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Building castles – or churches – in the air

In moments of idle speculation, I often wonder what it would be like to have the freedom – along with the necessary limitless funds – to design and build a new church, completely from scratch.


There were perhaps two heydays of Catholic church building in this country: in the post-war era, particularly during the 1950s when congregations were still growing year on year, and again during the ’60s and ’70s at a time of enthusiasm – some would say misplaced or rushed enthusiasm – for the reforms of the liturgy following the Second Vatican Council.


We can all of us, I’m sure, call to mind some APPEALING and some APPALLING examples of what might once have been considered innovative “new-build” churches; some more attractive and functionally practical, others less so.


Today, if one wishes to consider starting from scratch, it would be necessary to begin by being familiar with “Consecrated for Worship: A Directory on Church Building”, published by the Liturgy Office of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales in 2006. The document details all the considerations involved not only with new-build designs but also with the re-ordering of existing churches.


There will always be different competing concerns demanding attention. A building must obviously, and primarily, facilitate the fullest celebration of the Church’s liturgy and the gathering together of the People of God in one specific place. It must also serve the unique individual needs of the particular community for today and for the future. Current interest in environmental issues and impact, not only in the construction process but also in the long-term functioning of the building are key – sedum roofs, rainwater recycling, solar panels, ground source and geothermal pumps, heat exchange, limited hard surfaces, blending in with the local environment, the use of sustainable materials. Using local materials creates an opportunity to employ the skills of local crafts- and tradespeople; such a project can generate employment. A new building may need “beautifying” internally which can offer the possibility of commissioning local artists skilled in a whole range of art media.


A building may be part of a so-called “campus development” that might include all manner of ancillary buildings – a primary school, office space, storage space, meeting rooms, spaces like halls for social events, a house or flat for a clergy residence. There are merits in having things together on one site in terms of reinforcing identity, community and belonging. A large campus complex is likely to warrant the employment of a full-time caretaker or groundsman. Additional facilities available for the use of the wider community through rental and hiring arrangements can be a way of witnessing and evangelising, of engaging with and contributing to the local community. Sometimes known as “community hub structures”, these can serve a whole variety of local needs.


Buildings can be designed to be “multi-purpose” spaces.


In one sense a building might be so designed that in certain circumstances a smaller congregation can be comfortably accommodated in a limited area without feeling lost within the whole space (harking back to the concept of side-chapels or weekday-chapels), but the space available can be enlarged in time of need, for example when celebrating the larger or more popular liturgies of the church year (Christmas and Easter) when there is greater need for seating capacity, or when hosting events on a deanery or diocesan scale which draw people from beyond the immediate parish locale.


In another sense, the building can be multi-purpose when it offers not merely fixed and dedicated worship space but the possibility of using the same space in different ways, for a whole variety of social activities and events or for all manner of meetings.


We’ve seen during the last year of repeated lockdowns how useful effectively integrated technology can be within a building space, whether in terms of Wi-Fi access, live and recorded streaming facilities, or web broadcasts. Many of you have been able to follow Masses from different churches in countries across the world. Effective audio-visual can greatly enhance the liturgy.


The decision to build a new church is a serious commitment that involves vision; more than that, perhaps, such a decision demonstrates an investment in the worshipping community, a powerful witness to the wider community, and a firm hope and conviction in the future. Decisions like this obviously take years in the planning, consultation and funding, then even more time in the actual construction project. But just think how tremendously exciting such a project could be! What a once in a lifetime opportunity!


* * * * *


I will admit, I suppose, to being a keen explorer, visitor and tourist of other churches. I have dragged friends and family, particularly my poor mother over the years on her trips home to the European mainland, around all manner of places of worship. Many of these would, of course, be the unmissable tourist sights: St Peter’s, St John Lateran, St Mary Major, Santa Maria del Popolo among many others in Rome; Notre-Dame, St-Étienne-du-Mont, St Sulpice, La Madeleine, Saint-Eustache, Sacré-Coeur among many others in Paris; the Stephansdom, Votivkirche, Augustinerkirche, Annakirche, Karlskirche, Minoritenkirche, Schottenkirche, to name but a few in Vienna; La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona … the list could go on and on, country by country.


