Evolution of Catholic liturgical space in the second half of the twentieth century

Part 1

The development of concrete in the twentieth century led to the spatial reinvention of certain architectural typologies such as markets or large exhibition halls. It is also the case of religious buildings, where the versatility of the new material and its plastic properties allowed to create innovative and varied architectural spaces. Religious buildings have proven to be a remarkable field for the experimentation of concrete, in terms of the expressiveness of the material, the radicality of the spaces it allowed to create, or the interaction they accomplished with natural light. As a result, we find some of the most memorable spaces built in fair-faced concrete among religious buildings, whose nakedness came to express a new spirituality.

These characteristics become evident in a large number of buildings included in the “100 from the 20th” selection of the INNOVACONCRETE project, 12 of which are dedicated to religious uses and were built after the Second World War.

  • Sanctuary of Our Lady of Arantzazu, Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oíza, Luís Laorga, 1955
  • Chapelle Notre-Dame du Haut, Le Corbusier, 1955
  • Église Saint Joseph en Le Havre, Auguste Perret, 1957
  • Église du couvent de la Tourette, Le Corbusier, 1960
  • St. Peter Martyr Church in the Theological Center of the Dominican Fathers, Miguel Fisac, 1960
  • Chapell in Gälve Crematorium, ELLT (Alf Engström, Gunnar Landberg, Bengt Larsson and Alvar Törneman), 1960
  • Kaleva Church, Reima Pietilä, Raili Pietilä, 1966
  • St, Ladis Church, László Csaba, 1967
  • Pilgrimage Neviges, Marien Cathedral and Franciscan Monastery, Gottfried Böhm, 1968
  • Apostle Barnabas (Orthodox Church), Neoptolemos Michaelides, 1970
  • Wotruba’s Church, Fritz Gerhard Mayr, Fritz Wotruba (Scultptor), 1976
  • Chapell in Brion’s Tomb, Carlo Scarpa, 1978

Concrete was present as a key material of modern religious architecture in the first examples, built in the XXth century, Frank Lloyd Wright was a pioneer in the use of concrete at Oak Park’s Unitarian Church, finished in 1906. In Europe, the first relevant example of a fair-faced concrete church is Auguste Perret’s 1918 Notre Dame de Raincy. In Wright’s building, fair-faced concrete with exposed rolling stones can be seen in the outside, while the interior appears completely covered with wood and plaster. In Perret’s church, the expression of the building relies completely on the new material: Perret experiments with its potential to prove it is fully appropriate to meet the needs of a sacred space. Its stained-glass facade makes the most of the possibilities of a non-bearing facade and dematerializes it completely, deliberately separating the concrete pillars from the facade plane, In the interior, only two materials coexist: fair-faced concrete used in the plinth, the pillars and the vaults, and colored glass. Even for the geometric filigree of the immense windows, prefabricated pieces of concrete are used as a frame in which the glass is embedded. When experimenting with this new material, Perret manages to reinterpret and to update what had been, up to that time, the most sophisticated manifestations of the French Gothic style in a quest for extreme lightness, making a clear reference to the Sainte Chapelle in Paris.

Notre Dame de Raincy
Notre Dame de Raincy (Auguste Perret) | ©Fundación DOCOMOMO Ibérico

This research is continued in Saint Joseph’s church, built by Perret as a landmark and urban reference in his reconstruction of the French city of Le Havre. The structure assumes a more relevant role in this case, and, larger in scale, becomes more present. Historical references are left behind, to turn the volume of the temple into a podium that supports an immense lantern tower. Its scale and shape make it resemble a skyscraper that has been emptied on the inside. In the tower, the dematerialization of the facade is not as radical as the one in Raincy but is more complex, since the stained-glass facade has a structural function. Inside the temple, the weight of the tower is distributed over multiple structural elements of concrete as it reaches the ground. The different concrete elements do not try to conceal their structural function, but, on the contrary, they clearly express what their role is in the transmission of the structural stresses.

The devastation that followed World War II led to an awakening of religious sentiments in some European countries: society found itself in need of reestablishing social networks that translated into a renovated religiousness, linked to those in ancient Christian communities. It is a religiousness which is more intimate and essential, and such are the spaces that accommodate its ceremonies. They are austere, they dispense with non-essential elements such as decoration, and they promote a sense of gathering. Poetry is achieved through the configuration of space and not through decoration or iconographic elements.

