The evolution of Catholic liturgical space in the 2nd half of the 20th century

Part 2

The generalization of the use of concrete, together with a revision of the Catholic liturgy in the mid-20th century and the willingness to express, through architecture, a more essentialist spirituality, led to the updating of the archetypal forms and historical styles of the Christian temple. But, in parallel, in some new buildings, tradition started losing some of its previous importance. Sacred architecture became a field for formal experimentation in which to take advantage of the scarce programmatic requirements of the temple and the willingness to accept more risky architectural solutions, pushing to the limit the plastic possibilities of the new material.

Le Corbusier’s Pilgrimage Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut is a paradigmatic case. While many of the Swiss architect’s buildings are canonical examples or models for the application of the new material in typologies such as the single- family housing block, the Ronchamp chapel is an unclassifiable example with little continuity in its later trajectory. It is an architectural landmark that is difficult to fit in the development of the author’s architecture, since it ignored, and even contradicted, many of the principles that he himself established about what modern architecture should be.

Located on top of a hill, the church is perceived as a compact and opaque sculptural volume from the outside. Concepts such as open plan or free facade, that Le Corbusier had developed in his previous work, lose significance in Ronchamp. On the contrary, the wall is understood as a bearing element and as the element that defines the volume. A heavy roof, with curved shapes, hides its load-bearing logic through a complex structure, a strategy radically opposed to the constructive and structural sincerity that Le Corbusier had defended in the maison domino and in the five points of modern architecture. Its floorplan hardly allows parallels to be set with the characteristic space of the Christian temple, but it is rather a consequence of forms that allow the author to create a series of spatial effects linked to light and emerging vertical volumes. A more detailed analysis of its structure reveals how the structural logic submits to these scenic effects: a thick wall with small openings like splinters hides a conventional structure of pillars that support the roof and allow the separation of the roof from the wall, leaving a perimeter line of light that separates the two volumes. In fact, the spectacular bulging of the roof is made of two thin concrete vaults separated from each other by invisible vertical ribs.

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

Although it has been described as an “unusual” building – even uncomfortable – when making linear arguments that order and rationalize its trajectory, Ronchamp is considered to be one of Le Corbusier’s most relevant works; an exception whose contradictions have motivated several disagreements between those who have read it through the parameters of rationality enacted by its author and those who see it as an exaltation of the irrational and the extravagant.

Another pilgrimage church, in this case in Germany, is also an example of radically “antimodern” architecture, although, in this case, its author Gottfried Bohm has a trajectory linked to German expressionist tradition rather than to the rationalist principles of Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe or Le Corbusier. Bohm’s career was linked to the reconstruction of post-war Germany and he defined his trajectory as a “search for connections between the past and the new”. Although the use of concrete is a common feature of much of his production, in the formal aspects it is not totally groundbreaking, as he seeks to relate his buildings, in some way, to the physical and historical context mitigating, through architecture, the immense trauma and destruction that followed World War II. The building itself, beyond its formalization, also responds to a desire to build bridges between the old and the new: an old place of pilgrimage, forgotten during National Socialism, is brought back to life in response to a renewed social need to create spaces of gathering and meeting that embrace a sense of community, marked by a sincere and humble religiosity.

However, seeing the cathedral built by Bohm in Neviges, it is difficult to establish architectural references with both the modern tradition and the historical models of the Christian temple. Its forms seem to be related

to nature, be they mineral and crystalline formations or mountain peaks. For a good connoisseur of German art, in relation to its pyramidal forms of faceted shapes, it would be easy to establish a connection with the drawings of Bruno Taut, father of German architectural expressionism, and his utopian “Alpine Architectures” of the second decade of the twentieth century. In any case, the experimental nature of Bohm’s cathedral is, to a large extent, a consequence of his full confidence in the formal possibilities of reinforced concrete, which allows its author to materialize the utopian images dreamed by of one of its masters and architectural references.

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“Alpline Architectures” 1917, drawings by Bruno Taut. Bottom right, Pilgram Neviges. Caretdral and Monastery by Gotfried Böhm, 1968. GNU Free Documentation License Markus Swiss.

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This evolutionary path that seeks to optimize the expressiveness of concrete in which Gottfried Bohm can be framed is taken to the extreme when the building is conceived directly as a large habitable sculptural piece. In this case, it is the artist-sculptor who is considered to be the “author” of the work (above the architect) and, due to the few requirements of comfort and program and its total dependence on formal aspects, we often doubt whether we can really talk about “architecture”. Just as concrete allowed the creation of architectural structures with new shapes and expressions, in the case of sculpture, it led to a change of scale: the work Elogio del Horizonte by Eduardo Chillida in Gijón1 is a good example of how the use of concrete allows the sculptor to overcome the usual scale of his works, taking them to a new level of monumentality. But undoubtedly, it is the great commemorative concrete monuments of the countries of the socialist bloc that brought this sculptural condition to its limit since the habitability, or lack of it, of the monument seems to be a direct consequence of the solution adopted and not so much of a prior requirement to form.

In the case of Christian temples, we can find numerous examples of architectures taken to the sculptural boundary (or vice versa). The Wotrubakirche is directly named after its author: Fritz Wotruba, one of the most important Austrian sculptors of the twentieth century, whose main work is this small chapel on the outskirts of Vienna. Wotruba, which evolves from the figurative to a progressive geometric and cubist abstraction, culminates his work with a habitable sculpture whose reflection is purely artistic and formal, the final use of the chapel being a mere accident or excuse. In fact, the social recognition of the building responds more to its character as an artistic work than to that of a place of worship.

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Two sculptoric works from Fritz Wrotuba and preparatory model for Wotruba Kirche 1974.

From the 1960s onwards, the construction of Christian temples in Europe declined, reaching a minimum level at the end of the 20th century. The progressive secularization of society and the loss of the Church as a reference and social nexus in many countries of Europe made the construction of new temples virtually unnecessary. Meanwhile, existing ones now face a progressive loss of audience which, in some countries such as the Netherlands, has led to a first wave of conversion of ecclesiastical buildings to other social uses.

This is the second part of a previous entry. To read the first part, click here.


Roger-SubiraRoger Subirà, Architect.

Fundación DOCOMOMO Ibérico.