However, apart from the churches, abbeys, basilicas and cathedrals of particular historic and classical interest, I’m always keen to visit those churches which restate the confidence of faith in more “modern” terms, making use of contemporary applications of building techniques and materials, or those which rediscover the skills and materials of times gone by. Frequently visited favourites of this ilk would include: L'Église Sainte-Jeanne-d'Arc in Rouen; the Sanctuary of Meritxell in Andorra; Notre-Dame de Toute Grace in Plateau D’Assy; the amazing concrete Chapel of Rest in Graz; the “Wotruba” (more properly The Church of the Most Holy Trinity) in Vienna, another heroic and poetic use of concrete in almost mythic proportion; the parish church in St Hemma von Gurk in Klagenfurt; the immeasurably beautiful wooden Kapelle Salgenreute by Bernardo Bader in Bregenz.


Thinking further afield, perhaps one day I may visit the Church of the Seed in Huizhou, China or the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles – both lyrical testaments to wood, glass, concrete and metal.


* * * * *


A fascination with church buildings has developed into an interest in following individual architects. We tend to think of architects as specialising in particular types of work or styles – one of the problems with church architecture in this country is that there are several “go to” architectural firms that are the first to be consulted in church building projects – fine if you’re after a “proven” track record, but if you’re wanting something visionary, out of the ordinary, left-field, then use a European architect for your new church or chapel every time.


(ASIDE: Incidentally, when I was training in the seminary, through a friend’s weekly pastoral placement in a local hospital, I was fortunate enough to became friendly with a delightful and gracious lady called Sarah, who was the widow of an English architect originally based in Falmouth and who had designed churches in the south-west including Our Lady of the Portal and St Pirin in Truro, St Mary’s in Helston, and St Edward’s, in Mawnan Smith. His name was Waldo Maitland.)


Having said that, there is a British architect whom I admire greatly. One of the churches he has re-ordered is probably one of the most deeply peaceful, calming and spiritual buildings I have ever spent time in. In pre-COVID life, I would often meet friends at Kew Gardens for a walk or a meal. If you’re familiar with Kew Gardens you may know the Sackler Crossing over the lake which was opened in 2006. It was designed by the architect John Pawson. He’s designed some incredible buildings whether domestic, commercial or religious/sacred. His practice website is well worth the time spent to visit and explore.


Augsburg, in Germany, is probably best known for its historic connection to the Augsburg Confession, the agreed statement of faith for the Lutheran church following the Protestant Reformation – commemorated musically by both Bach in three, now sadly lost but echoed and reworked in other surviving, cantatas, and Mendelssohn in his so-called Reformation Symphony (No. 5). I have a cousin who lives in Augsburg so it’s a familiar and beguiling place to me.


In Augsburg there is a church called Moritzkirche (church of St Moritz). Its foundation dates back over a thousand years but the renewed and reordered interior has been completed for just over a decade. It is bright, clean, light, simple, spare, sparse, Spartan, stark; at one moment your spirit soars higher and higher, at another moment you become aware of how truly insignificant you are in any measured span of time; it is like walking on the clouds or being in a cloud; it is at once comfortingly intimate and dauntingly vast. The white makes such a strong contrast to the ornate gold leaf decoration of many other high Baroque European churches you can see whether in Augsburg, Rome, Vienna or elsewhere.


In my own living space, I don’t like art or paintings on the walls unless as a focal point, something specific before which to sit and look and ponder. I’m not keen on art as mere decoration to fill empty space, especially on walls behind where someone is likely to sit; I’d far rather have the empty space. Treating art in that way seems to me on a par with music playing in the background but functioning only as sound to cover silence. Art needs to be chosen carefully, to be in keeping with the surroundings. We all know how easy it is apparently to have too much of a “good” thing so that it becomes just too busy, too distracting, intrusive, overpowering, overwhelming and unhelpful.


* * * * *


Architecture and its relationship to and with the natural environment is yet another interesting consideration. Buildings can be spared being surrounded by acres of hard car-parking spaces by employing concealed, underground parking or when eco-friendly parking allowing plants and grass to grow through specially designed bricks, tiles or ground covering is included: this way only a few emergency and disabled parking bays need be visible.


An associated idea that I’ve been following with interest – German again – is the Sieben Kapellen Project.


The concept is truly inspirational. In some ways it updates that middle European Catholic tradition of the Wegkreuz that is seen so often in country areas marking different places for a variety of local, historical and spiritual reasons, and sometimes for the memorialising of sites of fatal accidents and disasters. There are not only wayside crosses but also wayside chapels and it is these that the 7kapellen project focuses upon.