To address these needs for renovation, Pope John XIII called for the Second Vatican Council, held between 1962 and 1965. Amongst other theological relevant aspects, the Council intended a renewal of Christian liturgy that urged for a reorganization of the spaces of worship: Latin was replaced by vernacular languages, mass was no longer to be held with the officiant turning its back to the audience but facing it, and preaching was understood in a more didactic and direct way. In parallel, the liturgical space needed to be organized differently from before: the congregation was arranged to facilitate a community spirit, where the altar is the heart of the church and allows for a less formal distribution of seats, that often surround the altar,

These changes had significant consequences in the organization of religious spaces and marked an end to the traditional plan of the basilical nave. New dispositions in plan and section appeared, resulting from the withdrawal of the pulpit and the change in the positioning of the preacher, who now shares the same level of the congregants. In Le Havre’s church, the altar is set in a central position, surrounded by benches located at its same level, and aligned with the powerful vertical axis created by the inner void of the tower.

Sainte Chapelle in Paris (Auguste Perret) | ©Fundación DOCOMOMO Ibérico

In the twelve religious buildings included in the IINNOVACONCRETE 100 from the 20th selection, one finds different spatial arrangements. Some follow, more or less literally, the traditional form of the Christian worship space – such as Aránzazu – whereas others  innovate in the spatial configuration, adapting their space to the new development of the liturgy and, in some cases, reinterpreting the specificities of the religious orders they house. This is the case of San Peter Martyr’s Church in Madrid or the church of the convent of La Tourette, both belonging to the order of the Dominican fathers,

Miguel Fisac had already built several important buildings for the Dominican fathers when he received the commission of the most important building for the Dominican order in Spain. The complex of the Teologado in Madrid is a fundamental work of contemporary Spanish religious architecture, in which Fisac turns programmatic requirements into brilliant project decisions. The complex consists of several pieces where different users have to coexist with limited contact between each other: teachers, young fathers and students. This leads to a series of connections between the different areas and functions that dictate the general arrangement and layout of the connecting circulations. The centerpiece of the complex is the church, where all the different users meet, and where they connect with the outside world.

The church plan acknowledges this circumstance: two opposing hyperboles determine two distinct spaces that are connected visually but cannot be trespassed. The space between the two areas is very narrow and is blocked by the altar, On one side stand the members of the Dominican Community, on the other stands the public. The convent areas are perceived by the general public as something distant and mysterious, blurred by the light that bathes the background. The way in which natural light is addressed is essential to the inner atmosphere of the church. The vertical structure of slender concrete pilasters that support the roof can only be appreciated from the outside, Inside, the light washes the curved walls with no interrupting elements and grants the continuity of the inner space. A long continuous window separates the walls from the roof, which seems to be floating, with no apparent supports.

Saint Marie de la Tourette
© Archivo del Departamento de Teoría de la Arquitectura y Proyectos Arquitectónicos de la Universidad de Valladolid

In Fisac’s church, the use of the exterior concrete structure allows for the concealment of the structural elements from the inside. In La Tourettes’s church, the contrast between the rough and massive texture of fair-faced concrete and the use of light determines the quality of the architectural experience. Le Corbusier was asked by Father Marie-Alain Couturier to “create a silent dwelling for a hundred bodies and a hundred hearts”. The convent is a small enclosed world in which to gather, where fair-faced concrete is the only material present, achieving its maximum expressiveness. It is an immense empty concrete box made of pure and simple forms expanding into a series of lateral chapels. The combination of cracks allowing for controlled grazing light and colored “light beams” -that concentrate and transform light-, amplifies the visual qualities of concrete. As a result, the massive and heavy concrete elements are completely transformed through colors and light, achieving one of the most poignant spaces amongst those created by the Swiss architect.

St. Peter Martyr Church in Theological Center of the Dominican Fathers
© Luis Argüelles / Fundación DOCOMOMO Ibérico

Learn more! Visit the website “InnovaConcrete 100 from the 20th


Roger-SubiraRoger Subirà, Architect.

Fundación DOCOMOMO Ibérico.

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