cloister is a garden surrounded by a vaulted arcade. At Nový Dvůr the roof over the cloister walk is a sleek and attenuated barrel vault, but it is not supported by visible columns. One of Pawson’s architectural ancestors is Louis Kahn, the great mid-century modernist who used barrel vaulting in the Kimball Museum to great effect. Pawson’s vaults, like Kahn’s, are self effacing. They show little sense of their physical weight. In fact, the cloister’s vaults almost seem buoyant.

It is a bit misleading to speak of liturgical architecture, since architecture is a setting and a context for the liturgy, and not the event itself. It is also a bit misleading to talk about liturgical architecture without dwelling on the very different kinds of liturgy that Christian denominations have developed to give form to their theological convictions. While the Yancey Chapel is apparently nondenominational, it seems to me to have a sensibility that is Protestant. By contrast, both Saint Francis de Sales and Nový Dvůr are obviously shaped by Catholicism. Even there, the needs of a parish church and a monastery have called forth very different ecclesiastical spaces. Thus the commonalities of the empty tradition I have been describing are general. Yet I think part of the beauty, appeal, and continued use of the tradition is due to its malleability, and the fact that it can serve so many different communions.

In my judgment the fundamental question of what kind of space will facilitate corporate worship is as important as questions about what kinds of images, objects, and activities we use in that space. The virtues of simple forms creating spaces activated by light are manifold. Even with limited resources, economy of means will not necessarily result in a poverty of ends. In the hands of thoughtful and skilled people, much can be made with little.

It is fitting to end with the example of the Church of Light designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando for a small congregation in a suburb of Osaka. It was built in 1989 on a small budget—so small that the scaffolding planks used during construction ultimately became the floor and benches in the church. In 1995, Ando won the Pritzker Prize—the world’s most prestigious architectural award—for the church. This might be a sign that “empty” occasionally overflows into fullness.

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