The seven chapels are situated on newly established cycle paths in the Swabian Danube Valley focused largely around the local district of Dilligen. The project was conceived of as a sort of modern “spiritual mapping” much in the way that ancient pathways, routes and trackways were oriented, marked and measured from pre-Mediaeval times onward.


The Siegfried and Elfriede Denzel Foundation was established in 2016 with the aim of promoting art, history, church, religion and culture. (All my interest rolled into one! Fantastic!) The funds for the Foundation come from the successful Denzel family lumber / timber business. The deputy chairman of the foundation, Dr. Peter Fassl, instigated the 7kapellen project in 2017. The newly constructed chapels invite cyclists and walkers to stop, rest and reflect – as well as offering welcome shelter and protection from a sudden downpour or the heat of the sun. The decision to have seven chapels obviously draws on the significance of that number within Judeo-Christianity, the number symbolic of wholeness and perfection: seven days of creation, seven graces, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit … even the Seven Sorrows or the seven deadly sins.


Given the commercial background of the founders of the Denzel Foundation, it seemed obvious to insist that every chapel was to be built entirely of wood; apart from that fundamental criterion the chapels had to be “permanent”, “sustainable”, “easy to maintain” and “easy to repair”. The list of architects participating in the project is an extraordinary honour roll of contemporary visionaries, including John Pawson, already mentioned above: Hans Engel (Augsburg), Wilhelm Huber (Betzigau), Alen Jasarevic (Mering), Frank Lattke (Augsburg), Prof. Christoph Mäckler (Frankfurt aM), Prof. Volker Staab (Berlin) and John Pawson (London).


The chapels are truly remarkable, each unique in style, design, construction and use of wood. Have a look at the website for some truly inspirational places, some of which seem to be part of their natural surroundings in a completely organic way, while others seem challenging in terms of dimensions and access; some play cleverly with the illumination offered by controlling natural light, others play on the colour and texture of different woods and building techniques.


I think that taking a small, interested group on a sort of pilgrimage for a week, visiting, considering, looking at one chapel a day within its natural context as well as experiencing everything else that the region has to offer would be a quite wonderful thing to do.


* * * * *


Having yet to see the Seiben Kapellen, there is however one other chapel I have seen that is well-worth the effort to visit.As a piece of architecture it is peerless – in some ways it’s more like a piece of sculpture.Rather than blending in with the environment, this chapel announces its presence with a shout and a scream in spring and summer, and a whisper in winter; it offers a real statement and an indelible witness; it is a real landmark. Nonetheless, it is an intensely prayerful and spiritual place, set within a young vineyard, surrounded by the natural world, open skies and countryside, and aligned with local historic features. It reminds me of the passage in Matthew’s Gospel: ‘You are the light of the world. A city on a city on a hill-top cannot be hidden.’ (5:14)


One branch of my family hails from the Austrian state of Kärnten (Carinthia) and the last time I spent some time with them on holiday I made a point of going to re-visit the Maria Magdalena Kapelle in a place called Zollfeld.


(ASIDE: If you’re into the history and spread of the Roman Empire, this area is steeped in history including the ruins of the city of Virunum, the capital of the province of Noricum.)


This chapel is not built of wood; to be technical for a moment, it’s been made of something called ‘SCC’ or self-compacting concrete. The chapel

was completed in 2014 by the Paris and Graz based architects, Sacher.Locicero, already no strangers to interpretative realisations of chapel design (for example, the forest cemetery chapel at Ruhewald Schloss Tambach near Coburg in Germany).


Visit some of the churches or chapels I’ve mentioned or look at pictures of them online, and your preconceptions about wood and concrete will be altered for ever.


Such buildings and constructions in themselves become physical, architectural manifestations of prayer; testaments to faith expressed through the media of brick, stone, slate, metal, glass, wood and concrete; they can console, encourage, challenge and witness; they can speak eloquently for a community of faith.


Forget television programmes such as “Grand Designs”, we need a forward-thinking TV producer to come up with a serious series on dynamic places of worship and prayer, perhaps including some of the examples I’ve offered.


* * * * *


Imagine having the opportunity to commission and collaborate with an architect of the calibre I’ve mentioned to design and create something as equally ground-breaking and breath-taking for us and our communities. Wouldn’t that be an exhilarating prospect?


And if we were ever to do this what would we call a new church building? How would we dedicate it? It’s tempting, isn’t it, to think of something along the lines of Our Lady of the Downs!


Fr Alistair

qui habet aures audiendi audiat (Mt XI.xv)










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